Category Archives: Human Resources

10 Difficult Lessons I Learned in Student Affairs

Difficult Lessons in Student Affairs

Having been in Student Affairs for a long time now, I have met many fantastic and inspiring professionals from all over the world. I have learned many wonderful things, which have made me a better higher education professional (and person!) Some of those lessons, however, have been difficult ones and actually have made me an even more dedicated and resolved Student Affairs professional.

Here are the 10 Difficult Lessons I Learned in Student Affairs:

1. Not Everyone Values Student Development – Just like employees in any other industry besides higher education, everyone has different goals and motivations for doing what they do. The same is true for employees in higher education. While it may seem bizarre to a Student Affairs professional that a college professional would not be interested in student development, some see the study and practice of student development as frivolous and not worthy of attention or resources.

2. The Grass Isn’t Always Greener at Other Institutions – Student lifers rank up there with professional athletes that are traded from team to team when it comes to transitioning from one institution to another. Various reasons, include seeking a better salary, more responsibility, or to be closer to family. Some staffers have the impression that the path a new school is lined with gold. What they can come to find out is that their new situation may not be any better than from where they just came. While there are some places that may be better than others, all colleges and universities have problems, which is something to keep in mind when looking for a new place to work.

3. Most Staff Are Not Trained in Leadership & Supervision – I find that many colleagues at other institutions share their frustration with their institution’s leadership. Frustrations range from having supervisors with challenging personalities and those who provide unclear direction to others who are “buddy-buddy” with select employees or who are downright abusive. Unfortunately, most supervisors in all fields never had any formal education or training in supervising people. Many supervisors learn from previous poor role models and can apply behaviors of stereotypical archetypes of leaders they see on TV and in movies (i.e., coach, military officer, entrepreneur, politician, etc.)

4. Most Faculty & Staff Could Care Less about Student Development Theory – Years ago, I once had an engineering professor at a social event ask me what exactly I was learning in my higher education doctoral program. He was actually perplexed that an academic program like this actually existed. While student development theory is only a small part of a higher ed doctoral program, it helps to inform our practice and should be the basis for how we operate. However, most faculty and staff have never heard of Astin, Kuh, Tinto, Pascarella, and / or Terenzini nor put any credence into the study of students’ time at college.

5. For Some, It’s Just For a Paycheck – For most of us, it is our career and our passion. For others, working at a college or university is simply a job. While some of us are inspired and enthusiastic about our careers, others find it an end to a means.

6. Student Affairs is Seen as the “Icing on the Cake” – In particularly  difficult times with a fragile enrollment environment and the increasing costs associated with a college education, student affairs can be viewed as a luxury. When it’s time to make budget cuts, extracurricular activities are an easy target.

7. Professional Development Can Be Seen as a Glorified “Vacation” – One year I was not permitted to attend the ACPA Convention and was told, “You have already been to one of those” as if it was like going to some amusement park. Now granted, I have seen many professional staffers blow off sessions at conferences and go site-seeing in the host city, but for the vast majority of us, off-site professional development opportunities are for continuous improvement, collaboration, education, and networking.

8. Politics Can Supersede Student Development –  In the 15 years I have been a student affairs professional, I have seen university politics that have been antithetical to the spirit of student development or learning (or simple ethics to be honest). I recently read an excellent blog post called The Dirty Secret of Student Affairs by Christian Cho, which specifically speaks to this dynamic. While politics definitely has its place in colleges and universities, they can also be disconcerting for new and eager student affairs professionals.

9. “Cronyism” & Nepotism Is Pervasive – While some may call it networking, others consider it nepotism and cronyism.  Cronyism is the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without proper regard to their qualifications. Likewise, nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. A related practice is the pejorative “inbreeding,” in which an institution only hires those that have graduated from there. This can be challenging and frustrating especially for new professionals looking to advance their careers.

10. The Most Logical Decisions Are Not Always Made – Like any bureaucratic organization, colleges and universities have multiple layers of decision-makers with varying degrees of authority. Additionally, those decision-makers come with different agendas, opinions, and experiences from one another. Given those dynamics, the decision-making process can end up having a mind of its own.

The intent behind this post is not to discourage or frighten graduate students nor to kowtow to experienced professionals. Conversely, I hope to inspire new and veteran student affairs staffers to create a better university environment and experience for both employees and students.

Please share some of the difficult lessons you have learned from your time in Student Affairs.

Surviving Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

The culture of working in higher education is fraught with conflict, varied personalities, and institution-wide politics. Navigating the political waters of a college or university can be a daunting and, oftentimes, frustrating process. While working in Student Affairs can be a very rewarding experience, it can also be very challenging. Although we’re all in the business of educating students, there are always competing priorities, limited resources, and personal agendas, which creates a chessboard of politics throughout each of our institutions.

When I use the term “game-playing,” I mean it in the negative sense in which individuals use the political landscape of the institution (most times unethically) to further their own agenda to the detriment of others. This is much different than being politically savvy and knowing how to develop relationships and collaborate with others in order to accomplish the goals of your department.

Here are a few examples to better illustrate political game-playing:

  • Unnecessarily carbon copying someone’s supervisor on an email to stir the waters to potentially get them in hot water
  • Planting student “spies” to dig up dirt and  tattletale back
  • Purposely befriending someone’s supervisor on a personal level in order to “conveniently” drop criticisms about that person
  • Sending anonymous communications to the president’s office with untrue allegations about a staffer’s conduct

Despite these type of dynamics, there are many strategies you can use to stay above negative political game-playing, particularly within Student Affairs.

Surround Yourself with Positive Allies – Misery loves company. Negativity and naysayers will certainly bring you down so spend your time with as many positive colleagues as possible. Befriend and partner with those who further the mission and vision of the institution rather than those who attempt to control, demotivate, and sabotage.

Concentrate on Your Students & the Work – Political game-playing takes a lot of time and energy so keep your efforts focused on the primary reason for your being there: the students. Concentrate on developing and educating the students you serve rather than getting involved with needless drama. While doing well can definitely attract undue criticism from jealous colleagues, you can always be confident that you are doing your job and contributing to solutions and not problems.

Don’t Fight Battles That Aren’t Yours to Fight – One of the easiest ways to avoid political game-playing is by only concerning yourself with those projects and tasks that are directly under your purview. Getting involved in issues that simply do not pertain to you opens up the door for undue criticism and potentially making yourself into a political target. The majority of us in Student Affairs do not have tenure so we cannot do and say as we please without potential political consequences. Please understand that I am not dismissing your need to become involved in those issues related to social justice, particularly in regards to the health, safety, and well-being of our students.

Stay Away from Troublemakers – Similar to surrounding yourself with positive allies, keep clear of those individuals who are known to cause trouble and do not seem to have many positive allies of their own. These folks are easy to spot: arguing simply for argument’s sake, lying, pawning work onto others, spreading rumors, and sabotaging projects. As they say, you are the company you keep so spending time with troublemakers can mark you as one yourself.

Don’t Squabble for Kudos – Over the years I have seen many colleagues become nasty people and attempt to stab each other in the back in order to get a pat on the back from the higher up’s. Clambering for kudos always seems to lead to trouble. There’s nothing wrong with being humble and enjoying your accomplishments privately; nobody likes the “teacher’s pet.” Granted, we all want to be recognized for our hard work, but don’t let personal pride become a source of unneeded conflict.

Don’t Compromise Your Values – Most importantly, don’t EVER compromise your values. A majority of the time, political game-playing is going to be unethical, offensive, disgraceful, and in some cases, simply illegal. If you find yourself in a position in which you are often finding yourself having to question directives because of  unethical or illegal practices, seek advice from your human resource department or even an attorney. In a worse case scenario, find another place to work. Yes, I know this is easier said than done, but you want to position yourself at a place that upholds its own mission, vision, values, and fosters your professional integrity.

Tricks and Traps of Student Affairs Hiring

HR_Tricks_Studentlife

Over the past two decades I have been involved not only with my own personal job searches, but have also been a participant in university search committees and have have hired full-time staff myself as a supervisor. In that time I have witnessed, personally experienced, and have had friends and colleagues deal with many unscrupulous and, in many cases, misleading hiring practices in student affairs, particularly because an institution already has a candidate in mind.

Below are some “Tricks and Traps” in Student Affairs hiring practices that you should be on the lookout for. Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that a school could still be running a legit search even if they display some of the following methods. “If it looks like a duck and smells like a duck, most likely it’s a duck. But it could be a goose.”  

Suspicious Position Description – Be weary of position descriptions requirements that are out of the norm and seem to be crafted for a specific individual or do not properly align with the norm for that position nationally. Generally there is a standard by which various requirements align with corresponding positions. For example, an entry level resident director at a public institution typically needs 1 – 3 years of experience with a degree in student affairs, counseling, higher education or closely related field. So if you see requirements for an RD position listing a degree in business management, accounting, nursing or something else unfitting, don’t get your heart set on it.  Or, more simply, steer clear of this position. Granted, if the position is related to a particular academic college / department and / or specific living-learning community you could see requirements that are out of the norm.

Position Inflation – Recently a colleague shared a personal example in which he applied for an assistant director position at a brand name institution. When having an initial phone interview, it was revealed that the institution was paying $24,000 for the position, which was totally unexpected considering that it was “master’s preferred” and two years experience. As someone once told me,  position titles come cheap. It doesn’t cost an institution anything to change a title and make it sound more prestigious or higher up in the organizational food change even though it doesn’t pay much and / or have any broad supervisory authority.

Fishy Application Timeline – Application and interview timelines can give a clue whether or not a college or university is serious about hiring someone from outside the institution. A public posting that has an application deadline of less than 14 days (and especially in cases of only 7 days or less) should raise suspicion. Additionally, an institution that only posts a position on their own human resources website, but not in nationally-recognized venues, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Higheredjobs.com, and / or regional publications is probably a strong indication that they are only hiring internally.

No Response – Worse than getting a “no” is getting zero response from a college or university. After putting the time and effort into crafting a cover letter and possibly a lengthy online application process, the least they could do is give you the boilerplate “Thanks, but no thanks” email or letter.  With the economy being what it is, it’s an employer’s market so colleges and universities can pretty much handle searches how they like (without doing anything grossly illegal of course). Right, wrong, or indifferent, you need to be able to stay resilient and move forward with any offers that do come your way. Don’t wait around for something that may ultimately end up in a failed search or a hire that they simply didn’t inform all applicants of.

Internal Candidates – There’s nothing more unnerving than finding out that someone on the search committee is also candidate for the job or was a candidate that was recently rejected. Not only is this clearly unethical, but causes an unfair and biased opinion against your candidacy for the opening. I’ve also heard colleagues share stories of being interviewed by a search committee with an internal candidate who was clearly adversarial during the interview process by asking over-the-top questions and being generally unfriendly. If you experience this, don’t take it personally. Be prepared, give your best effort, and stay professional. If there is a nasty internal candidate, don’t engage them. Remain calm, answer their questions, and proceed with grace.

Artificial Community Visits –  While it’s typically customary for a campus host to give you a tour of campus, there is also the possibility that you may be invited to dinner or evening events with some of the members of the search committee. Additionally, depending upon the culture of the institution’s search protocols, you may be given a tour of the local community to get an idea of what the surrounding area looks like, which becomes particularly important if they offer you the position. However, don’t put too much credence into this process because it does not necessarily mean they are going to give you the job. Unfortunately, this can simply be an exercise to kill time rather than having you sit in the hotel (or whatever accommodations they may give you) or to keep you occupied while they interview another candidate they have there the same day. During one campus interview a few years ago, a university actually had a real estate agent take me on a tour of the community and show me various houses in their market that were for sale. Unfortunately it ended up being a waste of time, particularly for the real estate agent, because not only did they not offer me the position, but they didn’t offer it to any of the candidates interviewed, but rather offered it to someone on the search committee. (Yes…that’s a true story!)

While going through a student affairs search process may be a daunting process, don’t lose hope. Keep applying and making yourself more marketable by expanding your skills and experience. While there are some dirty tricks out there related to the hiring process, there are also many other institutions that run a fair and ethical search looking for the best candidate.