Four ways student affairs leaders can support college presidents' objectives

Though each college and university experiences its own unique set of challenges, one panel discussion at last year's ACPA conference, "Student Affairs Through the Eyes of a College President," helped us uncover senior administrators' top priorities—and how student affairs leaders are primed to help confront these challenges.

1. Strike a balance between external and internal focus

Presidents spend approximately 70% of their time focused externally—they lobby government officials, connect with alumni, raise money, and convince various external stakeholders of the value of a college investment. They spend the rest of their time on operations. Presidents constantly strive to strike the right and most effective balance between these competing demands on their time, assessing how best they can serve their institutions and, ultimately, their students.

With so much of their focus pulled outward, it's not surprising that presidents expect their student affairs leadership to keep a finger on the pulse of the campus community. Student affairs practitioners need to stay engaged in conversations before major protests or incidents occur. Their connection and regular contact with students allows student affairs leaders to provide crucial information to the college president.

2. Navigate and negotiate various relationships

In order to do their jobs effectively, presidents must navigate a vast number of relationships, both on and off campus. But presidential relationship management goes beyond good institutional governance—it's an important skill for presidents to model for their students.

Presidents perceive relationship building as a diminishing skill among the current generation of students. Largely due to the rise in digital communication and social media, students may not understand the value of developing relationships—and they may lack the experience of engaging with other people face to face.

With regular access to the student population, student affairs leaders are best positioned on campus to help students develop their relationship-building abilities and understand the importance of these skills in the workforce. They can serve as the liaison between the president and the students; they encourage students to hone these important skills and point to the successful example of the institution's president as a model for students to emulate.

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3. Help students pay for school

Presidents recognize that the sustainability of their institutions and their ability to stay true to their missions rests on students' ability to pay for their education, an increasingly daunting task with rising tuition, decreasing state support, and changing student demographics. College presidents spend a lot of time thinking about the affordability of their institution, since unmet financial need is a leading attrition factor.

For the same reason, presidents are focused on how they can raise unrestricted dollars; they need to leverage philanthropic and alumni generosity to support students. Even in cases where student affairs practitioners don’t play a direct role in fundraising, their connection with students can still impact institutional advancement efforts. Student affairs leaders help to shape student perception of the institution and how likely they are to demonstrate their engagement through a charitable gift, and there are a lot of opportunities for student affairs divisions to partner with their advancement counterparts to impact these efforts.

4. Talent management as a top priority

The ACPA session uncovered fairly wide consensus that presidents must prioritize talent management. It is vital for institutions to find and hire great provosts, deans, and vice presidents, among other key positions, to allow the president to focus on their own priorities. Presidents need to find individuals with the ability to lead, willingness to make decisions, and courage to make mistakes.

In today's outcomes-oriented, fiscally constrained environment, presidents should look for leaders with business acumen. While it's important to bring in new staff with business skills, presidents can also cultivate business skills among current staff.

Student affairs teams need to channel this priority into their own staff. The president's determination to acquire and develop talent doesn't need to start from the top—it can start on the team level as well. Your team should find the best people to accomplish your student affairs goals—and to support institution-wide priorities.

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