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Every Dumpster Fire Has a Moral
Believe in Your Gut and Your Expertise
In 2002, I applied for the Director of Residence Life position at a small college in an ocean front town in Massachusetts. The campus had a reputation of chewing up and spitting out student affairs folk, but I believed in several of the changes and appointments made in the last academic year, and was eager to make a move from my current institution.
I was appointed to the position and was thrilled to be working with my new supervisor who seemed to be making great strides in ‘professionalizing’ the division of student affairs. My new colleagues were emphatic that the VP for Student Affairs was doing an excellent job protecting them from the onslaught of challenges, and they believed in their leader.
The position was everything I was seeking at the time. A decent sized staff to supervise, a diversity of residential buildings to manage, and an engaged supervisor for me to learn from in this new experience. Plus, I was afforded an on campus house as a component of my compensation. It was a small two bedroom with sight-lines to the Atlantic Ocean. Tremendous.
One of the first appointments booked on my calendar was a campus tour - led by the President. Everyone on campus called him ‘Doc’ and he was a fixture there. He was happy to show off the campus to me. He let me know how much he was responsible for the growth of the campus from a women’s finishing school to a baccalaureate degree granting institution which had recently added graduate studies to their offerings. He was proud, borderline boastful, of his track record. While on the tour, he mentioned that he put trust in the VPSA to hire me as the Director of Residence Life, but I should be aware that expertise in student affairs was, in his opinion, relative. “Anyone can do your job.” Ouch.
Within a few months of my walk around campus, the VPSA who had hired me was packing their office, and I saw first hand how the campus culture around student affairs was steeped in the President’s harsh words, “anyone can do your job.” The President and his Executive VP who had stepped into the interim VPSA role over-rode nearly every act of the Office of Residence Life and my colleagues in the Office of Student Conduct. They poked their opinions and their noses into offices across the division, and the students knew it.
A most clear example of this came during a meeting with a student in my office on a routine but annoying behavioral matter. He arrived for the appointment intoxicated. Never in my career before or since, has a student had the audacity to meet with me during business hours visibly intoxicated. But, as one may surmise, the student was even bolder with his verbal opinions. “I don’t care what you say or do to me. I’m going to Doc and he won’t want me to be in trouble. So, it’s going away. You have no power here.”
Yes, I have no power here - I never wanted ‘power’ here. But I did want some modicum of respect here. “Anyone can do your job.”
For a short period of time I thought about what I could do to remain at the institution. I had made some strong connections with students who were seeking a residential experience that were not fueled by alcohol, disrespect and bullying behaviors. My staff and I were really trying to make something happen. But in short succession a series of increasingly disturbing incidents occurred that made me question who I was as a professional and what I was willing to take. At the end of each day I would walk to my campus house and look at the ocean that was nearby and think, “the view is not worth it.” I was not going to make the cultural shift that the institution required to make it worth my professional reputation. I resigned less than six months into my first Director role, and I chose to take a giant step back - to an entry level position as a Residence Hall Director at an employer where I had started my career, and whom I believed in.
Fast forward to today and I am advising mentees across the country and graduate students in my backyard on their career trajectory. My first piece of advice: when evaluating the potential employer, take a peek at Student Affairs and how it reports through the institution. Is it a direct report to the President or Chancellor, or is it tucked away in some convoluted dotted line reporting structure? That tells you something about how the institution considers Student Affairs. Is it a team of experts or “can anyone do their job”?
Now take it a step further. Is the state telling you that student life is the responsibility of the Governor, the state legislature, and that THEY are the experts on learning, living and the entire package of the student experience? If your gut is telling you that the work you do is not valued, is this a community that will respect your profession? Just like I should have believed my gut on that walk around campus, trust yours.
Look, not everyone is going to have a dumpster fire of an experience in such vivid detail as I did, but ask around. Are there people you know and respect who made their way to a campus hoping to change things? I do. I know quite a few. People who upended their families and their own lives to go to that first senior or mid level position that would test their professional expertise and political acumen. In their minds they thought that there were going to be challenges, but in the end they would usher in sustainable change. Only to find that they too were packing their bags sooner than they would have predicted. Toxic work environments exist in every single profession, and higher education is no worse or better than anywhere else. Internal politics and the fear of being uprooted from the stability of campus employment makes it very difficult to get an accurate picture of the campus political quagmire. But, in the case of state and federal politics influencing higher ed? Well, it’s right there - on the front page.
Currently there are campus Presidents who are not speaking up for their campus or for higher education generally. Just like where Student Affairs lands in the organizational chart, this is a sign. When legislators are calling higher education a tool of the ‘woke state’, defunding programs because they don’t align with their political agenda and Presidents and Chancellors remain silent. The silence is all you may need to know. Pushing back takes political savvy and a steel spine, but it is necessary if the academy is going to survive what appears to be a national agenda to dismantle education. If a campus isn’t pushing back in a strategic and thoughtful way, take that as a sign.
Indeed, you may be thinking and feeling that we need Higher Education professionals at these institutions who are doing good work. Yes, I agree. But if you are going to survive, you need to be honest with what you are walking into. If you are seeking an environment where you can foster transformational change and aspirational goals, then a campus with a state legislature attacking the fabric of your work and a President who is sitting silent may not be a place for you to thrive. When I look back at my 5 month dumpster fire with an ocean view, I admit to myself one key thing: I believed the hype. I believed that a single individual could be my offensive line. Problem was, when they were pulled from the field, I was left there alone and vulnerable. My parting advice: if you are going to go on the offensive, be sure you have an offensive line FILLED with people who respect you as an expert. And never, ever put your faith in an institution who believes that “anyone can do your job.”
Dr. Laura De Veau is Principal & Founder of Fortify Associates, LLC. Fortify Associates, LLC is unique in the higher education, not-for-profit, and public service market. They provide comprehensive workshops, program reviews and project management services with a combination of in-person and virtual delivery. Fortify Associates is committed to creating experiences that are unique to the needs and culture of each of their clients. Fortify Associates wants to elevate your organization and help you optimize your workplace.