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Oliaro/"Student Affairs Imperative: Leadership for Tomorrow, Today"

Student Affairs Imperative: Leadership for Tomorrow, Today

Paul Oliaro

This article is an adaptation of addresses that Paul Oliaro has given during his tenure as President of the American College Personnel Association.


During the past several years, increasing concern has been raised about the current role and effectiveness of higher education. For some, there is a sense that the public has lost trust in higher education. There has also been considerable scrutiny of the role of undergraduate education which has led to an urge for greater reform in the undergraduate experience available to today's students (Wingspread, 1993). This public outcry about the efficiency and effectiveness of higher education is not an isolated one. It is occurring in the context of rapid change and organizational reform within business, industry, and government and is rooted in both economic and societal factors.

While traveling around the country, in my role as President of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), I have witnessed the reactions of student affairs professionals to this concern for reform through the themes of the conferences at which I have spoken. The most frequent, recurring theme has focused on the need to "revolutionize or reengineer" student affairs for the future. The pervasiveness of this message, and the sense of urgency it conveys, demands that we carefully examine its implications for the manner in which we approach our role and function as student affairs educators. For this reason, I have written this article as a call to move cautiously. It is often easier to join such a trend than to question it. I will offer a different perspective which suggests that, if we are applying the theory and philosophy espoused in our student affairs literature, radical change may be the last response that we need to encourage.


In a series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Heller and Eng (1996) added support to the notion that revolution in higher education is necessary, if it is going to survive, by citing several trends:

  • College loan debt for students will triple from 1990-2000 to over $350 billion from $114 billion.
  • In the last 15 years, the total cost of attending college has increased at double the rate of inflation.
  • In the next 15 years the price of one year at a private college will exceed the median family income which at that time will be $66,000 a year.

In addition, I suggest there are very few student affairs staff who, in the last two years, have not used or at least heard terms such as downsizing, rightsizing, reengineering, retrenchment, budget reductions, privatizing, or outsourcing. There are probably very few readers of this article who have not engaged in conversations among their staffs about transforming their organization; reinventing it, recreating it, restructuring or reengineering their department or division or revolutionizing its operation. Such discussions have been so commonplace that for me to make a claim that reengineering or revolution is not the answer, may sound revolutionary. However, that is exactly my premise in this article.

Some of the recurring observations and questions which have accompanied the current debate within higher education have focused on one or more of the following:

  • Higher education needs to be able to do more with less, providing better service at a lower cost.
  • Does an education at an elite private institution that costs $20-25,000 offer more value than an education at a public or less prestigious private college/university that costs $10-12,000 less?
  • Higher education needs to focus more on student outcomes and on student satisfaction with their college experiences.
  • How can colleges and universities be more accountable to their constituents?
  • Consolidation, collaboration, and greater cooperation among units across the campus is essential.
  • Educational and organizational consultants consistently urge higher education to be more client-centered, student-focused, customer-driven, and user-friendly.

I have read about these observations and examined the dialogue both within my own state of Pennsylvania, as well as around the country. I have compared that with the terms "revolutionize or reengineer" which suggest the need to change fundamentally or completely. My reaction has been one of disagreement. I believe it is about time society, and the rest of higher education, recognize what student affairs professionals already know. That is, higher education is about learning. Learning is collaborative and student learning should be seamless. It transcends lectures, it transcends the organizational structures of our campus, and it even transcends the traditional models of classroom pedagogy that focus too often solely on a lecture approach.

I do not concur that revolution is the necessary response that student affairs professionals need to consider. This is why I entitled this article "Student Affairs Imperative: Leadership for Tomorrow, Today". I submit that we already view higher education in the way its critics are urging us to. We have long recognized that learning involves the entire student. We function day-to-day on the principle that the college experience must engage the entire student. We know that 75-85% of a student's college experience occurs outside the classroom. This is not news to most of the readers of this article; but to many others, both within and outside of higher education, it is a revelation. That is why we must take time to reflect on the underlying values that already serve as the foundation for student affairs and examine whether they are currently being applied to the learning needs of today's students.

Underlying Values of Student Affairs

From the Student Personnel Point of View (1937) to the Student Learning Imperative (SLI) (1994), student affairs professionals have always viewed the education of students in the broadest context. We have always been customer-centered and have realized the value of collaboration in promoting learning. Within the financial context of our campuses, we have always been asked to do much with little. So the idea of doing more with less is not a radical shift for most of us. For that reason, it is necessary for us to utilize our legacy as experts on students, on student learning, and student development and thrust it to the forefront of our campuses. Few stakeholders care more about serving students than we do. Few care more about their total development and potential than we do and no one has been less interested in receiving recognition for this than we have.

At each of the last three institutions in which I have worked, Michigan State University, The University of Vermont, and West Chester University, the post-baccalaureate surveys of students' satisfaction with their college experiences revealed that students consistently linked their satisfaction with their out-of-classroom experiences more often than their in-class experiences. This in no way diminishes the value, nor the importance, of their classroom instruction. Rather, it emphasizes that students view their learning broadly and they remember those experiences which allow them to realize their competencies and help them identify who they are. They remember their leadership experiences, their RA experiences, their fraternity and sorority experiences, their experiences as a student organization leader, and their community service as vividly as, and often more readily than, their chemistry lab or even their dynamic professor in communication studies. I believe that each of the readers of this article knows of at least one student for whom their defining moment was the result of a judicial action.

We can successfully face the challenges within higher education during the remainder of the 1990s and into the next century, if we carefully examine the fundamental principles and values that we espouse as a profession. We also need to remind ourselves that what we do has value and is valued by the principal group we serve--our students. I do not suggest that we can conduct business as usual on our campuses. If we are going to be true to our developmental philosophy, we must be developing ourselves and constantly looking for ways to grow, change, and improve what we do. In order to do that, we must assume a leadership role within the organization or unit in which we work. We must serve as a kind of organizational compass to ensure that we do not lose sight of our vision nor lose focus on the goals of our organization. We must do that in a manner consistent with our values and priorities as they relate to student learning and student development.

Challenge to be Learning-Oriented

In order to do this successfully, there is an important challenge which must be met. That challenge requires an examination of whether the organization or unit, within which each of us works, is the kind of learning-oriented organization it needs to be. We also must reflect on whether we are the kind of learning-oriented leaders we must be.

This challenge translates to taking a close look at the SLI (1994). Many of its implications and applications were clearly articulated in a special issue of the Journal of College Student Development (Schroeder, 1996) which was dedicated to the concept of student-learning. That issue eloquently and poignantly describes the centrality of student-learning to the work of student affairs educators. If we are going to "walk the talk" of our values and priorities, it will be necessary to demonstrate in our day-to-day work with students and staff those learning-oriented characteristics that are articulated in the SLI. We can no longer focus merely on what we do. It is more important to focus on what students learn as a result of what we do. To do this requires asking some basic questions about the programs for which we have responsibility and relate them to the five learning-oriented characteristics highlighted in the SLI.

Learning-Oriented Characteristic One

  • Does the mission statement of the division, department or program address the enhancement of student learning and personal development?
  • Are the programs and services that are provided reflective of that mission?
  • Are the goals and objectives described in language that reflects student-learning outcomes?

Learning-Oriented Characteristic Two

  • When there are financial decisions or allocation of limited resources to be made, are they done in a manner that supports activities which reflect the goals and values of the student-learning mission?
  • When budget reductions need to be made, what values drive these decisions?
  • If reorganization is needed or consolidations are considered, is the question asked how will these decisions effect what students can learn?

These two characteristics form the foundation for articulating the learning-oriented values of the organization. The language of learning in the mission statement, and its focus on student behavioral outcomes, signals the paradigmatic shift from an emphasis on activity (what is done) to an emphasis on the effects of that activity (what is learned). When financial resources are scarce and program priorities are established, the learning-oriented organization will also be more able to demonstrate results in a manner that ensures the level of accountability expected in today's higher education environment.

Learning-Oriented Characteristic Three

  • Is your program truly engaged in collaborations across the student affairs division?
  • Do the departments within the division operate with a "silo mentality"--each carrying out its own functions, separate and apart from each other--or are there frequent opportunities to team-up on projects, to collaborate on programs and to cooperate in problem-solving?
  • Are faculty encouraged to be members of departmental committees, personnel searches, evaluation efforts, or strategic planning?
  • Do partnerships exist with other departments/programs outside of student affairs to enhance opportunities for student learning?

If crosscutting cooperation and communication are occurring within your program or department, then you are probably in a better position to identify ways to collaborate with other offices around the campus. This collaboration must include academic units and faculty, as well as departments within the Advancement/Development and Administrative/Fiscal Affairs divisions. If we truly believe that student learning transcends our campus' organizational structures, then it is our responsibility to create learning environments that cut across those structures to promote student retention and student satisfaction.

Marsha Baxter Magolda and Pat King (1996), in their article in the special issue of the Journal of College Student Personnel, made reference to the need for students to find "evolutionary bridges" to help them make meaning of their world and function as effective citizens in today's society. As student affairs educators, we must build bridges within our own division and between the divisions on our campuses in order to be more educationally purposeful bridge-builders for our students.

Learning-Oriented Characteristic Four

  • Have you tried to include, on your staff, experts on students, and experts on the teaching and learning process?
  • Do you utilize your own expertise in understanding students and how they develop and change?
  • Are you engaging faculty in programs and activities to use their expertise in instruction and to help them to understand the variety of ways and settings in which students learn outside of the classroom?
  • Do you utilize one of the most overlooked experts on students, that is, students themselves?

From my own recent experiences, I offer some successful approaches to engaging students that can enhance the learning of student affairs staff and, potentially, the senior administrative leadership of the campus:

  • Invite different groups of students to your staff meetings on a regular basis; listen to them tell their stories about their experiences at your university. It is a worthwhile learning experience for staff and it helps students realize that they matter.
  • Have lunch with a randomly chosen group of students once a week or at least once a month; listen and learn how they experience the campus and use that knowledge to inform the decisions you can make that will improve their learning environments.
  • Urge the senior administrative leadership of the campus to engage students in direct dialogue on a regular basis. Use creative means to communicate messages to senior administration from students about the way they experience the campus.

Videotaped "student on the street" interviews, which ask students their opinions on current issues relevant to the campus, can offer a powerful learning experience for deans, vice presidents and the president. When combined with a live panel of students, it can provide compelling information for change. I have done this on my own campus with very positive results. These strategies, along with the others previously noted, might be considered unusual or even revolutionary by some. However, I suggest they are nothing more than "walking the talk" of being student-centered and learning-focused.

Learning-Oriented Characteristic Five

  • What efforts are made with your staff to utilize learning theory in the development of programs and the delivery of services?
  • Are staff urged to investigate best practices or utilize benchmark standards that have proven successful on other campuses?
  • Is there an openness to new learning and to sharing successes among staff across the student affairs division?

Before a decision is made to "reinvent" your student affairs program, I would urge that, in addition to the SLI, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) document on Reasonable Expectations (1995) should also be reviewed. It offers a useful guide for identifying what students can and should expect of their faculty and other educators/administrators on their campuses and for what their responsibilities are as learners. Chickering and Gamson (1993) also produced a useful publication for understanding good teaching practices in undergraduate education that can inform our efforts to create effective learning environments for students.

In March 1997, at the joint convention for ACPA and NASPA, a document identifying effective practices for student affairs administrators will be unveiled. This document is a synthesis of the publications noted above with student learning theory, student development, and organizational development, will be crafted to provide another tool to help learning-oriented educators create more effective learning environments for students and staff. It will be one more step in the evolution, rather than revolution, of our professional practice.

Challenge to be a Healthy Organization

A second challenge that I offer, before deciding to revolutionize the way you do business in your division, program or department, is to examine the organizational health of the unit for which you have responsibility. This is really a very simple task which is rooted in the principle that there is great success in just doing the basics of good organizational management. It means paying attention to the classic elements of a healthy organization (Sisk, 1977) and to the basic work environment within which staff are asked to function. In an organizational context, this means focusing on the structure and climate of the organization. Again, it means asking and answering some key questions:

Organizational Structure

  • Do you have a clear and recently examined mission statement?
  • Are your organizational values articulated in your mission statement and are they shared by all staff?
  • Were values developed through discussion and dialogue among all staff members, including support staff?
  • Are job descriptions up to date and do they reflect what staff actually do?
  • Is the span of control for a supervisor reasonable or are staff asked to supervise more people than one person could reasonably manage?
  • Are policies and procedures written down? Are they up to date? Are they reasonably clear?
  • Is there an adequate feedback loop that allows for continual assessment and evaluation of programs and activities to ensure they are congruent with your mission, values, and student learning priorities?

Organizational Climate

  • Is there good three-way communication: top down, bottom up, and across the organization?
  • Is there a clear decision-making structure? Is it clear when a decision is going to be based on consensus, consultative input, or executive action?
  • Are there clear channels for change? Are these channels open? Is constructive conflict encouraged or discouraged?
  • Is there an active and clear reward system? Is risk-taking punished or encouraged?
  • Are efforts made to catch people doing things right or is blaming and pointing fingers rewarded?

These are not new or "revolutionary" ideas. They just reinforce the notion that learning-oriented organizations follow sound organizational practices. They pay attention to their underlying beliefs and function in a manner consistent with these values. That is also what healthy organizations do. Healthy organizations empower--not exercise power. Healthy organizations do not motivate people, they create environments where staff are able to motivate themselves. Healthy environments are evolutionary and constantly self-assessing and do not require revolution.


In this article, I have made the case for student affairs professionals to have faith in ourselves and what we are already doing as educators to make the college experience a rewarding and productive one for today's students. In 1989, at the ACPA annual convention in Washington, DC, Maya Angelou referred to student affairs educators as the "palm trees of higher education"--as an oasis of comfort and idealism in the desert of bureaucracy, indifference, and complacency that our students too often face. In doing so, she recognized that our relationships with students were special, and our expertise in helping students learn was important to their retention and graduation. We must show that same faith in ourselves. We cannot shrink from this responsibility.

In closing, I make reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton's book It Takes a Village (1996). The title was taken from an African proverb which contends that, in an African village, each person plays a part in every child's life, and it takes an entire village to raise a child. Student affairs professionals realize that it takes an entire campus to educate a student. We have always known that it takes a campus of faculty, student affairs educators, and numerous other staff to educate and graduate students. Unfortunately, that idea is revolutionary to many of the stakeholders on campuses across the nation, even though that is the manner in which we have always approached our work. This is why I contend it is imperative that we continue functioning as we have all along--as the educational leaders for tomorrow, today.


American College Personnel Association. (1994). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs. Washington, D. C.: author.

American Council on Education (ACE). (1937). The student personnel point of view. (ACE Study, Series 1, No. 3). Washington, D. C.: author.

Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39 (7), 3-7.

Clinton, H. R. (1996). It takes a village. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Heller, K. & Eng, L. (1996). Higher education: How high the price. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31-April 4.

King, P. N. & Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1996). A developmental perspective on learning. Journal of College Student Development, 37, 163-173.

National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (1995). Reasonable expectations. Washington, D. C.: author.

Oliaro, P. M. (1996). Walking the talk is not a spectator sport. Developments, 23 (3).

Schroeder, C. C. (1996). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 37, 118-122.

Sisk, H. L. (1997). Management and organization. Cincinatti: Southwestern.

Wingspread Group on Higher Education (1993). An American imperative: Higher expecations for higher education. Racine, WI: Johnson Foundation.

Paul Oliaro is the Vice President for Student Affairs at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is currently serving as the President of the American College Personnel Association.

Last modified July 29 2002 11:48 AM

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