Administrators Engaging in the Research Process

The purpose of this Developments series is to explore different perspectives of what it means to be a scholar practitioner, the various ways in which one can be a scholarship practitioner, and the impact doing so has on one’s personal and professional life. The contributing authors of this series address how they have approached being a scholar practitioner, the challenges and opportunities that accompany their approach, and recommendations for others who also want to want to pursue a career where scholarship and practice are purposefully interwoven.

In earlier Developments articles on entering the professoriate, authors focused on the various ways in which an administrator would need to understand the rules, norms, and expectations of the profession and to engage in scholarship as a prelude to making the transition from student affairs administrator to professor. For example, in her article “Student Affairs Pathways to the Professoriate: Perspectives on Teaching,” Julie Owen admonishes student affairs professionals that the complexities of faculty socialization affect one’s ability to bring experience as a student development administrator into the traditional classroom setting. In “Writing for Publication,” Dilley and Hart suggest that conference presentations, research, and scholarly journal articles, and articles in professional journals should be aimed at multiple audiences but developed into a research agenda for which the individual might become known in the field.

This article will turn the question around. What about the student affairs professional who wants to engage in scholarship while remaining an administrator? Is it possible to be a practitioner who is also a scholar rather than one who uses scholarship to transition into a faculty position?

What is a Scholar Practitioner?

In his seminal work Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Boyer (1997) argued for a broader definition of scholarship for the professoriate. Boyer was concerned about not only what “counts” as scholarship in the tenure process, but what matters about it. He argued, for example, that the scholarship of teaching – the study of how knowledge can best be transmitted to others and best learned – is a valid subject of inquiry for faculty members.

A scholar practitioner, on the other hand, is not concerned about tenure. Instead, the scholar practitioner engages in research and scholarly endeavors while continuing in the role of an administrator with no thought of transitioning to the professoriate. Scholarship in this sense is an end rather than a means to an end. The scholar practitioner engages in research to improve his or her own practice or to develop best practices in his or her administrative discipline. Scholar practitioners read the research reports of others and use them to improve their own effectiveness and that of their staff or peers. The scholar practitioner generates new knowledge not to convince a tenure committee that she or he has the right stuff, but simply to contribute to the advance of knowledge or practice in a chosen field.

What’s the Payoff for Student Development Professionals?

While tenure is not at stake and therefore is not a motivator for scholarly engagement by student development practitioners or other college administrators, there are still a number of rewards for the practitioner who decides to pursue a research agenda. First, ascendancy to the presidency in higher education has historically been through the academic department chair, dean and provost pathway. Few financial affairs professionals (like myself) – and perhaps even fewer student affairs professionals – have found an easy passage to the presidency. Building a resume that includes conference presentations, book and article reviews and published journal articles, book chapters and monographs can substantially improve the odds that a senior administrator in student affairs will be a considered a serious candidate for the leadership of a higher education institution.

Second, there is the joy of working at the nexus of research work and professional work. It is not clear in all cases which drives which – is it only true that research findings should influence the work we do and the way we do it – or should our work influence the scholarship we do and the ways we conduct it?

Third, there is the question of legitimacy. Student affairs professionals constantly struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of their faculty colleagues. Who has not heard the adage that “the faculty are the university” and that teaching and learning (meaning what goes on inside the classroom) are the core of the enterprise? Even granting that this is true, student development professionals have made a very strong case for the value of the learning that occurs outside the classroom, in student leadership opportunities, student clubs and activities, community volunteer opportunities and the like. Yet the student affairs function gets little respect from the faculty on some campuses. The student development professional who doubles as a scholar practitioner meets the faculty on their own terms – as an equal who engages in scholarly pursuits, subjects his or her ideas to peer review and contributes to the advancement of knowledge. Becoming a scholar practitioner can improve the credibility of the student affairs professional when she or he brings ideas about teaching and learning to discussions of assessment and accountability, service learning or the value of co-curricular education efforts on campus.

Finally, there is the professional motivation and personal rewards associated with being a scholar practitioner. While it will not necessarily lead to promotion or a higher salary, and most certainly will not result in a tenured position, contributing to the advancement of knowledge and the improvement of practice are rewards in themselves. As a creative endeavor, the research process can provide both professional development and increased job satisfaction.

A Brief Case Study of One Scholar Practitioner

My own path to becoming a scholar practitioner has evolved over more than twenty years as a higher education administrator. I currently serve as the vice president for financial affairs and treasurer of a comprehensive master’s level private institution and have served at the senior management level since the 1990s in both public and private higher education.

My doctoral work included completion of an historical dissertation on the development of the research mission at two Midwestern urban state universities. During my doctoral program and since its completion, I have made research and scholarly presentations on various aspects of the history of higher education at conferences of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and the History of Education Society. Coming directly out of my dissertation, my research focus has been on the historical development of the urban state universities sector of American higher education.

What, you might ask, is the connection between serving as the chief financial officer of a university and engaging in scholarship on the history of higher education? Most of the rewards, of course, have been either intangible or personal or both. The biggest payoff, however, has been a greater understanding of the world in which my faculty colleagues operate on a daily basis – the world of publish or perish. By putting myself in their shoes, I have gained a great deal of respect for the demands placed on them and the work involved in this aspect of their professional lives. I hope, in return, that they have gained some respect for my work and my efforts to engage in the knowledge generation process.

Getting Started as a Scholar Practitioner

Having been convinced by the articles in this series of the value of engaging in scholarly pursuits, yet not wishing to transition to the professoriate, where should the student affairs administrator who wants to become a scholar practitioner get started? Two immediate issues are finding time in an already hectic professional calendar to engage in research and finding support from your supervisor or others in the institution in terms of both time and resources.

Most colleges and universities (albeit perhaps less so in these difficult financial times) provide support to their administrators for conference attendance. Rather than merely attending the next gathering of your favorite professional organization, why not submit a proposal to make a presentation? If you ground your presentation in original research that you have conducted, rather than relying solely on the work of others, you will have taken a first step along the scholar practitioner road. If your proposal is accepted, actively seek the advice of your audience once you have completed the presentation, e.g. chat with them after the session or offer to send them the paper in return for feedback. Having been successful at one or more professional conferences, next submit a conference proposal to an appropriate scholarly organization such as ASHE or AERSA. Many colleges and universities will support the attendance of their administrators at scholarly conferences if they have an excepted peer reviewed paper. Finally, take your experience at conferences and move to the next level – submit a paper to an appropriate journal as Dilley and Hart outline in their article, “Writing for Publication.”

Finding – or making – the time for scholarly endeavors is a much more personal issue. In my case, all of my vacation time for two years was spent doing the research for my dissertation. As a morning person, I also find the time between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. and weekends my most productive working time. Each budding scholar practitioner will, of course, need to find his or her own solution to the time question.


The student development professional does not need to limit his or her interest in engaging in the research process to a career change strategy. One can engage in the pursuit of scholarship for the sheer joy of learning, for contributing to the advancement of knowledge, or for the development of best practices in a specific field. While both motivations for conducting research are valid, the latter provides student affairs administrators with everything from the potential to climb the administrative ladder in higher education to the satisfaction of doing something for the sheer pleasure of accomplishment.


Boyer, E. L. (1997). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dilley, Patrick and Hart, Jeni (2009). Writing for publication. ACPA Developments. Winter 2009.

Owen, Julie (2009). Student affairs pathways to the professoriate: perspectives on teaching. ACPA Developments. Summer 2009.

Please send inquiries and feedback to Ralph Kidder at [email protected].

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