Transition Reflections III: A Season of Reflection and Promise

My own transition experience, described in the first two reflections and grounded in the metaphor of seasonal changes, can serve as a valuable analogy to the development of student affairs. Throughout the 20th Century, the doors to higher education progressively opened to women and people of color. At the same time, the emergence of industrialization and increased enrollments led to more specialization. Deans of Women and Deans of Men were hired to help institutions and students navigate the new realities of higher education; functional areas blossomed, and staffing expanded. This was a season of promise, one that was driven by a mission to contribute to the maturity and success of students. Using the seasonal metaphor, it was springtime for the field of student affairs. 

The summer was marked by professional evolution, due to the ability of visionaries and gifted advisors and leaders to deliver rich educational experiences and to interpret current and future needs and realities. Higher education had continued to expand; student affairs was increasingly playing an important role in the lives of students. The field had confirmed its identity as an important agent for student learning and development. While the field has experienced disagreements about values, guiding models of practice, and priorities, an identity, based on principles of human development and student success, began to emerge and solidify. Much like the learning outcomes from my summer travels, the student affairs field was buoyed by decades of growth. 

The future was promising. 

However, social realities such as ideological shifts in the last quarter of the 20th Century, the burst of the dot.com bubble at the turn of the Millennium, the economic collapse of 2008, the gathering economic and electoral dismay about public institutions, the current onset and persistence of the pandemic, and the increase in distance learning have ushered in dramatic challenges to the work of student affairs. The field is experiencing an era of disequilibrium and an undeniable reality that the nature or at least the forms of our work are changing. Student affairs professionals, like many of their colleagues in higher education, are in the throes of a reckoning. 

The current threat is directed at the field’s core mission and values. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, I served on a panel with a group of colleagues on the direction of higher education and student affairs. One senior student affairs leader repeated an oft-used phrase, “Let’s face it, student affairs is a business.” Perhaps we should be more like a business–a Google type of business, for example–that employs staffing and employee support strategies; one that promotes creativity and honors the potential of ingenuity to cultivate and deliver value. But, I’m pretty sure this kind of business ethos is not what is meant by the too-common “like a business” refrain. No, it is an implication that higher education is about money as the most precious currency and survival as the preeminent goal. Even if it is not meant so cynically, the use of this analogy can insidiously promote and celebrate metrics and language of effectiveness that steer the field away from the models and core values that matter. In this time of reckoning, we also hear exhortations about sacrificing oneself for the good of the institution or the department, often by “doing more with less.” 

Just this year, during my own soul-searching adventure and amid the pandemic, several commentaries and critiques have been written on the state of student affairs. In an EdSurge article, titled, “Higher Ed, We’ve got a Morale Problem–and a Free T-Shirt Won’t Fix It,” Kevin McClure described the toll taken based on a lack of respect shown, added workload and continuing low rewards to student affairs workers during the pandemic.* In an article published in Medium.com titled, “To Those Who Stayed,” Megan Krone wrote a similar indictment of the field, noting the widespread departure of many young and mid-level professionals. One of her recommendations for improving the circumstances particularly stood out to me. That is, instead of promoting the mantra “do more with less,” she proclaimed we should “do less with less.” 

It is not uncommon for student affairs professionals who are more advanced in their careers to consider assertions like this to be about a lack of commitment to the work. Indeed, throughout institutions of higher education, there are exhortations to do more with less. In my view, Krone’s recommendation to focus on doing less is not insinuating a lack of commitment than about embracing the autumnal season of student affairs; it is about questioning how our “like a business” approaches to work succeed in producing rich community life and student experiences that will build the creative capacities needed to in today’s complex world. As I see it, this is a call to provide a qualitatively different and more enriching investment in our work. Throughout the years, I have witnessed institutions relying heavily on proxies for student affairs measures of effectiveness such as counting numbers of programs or numbers of student contacts. Our younger colleagues look at the management approaches that are often too limited in imagination, and they recognize, in a world that is on fire, these kinds of metrics are not effective or meaningful in doing the important work of preparing students for the world they will be living in. 

The admonishment to do less with less is anathema to the industrial-age mindset, cultivated over the last century: a mindset pervasive in student affairs organizations. Productivity and efficiency are sacrosanct values captured in the dominant worldview of the 20th Century, and they are difficult habits to break. These values, so common in the traditional bureaucratic world, are rarely questioned in higher education. Productivity too often refers to the amount of work being done rather than the inherent value of the work. This is particularly true in an organization with such diverse and ambiguous goals as those we deal with in student affairs and higher education. Many higher education institutions and leaders embrace the word efficiency, not giving parallel attention to preparing students for a world that needs their gifts, creativity, and commitment. 

As I write this, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) is in the midst of an initiative designed to map a future for student affairs. Data are being collected, out of which visions for a future will be generated that will help the organization and the profession reinvent itself. As NASPA launches this initiative, I suggest that a parallel and more personal approach is needed as well. Consider the words of Rilke, in the context of the season-to-season journey. As we move from summer to autumn, “Now you must go out into your heart – as onto a vast plain. Now the immense loneliness begins…” (2014). And in the words of David Whyte (1997):

Time to go into the dark

where the night has eyes

to recognize its own. . . 

The dark will be your womb tonight. 

The night will give you horizon further than you can see. . . 

Give up all the worlds 

except the one to which you belong. 

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn.

Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

The worlds of Rilke and Whyte suggest a personal journey that is not designed to fix what is wrong but to discover an essence. It is time to embrace the realities of the autumnal season for student affairs. One of the features of the current milieu is a need to quickly find and implement solutions. As I argued in a previous reflection, these fixes too often address the symptoms rather than the underlying problem. The urge to fix and solve should take a backseat to the urge to understand and know. We have the opportunity to accept an invitation to move out of familiar conventions into a space of authenticity. It involves digging beneath the value and identity coherence we have adopted and moving into a place of deeper being. 

References

Krone, M. (2021). https://medium.com/@megankrone/to-those-who-have-stayed-5caf6a1ab7bd

McClure, K. (2021). https://www.edsurge.com/news/2021-09-27-higher-ed-we-ve-got-a-morale-problem-and-a-free-t-shirt-won-t-fix-it

Whyte, D. (1997). The house of belonging. Many Rivers Press. 

Rilke, R. M. (2014). Letters to a young poet. Hythloday Publishing.