In its March article, New Proving Ground for the Presidency: Student Affairs, the Chronicle of Higher Education described a growing trend at institutions of higher education—looking to the ranks of senior student affairs professionals for university presidential candidates—and laid out some of the reasons behind this recent shift. As the article explains, "Today's presidents are expected not just to run institutions but also to be their public face, representing them to students as well as parents, government officials, and donors. They must navigate thorny campus issues like sexual assault and alcohol. And in an age when any misstep can go viral, they are relied on to know how to deal with unfolding crises in ways that won't make the situation worse."
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These issues and priorities will sound familiar to student affairs leaders, who have been doing this work for their entire careers. As Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, said at a panel discussion this spring, "As student affairs leaders, every day we make a potentially career-ending decision." He said this not to focus on the reputational aspects of students affairs work or raise concerns about job security, but instead to emphasize the gravity, the type, and the scale of the issues student affairs leaders face in their daily work.
In the course of researching The Next Decade in Student Affairs last year, our members confirmed that their work is increasingly focused on institutional priorities. For this and many other reasons, we agree that senior student affairs professionals are prime candidates to lead their institutions for five compelling reasons:
#1: Experience Juggling Multiple Priorities
The components of this word cloud represent just a sample of the issues student affairs leaders deal with on an annual basis. Constantly being pulled in different directions—from student safety and Greek life scandals to concerns about budget cuts and enrollment management—student affairs practitioners are forced to balance competing priorities, much like a university presidents, who may be juggling budget decisions, public image concerns, and retention and completion issues all at the same time.
Student affairs leaders and college presidents must reconcile the business and educational enterprises of the institution—two priorities that are often at odds with each other. With shrinking budgets and increasing expectations, they must navigate difficult choices between educational quality, marketability, and affordability.
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#2: A Level of Comfort in a Public Role
Vice presidents of student affairs frequently find themselves dealing with highly politicized situations, trying to diffuse tensions, and addressing questions from multiple stakeholders, both internal and external to the institution. As institution presidents attempt to navigate similar situations, albeit on a larger scale, they regularly seek the counsel of student affairs leaders. So the transition from vice president of student affairs to college or university president is a natural one given their similar roles dealing with matters of consequence and serving as a public face and voice.
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#3: Experience with Crisis Management
Senior student affairs leaders are often on the front lines in dealing with a range of crises on campus, handling everything from sexual assault and violence, student mental health concerns, binge drinking, and student conduct. They have experience dealing with a diverse set of issues and crisis situations. As a result, they are also accustomed to dealing with the unexpected—both serious situations concerning student harm, and those that are primarily of concern because of potential reputational effects for the institution. Student affairs practitioners are experienced thinking on their feet and more comfortable than most in addressing delicate issues.
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#4: A Tendency Toward Collaboration and Inclusiveness
Due to the multi-faceted, ever-changing, and often complex nature of their work, student affairs leaders are often among the most collaborative and interconnected on campus. Their work reaches across campus and touches almost every facet of college and university life. They spend more time interacting with their colleagues across campus and building relationships than most other senior leaders.
Furthermore, the work of student affairs professionals has—by necessity—become more and more focused in recent years on institutional priorities, such as issues relating to the completion agenda or enrollment management.
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#5: A Deep and Diverse Skillset
The college president’s role is a varied and demanding one. At the end of the day, an institution's president is a chief decision-maker and the public face of the institution. The diverse issues that student affairs leaders are accustomed to handling nicely mirror those that a president faces, which can vary greatly from day to day. This requires broad knowledge of the workings and idiosyncrasies of the institution, and the ability to transition from one thing to another quickly.
As the public face of the institution, a president is expected to build relationships and be able to connect with a wide range of stakeholders, from board members and potential donors, to students and parents. Student affairs is an ideal place to develop the type of communications skills and versatility to meet these demands.
As the face of institutions changes, so will the role of president. The head of an institution needs new skills, experiences, resiliency, and ability to collaborate. For this reason, institutions will increasingly look to student affairs leaders as excellent prospects for university leadership.
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