Bridging the Academic/Student Affairs Divide: Gaining Perspective to Create Partnerships

Often in reflection of my work and life, I find myself wishing I knew early in my career what I know now.  I have had the good fortune to transition my 26 year career as a student affairs administrator to a full-time, tenure-track faculty member in the Department of Counselor Education.  My long career in student affairs prepared me to teach graduate students pursuing careers in higher education counseling/student affairs and to serve as the higher education program coordinator.

Inspired by David Letterman’s nightly “Top Ten List,” I include an assignment I have titled “Your Top Ten List” in my course “Leadership and Management in Student Affairs.”  The purpose of the list is to highlight points the students want to remember from this capstone course and from their experiences during their graduate work.  Students reflect on budget/funding issues, the importance of student learning outcomes assessment, relational versus positional leadership, collaboration with faculty and working with the whole student.

Recently, as I graded and commented on these lists, I was inspired to reflect on my own journey, a journey which is taking place at the same institution where I spent my career as a student affairs administrator.  In my naiveté I believed I had an advantage as I made the transition from student affairs to academic affairs.  I was confident I knew what I was doing.  Within weeks of the first semester, I experienced a profound learning curve as I immersed myself in the role of a new faculty member.

Murray (2008) studied new faculty members’ perceptions of the academic work life and concluded that “unmet expectations lead to job dissatisfaction” (p. 125).  I am not dissatisfied with my new role, although there have been surprises.  I have a new understanding and appreciation of the work life of a faculty member.  Upon reflection, I realize I am in a unique position to understand both the student affairs educator role and the faculty member role.  The lessons I have learned may be able to assist graduate students, new professionals and even more seasoned student affairs educators in understanding more about faculty culture.

Magolda (2005) reminded us that “partnerships must be meaningful, reciprocal, and responsive” (p. 21).  Had I known as a student affairs administrator what I know now as a faculty member, I might have been able to partner more effectively with my faculty colleagues to create more seamless learning environments as described in the 1994 ACPA document The Student Learning Imperative.  I might have been able to work with my academic colleagues to create and implement opportunities to engage students in high-impact practices.  Brownell and Swaner (2010) identified high-impact practices which lead to higher levels of student performance, learning, and development.  Kuh (2008) reminded us that when faculty and staff endorse a high-impact activity as worthy, other campus constituencies will support it with resources making it more available to a large number of students.  In order to create practices which are engaging, effective, and contribute to student learning outside of the classroom, partnerships between faculty and student affairs administrators are essential.  By understanding each other, we can bridge the academic/student affairs divide and subsequently create learning experiences and environments where student learning and success is a hallmark.

Below is my “Top Ten” list—what I am learning and what I wish I had known to bridge the student affairs and academic divide.  The tips may help student affairs educators build more effective partnerships with faculty, especially new faculty who are often eager to get involved in service opportunities on campus.

Tips for Student Affairs Practitioners for Working with Faculty

10.  The work of a faculty member is never finished

My student affairs days often began at the crack of dawn and would end sometime after sunset.  The line in job descriptions, nights and weekends expected rang true.  My work week was at least 50+ hours, not including the time I spent at home on my computer with email.  My day was often unpredictable but it was structured.

My faculty life is different.  As I was transitioning to my new role, I was looking forward to having time to think about and work on creative projects.  And then I learned an important lesson:  when your time is your own, you have to structure it yourself.  I now have a lot of unstructured time, although, unstructured time is time that should be spent writing, preparing courses, grading, committee work, reading, preparing conference presentations and thinking about interesting research ideas.

A common problem faced by new faculty is feeling as if they do not have enough time to get all the tasks done that need to get accomplished (Murray, 2008).  As a result, I have become less willing and able to agree to commitments which will take time away from my work, no matter how exciting, creative, or meaningful they may be.  Although I want to be available to students when they need my help, I have moved from an open door policy to a “please knock” policy.  I direct students to my office hours first, and if they cannot make them, I try to accommodate as best as possible.  My heart is student-centered and always will be but my head is occupied with an ever growing to-do list.

Tip: Recognize when faculty are not on campus they are most likely working, even if they are at home.  Try as best as possible to accommodate their schedules or find other ways to use technology to connect.

9.  Tick, Tock…the tenure clock is a new faculty member’s “master”

I am now in a tenure-track position.  The tenure process is a five year time period at my institution.  I did not realize that the first year in the tenure process was actually just the first semester.  In my contractual statement of expectations, there are three functions that “count” towards tenure:  teaching, scholarship, and service.

As an administrator and now as a faculty member, I am an avid reader of publications and journals and I consider myself a scholar practitioner. However, the expectation of publishing in peer-reviewed journals is enormous.  Finding the quiet time to prioritize writing projects is a new behavior for me.  The lack of time to engage in scholarship while balancing the demands of teaching and service is stressful to many new faculty (Murray, 2008).

Tip: Invite new faculty to participate on committees where they can contribute their expertise but do not have to take the lead on time-consuming responsibilities.  Committee involvement will expose faculty members to the ways in which student affairs educators support students and contribute to learning.

8.  A university is a complex bureaucratic environment  

I was already aware of the complexity of the university environment. However, as I watched new faculty colleagues navigating our system, I relearned the impact of this lesson.   One of the most significant benefits I had as I transitioned at the same institution was that I was familiar with the resources, policies, databases, registration system and people to contact for assistance.  New faculty members spend an inordinate amount of time in the first year navigating a new environment.  It was a great benefit to me to make my transition at the same institution but I imagine I would have had an advantage even at a new institution.  After 26 years in student affairs, I understand how universities function.  Again, according to Murray (2008), new and younger faculty are often not prepared to enter institutions which can be very different than their doctoral-granting institution.  Until they understand the systems themselves it reasons that they might have difficulty advising and helping students find what they need to succeed.

Tip: “Mentor” a new faculty member: invite them for coffee or lunch.  New faculty members may benefit from having a student affairs colleague to help them navigate the bureaucracy and network with helpful administrative colleagues.

7.  “Reply all” is a necessary function

On my last day in my student affairs role, I cleaned out my email inbox.  For the first time since I had access to email, I had an empty inbox.  In my faculty role, my average inbox email queue is incrementally less than when I worked in student affairs.  Early in my first semester of teaching I observed the common use of the “reply all” function by my faculty colleagues.  Now my email inbox is often full but with email responses to the same inquiry.  Often important emails are easily lost in the “reply all” traffic.

I discovered the importance of “reply all”.  A faculty department is different from an administrative department.  First, there is value of shared governance (see #6) where everyone has a voice.  Second, given teaching schedules, faculty may only see each other at bi-weekly or monthly faculty meetings.  “Reply all” is used to stay connected and to make decisions and I have embraced the function not for everything, but for the times when I am actually trying to work on a team without direct contact.

Tip: Work in a faculty department can take more time than expected given the lack of daily personal contact.  A request that you pose to a faculty member may be vetted through the entire department, including the chair.  Try to be patient as decisions are being made.

6.   Shared governance requires increased work

Within my first week in my new position at our bi-annual retreat I learned that the work of the department gets done by the people in the department.  Of course this makes sense on paper but what it means in practice in a graduate-only department is that we have committees for all of our functions:  admissions/recruiting, orientation, assessment, curriculum development, and field experience.  In the spirit of shared governance, the locus of control is with the committee.  I had my fair share of meetings when I worked in student affairs and when I transitioned I thought those days were in the past.  I had no idea there would be even more committee assignments as a faculty member.

Tip: As student affairs educators, you can help students and colleagues understand faculty culture and how decisions get made in faculty departments.  Some issues requiring a faculty vote will take more time.  And, you may be, as I was surprised about what decisions require a vote.

5.  Faculty have little control over financial resources   

One of the first realities I faced in my transition was the lack of control of my own budget.  As an administrator, I purchased what I needed to do my work.  I did not have access to an abundance of resources nor did I purchase items I did not need but I had control of the budgets I was given to manage.

Most faculty at my institution have little involvement with budgets: for example, the department chair manages the budget and all requests for expenditures.  Initially, I felt a wonderful sense of freedom because I did not need to reconcile my purchasing card, log into a complicated system to review purchases and balances, or know the rules about forms.  The most complicated budgetary form I had to complete in my first year was a travel reimbursement form and the department support staff put the form in my mailbox and did most of the heavy lifting.  But, when a few of us thought a bulletin board might be helpful for posting notices and creating a learning environment for students, the process was more complicated than pulling out a purchasing card.  We discussed the need, how it would be used, where it should be placed, if students would use it and if the cost was prohibitive.

Tip: Engage faculty in your program planning.  Faculty have wonderful ideas for programs and speakers but don’t always have the financial resources to move the idea to reality.  Most of the financial resources will come from your budget.  Faculty members can contribute in other ways such as ensuring student attendance and gaining access to academic affairs funding.

4.  One is the loneliest number   

I am learning about the solitary nature of a faculty position.  I had years of having non-stop student contact during the academic year and I was sure I was contributing to student learning on a day-to-day basis.  I had colleagues right outside my door at least eight hours a day, five days a week.  It was hard to go to the restroom without having someone follow me wanting to talk about an issue.  Now, however, I am often on my own.  My departmental colleagues are in their own worlds of advising, teaching, and writing.  We work on committees but often our goal is to get the task done and move on to the next project.

I find myself working more at home, by myself.  I miss the moments when I could get up from my desk, walk down the hall, connect with a colleague on an issue or question, chat for moment, and then get back to work.  The synergy of seemingly random conversation often resulted in ideas for programs and services to assist students.  One consequence of solitary work is the lack of spontaneous brainstorming that leads to great interventions.

Tip: Offer to assist faculty on projects they are doing or contemplating.  Invite faculty to join you on joint writing projects, develop staff training modules, and assess programs; yet understand the limits of their involvement.

3.  A career in student affairs is great preparation for a faculty position

My colleague, Joanne Conlon, a former student affairs professional and recently-tenured faculty member said to me as I transitioned roles, “The best preparation for a faculty position is a career in student affairs!” You might not believe this to be true but it is.  I am accustomed to being busy and interrupted.  I am comfortable managing a student crisis one hour, discussing water stations for orientation in the next, and chairing a university committee in the afternoon.

I continue to work at a similar pace and am still overwhelmed by the responsibilities of teaching, scholarship and service expectations.  I came to the position as a “multi-tasker” and the ability to manage multiple priorities.  New faculty coming directly from doctoral programs may not have had the opportunity to experience the intensity of multi-tasking needed in a new faculty position; however, they are becoming experts in their discipline.  You may be able to work with faculty to increase student learning in areas where faculty are often experts—their own scholarship and the research methods to support their scholarship.

Tip: Inquire about faculty scholarship and research interests and ask faculty to participate on panels where they can discuss their decision to pursue a doctorate, their research interests and research tips.

2.  A shift to me involves learning to say no!

After long career of serving the needs/wants of students, I am unfamiliar with shifting the focus on myself.  I am grateful to be at a teaching institution where good work in the classroom with students is valued, appreciated and rewarded; however, this new role is more than teaching and serving students directly.  Students still want my time and I give it to them but within the limits I can manage.

I am learning to say “no” to requests (both personal and professional) which will take me away from my progress to tenure.  I say “no” to meetings that conflict with my office hours.  I understand that the best way I can serve students in the long-term is to earn tenure and be able to continue in my role of preparing students for future careers in student affairs.

Tip: Assist faculty in their pursuit of tenure.  Take time to write a thank you letter for their involvement in your program or a letter in support of their tenure/promotion application.   Understand when they say “no,” it may mean “not right now, but ask again later.”

1.  You are always a “first year student” at something   

At some point in the late 1980’s during our orientation program, we showed the film Welcome to the Time of Your Life featuring Mr. Will Kiem.  His message was “You are always a freshman at something” resonated with me.  I have repeated those words to students and to myself for a quarter of a century.  I said it when I took on new roles in student affairs, when I went back to work on my doctorate at age 45 and when I left my position in student affairs for my current faculty position and it continues to be true.  I had no idea what I did not know about faculty life.  For many years previous to this one, I taught as an adjunct instructor and I am confident in my teaching skills.  But the work of a faculty member is more than just teaching.  I am learning this lesson over and over again in my new role.

Tip:  Challenge yourself to learn about faculty culture, to reach out to a new or more seasoned faculty member, to participate in a faculty committee.  You may be able to develop a partnership and in turn create a significant learning experience for students.

Last summer when I learned about the passing of comedian/actor Robin Williams, I remembered the scenes in the film Dead Poet’s Society, where Williams’ character, John Keating, asked the students to take a different perspective while marching around the school yard or standing on their desks.  Taking a new or different perspective about faculty may give you the opportunity to create partnerships with academic colleagues that allow for and enhance student learning, engagement and success.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways can you personally and professionally bridge the faculty/student affairs divide?  How might your efforts help students who you serve?
  2. How can we move towards more collaborative efforts with faculty?  What could you do in your department to partner with faculty colleagues?  What efforts can you do in the short-term?  What efforts might need more planning?
  3. How does taking a new perspective help you?  How does it help your department or division?  How does modeling perspective taking help students learn and achieve success?

References

American College Personnel Association. (1994). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs.  Washington, DC. Retrieved from www.myacpa.org

Brownell, J. E. &  Swaner, L. E. (2010). Five high-impact practices: Research on learning outcomes, completion, and quality. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kiem, W. (1989). Welcome to the Time of Your Life. Video presentation at West Chester University, New Student Orientation.

Kuh, G. D.  (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who as access to them, and why they matter. Washington, D.C.:  Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Magolda, P. M. (2005).  Proceed with caution:  Uncommon wisdom about academic and student affairs partnerships  About Campus, 9(6), 16-21.

Murray, J. P. (2008).  New faculty members’ perceptions of the academic work life.  Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 17(1/2), 107-128.

About the Author

Jacqueline Hodes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Counselor Education at West Chester University. She teaches higher education/student affairs and counseling courses and works specifically with graduate students who wish to enter the student affairs profession. Her research interests are varied and include examining effective teaching and advising practices for graduate students entering the field of student affairs, strengths-based leadership practices that lead to effective practice in higher education and creating organizational change to support marginalized groups on campus.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jacqueline S.  Hodes.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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