One President’s Advice: Focus on Student Affairs

illustration of an academic assignment

Recently, we had the chance to chat with Karen Whitney, president of Clarion University, about the future of student affairs – you can read the full interview in our article “Student Affairs: Trends to Watch in 2017-19.” As a past student affairs administrator, Karen Whitney brings a unique perspective both to the presidency (you can read more of her thinking in our paper Presidential Dialogues: Making the Difficult Decisions) and to working with student affairs leaders.

“Student affairs is core to any university operation – especially now,” Whitney suggests, but also notes that college and university presidents aren’t always cognizant of the role student affairs leaders can play in helping the institution drive its strategic priorities:

“It depends on their own professional backgrounds and their previous experiences with students and with student affairs professionals. Presidents who had distant or disconnected experiences with students and presidents who did not see an urgent reason to work with student affairs professionals might be inclined to undervalue or even dismiss the field and the people in it.

“In contrast, if prior to being a president you were an engaging teacher, active in the life of the college, and/or experienced an urgent incident in which a student affairs program, service, and/or student affairs personnel intervened effectively, then you are more likely to see the field as core to any university operation.”

Given her background, we asked Karen Whitney to offer her advice, both to her peers in the presidency at other colleges and universities, and to vice presidents of student affairs. Here is what she shared:

1. What I’d Like Other Presidents to Hear

Karen Whitney. To presidents, I would say: If you have a lackadaisical view of student affairs, you need to realize that student affairs, working in conjunction with academic affairs, is at the core of the institution; it is not peripheral. Here are practical steps a president can take:

  1. Expect that the services and programs administered by student affairs are critical to the institution, and express that expectation.
  2. Have the chief student affairs officer review, regularly, the extent to which each of those services do in fact contribute to core priorities. For example, to what extent is programming in housing and residence life contributing to retention? To what extent is career services programming, provided across the four years, contributing to retention from one semester to the next? And ask those questions for other key priorities, not just retention. Each unit needs to collect these data. These things are knowable. The intent is not to put student affairs on the defensive but to encourage proactive momentum: How can particular units in student affairs contribute to these outcomes even more?”

2. What I’d Like Vice Presidents of Student Affairs to Hear

Karen Whitney. To vice presidents of student affairs: Know that you are at the core of the academy, and act like it. Be clear, be convincing; don’t be defensive, don’t act like a second-class citizen. Show your academic colleagues, with evidence, how you are contributing to the mission and to the institution’s strategic priorities. If you are treated like a second-class citizen, ask: How can you change that? How can you make an evidence-based case that describes how your services and programs are making a difference? Know it and talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. Present the case to the president and the cabinet, hold workshops. Own the work that you do.”

More Resources

You can read the full interview with Karen Whitney and other experts on trends shaping student affairs here.