Change or Die a Slow Death

By Jolyn Dahlvig

    CC Image - Photo from Pexels

    Christian Higher Education recently published an article reporting the findings of a CCCU/ACSD collaborative project to describe the form and function of today’s CCCU student affairs divisions (Dahlvig & Beers, 2018).   Hopefully, the title of this post grabs attention, communicates the urgency I sense within Christian higher education, and inspires you to read the full article.  Through this post, I offer a personal story to illustrate the key study findings and offer three actions for your consideration. 

    A Personal Story

    Rooted in my experience as a student affairs professional serving three Christian colleges over a 16-year administrative career, I embraced the opportunity to study student affairs in the CCCU.  Earning both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in higher education, my job titles have ranged from Resident Director to Dean of Students.  Designing and supporting out-of-classroom developmental experiences for residential students grounded my calling and work. And then the Dear Colleague Letter (2011) offering federal Department of Education guidance sexual assault incident response, changed everything. As a chief conduct officer (CCO), Title IX-related student reports consumed my work.  I worked to implement policies and structures while also advocating student-centered compassion and research-based best practices. My passion projects (e.g., incorporating substantive assessment practices, collaborating across campus silos, addressing professional development needs of divisional personnel) lost momentum to emergent concerns. 

    With substantive changes to my day-to-day work responsibilities, I drowned within a culture of individualized student care and had little time left to work towards systemic solutions to complex problems.  Working fifty + hours per week with on-call responsibilities and pressure to maintain a high-touch student care ethos, I burned out. Budgetary constraints and a lack of understanding the intense nuances and changes to the CCO role, the institution was slow to address the “doing more with less” phenomenon described in our published article (Dahlvig & Beers, 2018).  Following several crises the division and institution were unprepared to manage, a personal “change” was necessary so I did not “die a slow death.”

    Application to Student Affairs

    Following my departure from administration, I learned that “doing more with less” was taking a toll on more than just me.  I want the best for deeply committed professionals carrying out the vision of Christian higher education. I fear that if student affairs does not substantively change, the discipline will face a slow financial, programmatic, and student service decline.   

    As reported in the article, a few public institutions have reorganized student affairs into other departments to reduce administrative spending (see NDSU or MU).  Relatedly, the CCCU survey found that 26% of Chief Student Affairs Officers (CSAOs) shared that their universities have already outsourced functional student affairs areas, 36% reported their institutions are actively considering outsourcing, and 44% have cut full-time personnel in the last three years (Dahlvig & Beers, 2018).  To what extent are CCCU student affairs divisions diminishing within their institutions?  The expertise student affairs professionals bring to higher education is too valuable to allow a decline; therefore, moving forward with creativity, innovation, and well-constructed assessment illuminates a path of possibility.

    To move forward personally, I reframed my calling from designing and supporting out-of-class development experiences to designing and supporting in-class learning experiences—the essence of my calling is the same, but the focus and location changed.  Additionally, I built on my love of learning (a strength) to integrate new cognitive science, design-thinking, and organizational behavior information into my thinking.  Diligent reading and research (with hard work, I discovered I could teach almost anything), staying grounded in my strengths (thank you to colleagues who reminded me of my talents and calling), and daring to try new opportunities (like teaching Army officers how to be college professors and editing dissertations), facilitated growth and inspired a second career.

    Three Turnaround Actions for Consideration

    Sharing my personal story highlights three turnaround actions instructive for the challenges facing student affairs.  The intentionality that fostered my resurgence, may be useful when approaching change as an institution, division, department, staff, or as individuals.

    (1) Diligent Reading and Research

    At its essence, higher education as an academic discipline is interdisciplinary, borrowing research from psychology, sociology, education, leadership, and business.  In this spirit, what does cognitive science, organizational leadership, human resource development, architectural design, and K-12 education have to offer student affairs?  I have the privilege of living with a Certified Public Accountant (CPA); the ideas and concepts a CPA deals with every day are connected to efficiency and effectiveness—concepts applicable to higher education.  Examining approaches from outside of higher education to address common organizational problems may foster innovative, institution-specific solutions (like streamlining processes to minimize overhead or creating family-friendly organizations).  Considering new ways of doing business starts with discovering what’s happening outside our existing network.  Podcasts offer an efficient way to expand horizons (e.g., Poppy Harlow’s Boss Files, HBR Ideacast, NPR’s Planet Money). 

    Design-thinking has started to influence projects within higher education—to what extent could student affairs embrace a design process to reimagine pathways to missional goals?  As student development experts, it can be efficient to apply knowledge about students without directly talking to students—or at least talking to all types of students.  Design-thinking challenges professionals to start with an end-user and build backward; similar to backward course design, creating programs or systems with attention to what students do once they graduate may refocus efforts and spur creative thinking.  

    For example, if the university is expanding online programs and increasing their outreach to Pell Grant eligible students, how could student affairs be redesigned to equally attend to their needs vs. a pervasive orientation toward 18-22-year-old residential students?   I LOVE residence life—if world peace is possible, it starts in a residence hall—and, I recognize that living on-campus is a privilege many students will not choose to afford or cannot afford.  The CCCU knows how to do Residence Life well, but is it at the expense of serving all students?  Is there a way to do both/and so student affairs proactively contributes to institutional growth?

    (2) Staying Grounded in Strengths

    The strengths that built Christian higher education may also sustain the enterprise.  The integrity displayed toward mission and people determine future success (at the institutional, divisional, department, and staff level).  With a clear mission and purpose, multiple pathways to achieve goals can be confidently explored.  Be flexible in goal pathways to inspire creativity and innovation, while maintaining institutional strengths (mission). 

    The default belief is likely that institutional strengths stem from faculty expertise (an expected outcome of all higher education institutions is graduation which requires earning course credits designed and delivered by the faculty).  I believe in holistic learning and the effectiveness of co-curricular endeavors, and if an institution ceases to grant diplomas, it ceases to exist. Given these assumptions, I was surprised that only 1.7% of survey respondents described their prevailing student affairs philosophy as “academic-centered” and 21.4% as an “academic-student affairs collaborative model” (Dahlvig & Beers, 2018).  Having joined faculty conversations in the last few years, I have a deep appreciation for how faculty can be stretched on small, liberal arts campuses.  And yet, could there be some efficiencies through mutual partnerships?   

    A beloved faculty once shared that leaders tend to make their worst mistakes out of their strengths, not out of their weaknesses.  Could an over-commitment to traditional programs or ways of serving students (perceived strengths) inhibit professionals’ mindsets about future directions?  While current practices could be strengths, reframing strength to mean mission—not programs or practices—may open new possibilities.  Reminding one another of personal strengths as well as missional strength may sustain teams through the personal and organizational disruption and grief associated with even the most positive changes.

    (3) Daring to Try Something New

    Experimentation is a necessary aspect of forging a new path; understanding what worked or failed and why (good assessment) is essential in determining what ideas should be sustained.  Without embedded evaluation practices at the program level, how will we know if efforts contribute to institutional goals?  Understanding the financial, personnel, and learning return-on-investment (ROI) of specific actions determines program viability and gives confidence when needing to reallocate funds.  The linked article reports that 22% of respondents agreed that their institutions do not make data-driven decisions; an important area for improvement as new ideas emerge (Dahlvig & Beers, 2018).

    Based on the finding that CSAOs work an average of 55 hours (some friends commented, only 55?), new efforts to sustain employees may be needed.  CSAO respondents also reported that “personnel within my areas of responsibility are over-capacity in their responsibilities” either somewhat described or described their institution (Dahlvig & Beers, 2018).  Reallocating work responsibilities when not filling vacant positions addresses an immediate gap, but may have lasting personal and organizational repercussions.  Instead of “doing more with less” could reimagining student affairs mean doing less overall without sacrificing mission or employees?  The solution begins with strategic risk-taking, which includes ending traditional programs or services as well as developing new ideas.

    Concluding Thoughts

    While these turn-around actions created my second wind, I am simultaneously hopeful and pessimistic about student affairs’ ability to apply these suggestions.  Reading and research, staying grounded, and risk-taking require time.  I had the benefit of time to learn, reflect, and dream. Unfortunately, organizations must embed these efforts into already taxed schedules.  It seems time may overtake financial resources as the largest obstacle facing CCCU student affairs divisions.  While the article provides baseline data that that aids rationale for budget allocations, I hope the findings inspire leaders to re-vision student affairs.  May we be (a) inspired by interdisciplinary thinking, (b) grounded in missional strengths, and (c) compelled to take strategic risks.

    I shared aspects of my “doing more with less” story, what is your story?  Have the changes to student affairs inspired a resurgence of creativity or prompted burnout or something in-between?  To contribute your story to a thematic analysis of student affairs professionals’ experiences with institutional change, please email your story to . 

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