On Change and Student Affairs Derring-Do

Tammy Lenski

There is a sense around me, among my student affairs colleagues at Trinity and elsewhere, that we are on the brink of a major shift. We sense that higher education, and therefore the student affairs profession, is teetering on the edge of something different. Since I choose to be exhilarated by the derring-do of cliff hanging, I have decided to share that excitement with you.

We need to stop ourselves, slow down for a moment, put the brakes on our hectic professional lives, and listen more actively to the oracles, those writers and commentators providing copy for the latest education journals (e.g., Ballou, 1995; Guskin, 1994; Pew Higher Education Roundtable, 1994; Twigg, 1995; Wagener & Lazerson, 1995). The tide of change has crept up on higher education. Are we ready? We may be about to enter the twenty-first century with operations designed in the nineteenth century (and earlier!) to work well in the twentieth (Guskin, 1994). Simply put, "fine-tuning is no longer enough" (Kanter, Stein, & Jick, 1992) when the external market promises to drastically reshape the academy.

The oracles suggest that higher education will be transformed by three major forces: (1) demand for better accountability, both fiscally and in terms of learning outcomes; (2) continued growth of a vocationalism that devalues liberal education; and (3) advances in technology that open the door for private industry to directly compete with us (Pew Higher Education Roundtable, 1994). Some even suggest that only quantum leaps and radical changes will ensure our continued relevance to society.

At the same time, the student affairs professional has been accused, not undeservedly, of placing too much importance on the proliferation of resources (meaning facilities and service) and not enough on result-oriented student learning (Guskin, 1994; Wagener & Lazerson, 1995). When considered in light of the major forces outlined above, such conspicuous consumption of resources is likely a thing of the past.

So what might the future hold? Will student affairs as a thriving division of most colleges continue to exist and if so, what will we look like? How can we ensure relevance and growth at the same time? Coming changes suggest several new realities for the student affairs profession, and these new approaches are our opportunity to contribute fundamentally to the future of our institutions.

Growth by Replacement

No longer can higher education hunker down and wait for the financial crunch to pass. It's not going away this time because we've priced ourselves to the edges of the market. Instead, we must learn to live with what we have, indeed, with less than we have now. Departmental growth will occur by replacement of services, resulting in streamlined services that offer excellence through depth rather than breadth. What this means to the practicing professional is changing the mantra from "more, more, more" to "success by supplanting." A college's thriving student affairs division will be known for doing fewer things with greater distinction.


We have, inadvertently, been trained to be territorial. We protect our budgets, our facilities, and our staff, sometimes at the expense of other necessary services. We've become even more territorial as budgets have shrunk and we've attempted to offer the same services with fewer resources. This is expensive for our colleges, for our divisions, and for students who believe they're already paying too much. The new student affairs approach suggests continued limited specialization accompanied by the ability of each department staffer to be a solid generalist. Such strategies position departments, programs, and services across territorial boundaries and contribute more visibly to the greater good of the institution. Gone-or perhaps more realistically, reduced-will be saving our own turf at the expense of others. Student affairs professionals need, then, to hone skills that have traditionally been the purview of deans and become big-picture strategists.

Focus on Learning Outcomes

We know we contribute to students' academic success. We do it by reducing emotional, physical, and learning barriers; by being advocates for students' needs and wants; by providing experiential opportunities for the application of classroom learning; by teaching personal and intellectual development and personal responsibility. The list is endless. What we haven't done well is promote our contribution to learning-to current and prospective students, their families, and other institutional divisions. The critics are right-we should focus less on the services we want to offer and more on the results students will achieve. We need to state that contribution explicitly (ACPA Student Learning Project, 1994) and help other segments of our institutions make this paradigm shift as well. Student affairs professionals have an incredible opportunity here: We can lead the way for faculty and others to do the same.


Though clearly not the case all around, student affairs divisions are, more often than not, supported by the revenue stream. We indirectly contribute to revenue through retention and other efforts and directly through certain auxiliary enterprises, but we have not been trained to grow the revenue stream. The new student affairs reality is an entrepreneurial approach that favors income generation as much as spending. This is perhaps the transformation with which new and practicing professionals will have the most difficulty, for we have been trained to be creative programmers but not entrepreneurs. We've also been trained to be educational purists who understand entrepreneuship as the domain of those business-oriented personnel in the finance office. It's time to shift our own paradigms, folks.

New Uses for Technology

Faculty have been called upon to approach technology as collective producers rather than as individual consumers (Pew Higher Education Roundtable, 1994); we must heed the same call. So busy are we dealing with daily crises and juggling multiple responsibilities that we have not had time to develop available technology into low-cost, accessible services that supplement-or, let's face it, replace-some current no- or low-tech services. I am not suggesting that higher education become an automaton-driven enterprise. I am suggesting that higher education better situate itself to provide technology-supported services before private industry fully jumps into competition with us. Our traditional students, having grown up with computers, expect this, and our adult students want the easier access to classes and services that technology provides. Distance learning will continue to grow exponentially with or without institutions of higher education. Student affairs must choose to be part of this future.

What does this all mean? It means that if you're up to a good challenge that provides enough substance to keep you busy for decades to come, you've selected the right profession. It means that if you're not familiar with the literature on organizational change, it's time to become so. It means that you can choose to be a change-agent. within reason, or attempt to defend a centuries-old status quo in which our public is becoming less and less confident. It means that you can enter the next decade with a cliff-hanger's derring-do or as an administrator perpetually searching for constancy in an era where there may be little.

All this said, I also have some words of caution. Even cliff-hangers must take calculated risks. This is my caution: Our oracles speak with forked tongues.

When approached with cold intellectualism, the beliefs about coming change and ways student affairs should adapt make infinite sense. These changes seem do-able and called for. Yet, when I consider individual student populations, the ability to adapt as suggested seems so much less possible. I think of healthy and balanced traditional students, many demanding comprehensive services they may never intend to use. That's when I worry that higher education has played "keeping up with the Joneses" too long, building one super-gym too many and in the process sending students the message that college choice should be strongly affected by access to mega-amenities. Even recent newspaper articles have trumpeted this message (Marcus, 1995; "Students May Choose," 1995). At the same time, I think of students whose emotional or learning skill needs are so significant that failure to provide comprehensive support services negates retention efforts also demanded by our society. And then I imagine adult students whose quest for more minimal, one-stop, ATM-like services conflicts directly with the comprehensive needs and demands of residential students.

In a nutshell, society has an unrealistic expectation for institutions of higher education. We are expected to be efficient and-let's use the blunt word-cheaper conveyers of pragmatic and marketable skills, yet our students come to us very ready for assistance with healing a variety of emotional, cognitive, and even physical wounds inflicted by this very same society. Wound-healing takes incredible resources and the line of victims seems, sadly, to be endless. Our society is wallowing in victimhood and expects others to "pay" for the healing. Higher education is, as elementary and secondary schools have been, caught in the middle. The dual expectations are mutually exclusive, they are not a pair. They will not be a pair. We cannot offer it all and be inexpensive at the same time.

This does not give us permission to wallow; there is much work to be done! We must develop new approaches, as outlined above, and make sure our preparation programs do the same. This must happen in union with our work being extended beyond the borders of our campuses and into our communities. We need to lobby, formally and informally, for a shift from a society of victims to a society of those who celebrate self-powered triumph. We need to work with members of our communities to help them decide what they want in a college; the time has come for society to make some choices and we can be leaders in this process.

We must consider these tasks as central parts of our craft, in effect, parts of our job descriptions. Who better trained and oriented toward such endeavors than student affairs educators? We are needed in ways that our institutions have not yet imagined-as community builders beyond the boundaries of campus.


ACPA Student Learning Project (1994). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs. (Available from the American College Personnel Association, One Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036-1110)

Ballou, R. A. (1995, November). Plan for Change. NASPA Forum, 3-5.

Guskin, A. E. (1994, July/August). Reducing student costs and enhancing student learning: The university challenges for the 1990s, Part I. Change, 23-29 (Reprint).

Kanter, R. M., Stein, B. A., & Jick, T. D. (1992). The challenge of organizational change: How companies experience it and leaders guide it. New York: Macmillan.

Marcus, J. (1995, August 28). Deluxe dorms wired for cable, the net. The Burlington Free Press, p. A4.

Pew Higher Education Roundtable (1994, April). To dance with change. Policy Perspectives, 1A-4A.

Students may choose a college based on amenities they offer. (1995, August 27). The Providence Sunday Journal.

Twigg, C. A. (1995, Summer). Transforming higher education: Is it time for a new learning infrastructure? Wingspread Journal, 17 (2).

Wagener, U., & Lazerson, M. (1995, October 6). The faculty's role in fostering student learning. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A60.

Tammy is presently the Dean of Students and Assistant Professor of Education at Trinity College of Vermont.