Well That Didn't Go As Planned
Did Student Affairs Squander Political Capital?
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“They are going to appreciate student affairs so much more after Covid is over.” I heard this or a version of it so many times in the last two years that I lost count. Even in the early days of the Pandemic, when we were still installing plexiglass and wiping down surfaces, I didn’t entirely buy it.
I didn’t buy the idea that the Pandemic would end in such a way that we would reverse course back to the world before the virus impacted every action that we took each and every day. I also didn’t buy the idea that Student Affairs would all of a sudden achieve the political capital that had largely evaded it for generations. In the spring of 2019, SAPros kept campus life moving in the Zoom room, only to be facing furloughs in the weeks following commencement. For those who were able to remain on the payroll the fall of 2020 was noticeably harried and difficult.
Student Affairs professionals were moved into ‘temporary assignments’ which were largely glorified chambermaids. As campuses struggled to open, these re-deployed staff were charged with delivering linens and food and checking on isolated and quarantined students. After months of this work, some decided that this wasn’t where they felt value - and left their institution or the field as part of the ‘great resignation’. Chasing students down to get tested and to pull up their mask, is not an effective way of highlighting one’s education and training as a students affairs professional, and only contributed to minimizing the qualifications of the SAPro team in a way that undermined the perception of the importance and relevance of their work of the campus.
Student Affairs leadership can be so dedicated to the greater good of the institution that their ‘dutiful soldier’ reputation may, very well, have hurt their division’s reputation in the long run. As we spent hours screening other senior administrators and departments from the management of the Pandemic, we moved our work to a less strategic and more transactional status. And now, senior leaders are departing, seeking a well earned retirement, or a dignified departure prior to the arrival of a new President or Chancellor. As one VPSA recently said to me, “I’ve had to marshal through four Presidents in my career, I’m tired of hand holding another person through this. I have more respect for myself.” Ouch.
This and other VPSAs have also mentioned that they weren’t sure about the future of their division or where student affairs would eventually settle out in the priorities of the campus. Eek.
Strategic realignment can make for difficult emotional and operational transition, but for VPSAs and their direct reports, now is the time to make these moves. Do not provide a window of opportunity for Presidents, CFOs and CHRO’s to move beyond the relevance of student affairs. The idea that we ‘did without’ for two years, should not be permitted to take hold. Rather, leaders who have the Political Will need to transform that into Political Capital. By indicating the intentional moves that have been taken to streamline and learn from the experiences of service delivery during the Pandemic, a leader can show strategic vision. By showing through data where outcomes fell short due to lack of proper staffing, a leader can show necessity. By determining what priorities are not only essential but also aspirational, a leader can move from the transactional nature of the last two years, and get back to the work that is so very important.
First move for leadership is to take a hard look at what may have compromised their political capital and act on it. Lack of self-awareness about how actions may have impacted their entire division’s work and mission will only result in long-term compromises that chip away at the student experience and the effectiveness of the work of Student Affairs for the long-haul.
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The impact of the War in Ukraine on the Students and Community at National University of Kharkiv, Ukraine - Wed, June 15 at 11:00AM ET
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