Published on 2015/05/12

Mapping The Growing Importance of Student Affairs

The EvoLLLution | Mapping The Growing Importance of Student Affairs
With their focus on creating learner-centered experiences and helping institutions stand out to today’s value-focused students, student affairs leaders are seeing their roles on campus growing.

In the modern higher education marketplace, being student-centered and focused on meeting the expectations of today’s student-consumers is of critical importance to the long-term success of colleges and universities. This is reflected in a wider industry trend, in which higher education institutions are starting their presidential searches by identifying candidates with experience leading student affairs divisions. In this interview, Sheila Murphy discusses how a background in Student Affairs can help leaders succeed in the president’s chair and shares her thoughts on what this trend says about the changing culture of higher education.

Click here to read key takeaways.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the three factors that make student affairs leaders prime candidates for presidency roles?

Sheila Murphy (SM): Institutions increasingly realize that their success—perhaps even survival—depends on creating a student-centered experience. That is what today’s students expect and they know they can get it if they look around enough. That is the core business of student affairs—to create an experience that enhances the growth and development of the students and creates the conditions for engaged and active learning.

Additionally, much of the work of creating a diverse and inclusive campus environment found its origins in student affairs areas for many years. Advancing cross-cultural communication and supporting diversity in all of its forms is familiar territory for a senior student affairs officer (SSAO)-turned-president.

Evo: What are the biggest perception challenges VPs of student affairs face when they pursue senior leadership roles? 

SM: There are three primary misconceptions that often negatively affect the perception of senior student affairs officers in the higher education space.

First, there is a perception that student affairs officers first and foremost are student advocates. Of course, there is a world of difference between blindly advocating for students—all the time under all circumstances—and helping the faculty, staff, board and legislators understand the unique challenges and attributes of today’s students. In reality, SSAO leaders aiming to be presidents both embrace their role as “the” campus expert on students and play a role in educating others about the issues, concerns, and distinctive strengths of all students on campus.

Second, people tend to think student affairs officers are only responsible for the fun stuff: big-name concerts; residence halls with first-rate amenities; fitness centers with state-of-the-art equipment. The SSAO may have had a hand in bringing all these features (plus other attractive programs and creative offerings) to the campus, but the purpose of all these features is to respond to the competitive enrollment challenges and consumer demand that characterizes today’s postsecondary marketplace.

Finally, many in higher ed think that student affairs isn’t a legitimate discipline, and that it’s lacking a body of knowledge and its own theory and practice. Traditional academics, with PhDs in academic disciplines, are often skeptical about the more practitioner-oriented EdD, or the fact that one can actually get a degree in higher education administration. However, graduate programs at Penn, Harvard, and UCLA—as well as hundreds of others—suggest that the leadership and management of colleges and universities is a recognized field of study.

Evo: What does the elevation in responsibility and role of VPs of student affairs say about the importance of the student experience at today’s colleges and universities? 

SM: It signals that for many institutions, students are in the driver’s seat and, further, that colleges recognize the importance of student satisfaction to retention and completion. Keeping the student at the school that initially recruits and enrolls her/him is the key element of most enrollment management strategies. Programs and services to support students through graduation are increasing on all campuses; research on persistence to graduation is essential for colleges to fully understand their enrollment challenges.

Student affairs officers are often leaders of campus efforts to increase retention and understand and remedy challenges to persistence. Student affairs officers often are responsible for major ancillary revenue sources like housing and dining; some have significant fundraising operations within their programs as well. A comprehensive and engaging outside-of-classroom experience is now a core expectation and the SSAO must be experienced with strategies and practices to create that experience for an increasingly demanding client to impact the financial health of the institution.

Evo: As higher education’s student demographic has shifted to an increasingly non-traditional population, how have the responsibilities of VPs of student affairs evolved?

SM: Student Affairs played a leadership role in the academy in thinking through how issues like advising and counseling—traditionally taking place in a one-on-one, in-person transaction—could be effectively handled via an online model for students who are rarely present on the campus. Many very comprehensive services and programs for veterans now spring from student affairs divisions.

For several decades, campuses have offered programs and services for adult students, some particularly focused on adult women, a significant growth population across higher ed. Part-time students, often disadvantaged as recipients of lower financial aid because of their number of credit hours, have benefitted greatly from strategic academic planning designed to assist them in managing, scheduling, and sequencing courses for maximum efficiency and improved eligibility for aid.

Finally, the student affairs VP is often the institutional leader in attempting to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse set of students on and off the campus.

Evo: Why are VPs of Student Affairs better positioned than other senior leaders when it comes to meeting the expectations of today’s non-traditional students?

SM: Student Affairs leaders have been trained to view the whole student and to pay attention to the forces and factors—other than simply academic performance—that impact a student’s ability to enroll, persist, thrive, and graduate. That point of view makes student affairs leaders particularly well suited to understand issues of access, academic support, personal health, safety, and wellness, child care, campus climate for students of diverse backgrounds, and other issues that can impact the student experience.

Today’s most effective presidents come to learn about and—one hopes—care about these issues with great passion and conviction. There is no learning curve for the student affairs officer-turned-president. Sadly, this leader has likely already dealt with the aftermath of student death; has led in the effort to simulate an “active shooter” situation on campus; has spent hours on the phone with demanding parents; is deeply involved in the nuances of a Title IX investigation or an Office of Civil Rights visit to the campus. This applies whether the school has a traditional 18- to 22-year-olds in residence halls or a mostly online population with students in the virtual classroom with homes scattered all over the country or the world. Colleges and universities need people in leadership roles who have seen the realities of today’s student up close—and the tremendous challenges and great potential that each brings to the campus.

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Key Takeaways

  • The growing role of student affairs leaders on campus signals the increasing recognition of the importance of the student experience as a differentiator in today’s higher education marketplace.

  • There are a number of damaging misconceptions facing student affairs leaders that threaten their capacity to inspire real change at colleges and universities.
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