VPSAs and the Lack of Direct Starfish Contact

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When I posted my article on 25 Pieces of Advice from VPSAs the two people who commented directly on the blog mentioned being surprised at the fact that there wasn’t any advice related to students or student leaders. It did not really surprise me, because I have heard the concern from professionals about not wanting to lose contact with students as they move up through the organizational hierarchy. I have long had a different perspective on such concerns. But curious, I went back to the 24 responses and looked specifically for such advice. There wasn’t much. In fact, only 7 of the 24 respondents mentioned such advice and four of those basically said as a part of a list of suggestions something to the effect “spend time with students/student leaders and listen to them.” Only three of the responders provided more substantive advice related to students or student leaders (most of which I am taking).

This lack of overall focus on providing advice related to students begs the question, “Why wouldn’t such advice be given?” The reason is because direct student contact for upper level administrators is a very small part of their job. One VPSA actually broke down his time usage into percentages and put direct student contact at 10%. He may have been overestimating!

In my last two positions, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at Rutgers University and now Vice President of Student Affairs at NYIT, my direct contact with non-student leader undergraduate students has been minimal—and I am okay with it!

When I consider this issue, I think about the story of the boy and the starfish. As you may recall, a man comes to a beach where an unusually high tide has washed up thousands of starfish who were now drying and dying in the sun with no way to return to the ocean. He spots a boy down on the beach. The boy bends over, picks up a starfish, and flings it into the ocean. He does this over and over but, from the man’s perspective, is hardly making a difference in the numbers of starfish being saved.

So the man goes down on the beach and says to the boy, “Young man, there are thousands of star fish on this beach. You are wasting your time. Your efforts are hardly making a difference. Why are you doing this?” The boy stands up with a starfish in his hand and flings it in the ocean. He turns to the man and says, “It makes a difference to that one.”

Staff LOVE this story. I love it too! We like the idea of having a clearly discernible impact on the students with whom we work. We like the idea of acting heroically in the face of insurmountable odds. Maybe it was someone “flinging us into the ocean” who first introduced us to this field. Helping individuals is why many of us were attracted to this field in the first place. However, think about this story differently.

What if the boy was on that particular beach because his mom was managing a construction site across from the beach? He could go to her and convince her to send the bulldozer to the beach and in a matter of moments return a vast majority of the starfish to the ocean. Think about it – How many of us are flinging starfish in the ocean and feeling mighty good about ourselves when a bulldozer is resting just beyond our sight?

If the reason why we are losing touch (i.e., direct contact) with students is because we are advancing organizationally, it is probably a good bet that our ability to influence a wider swath of the student population is significantly extended. As a hall director I could influence about 200 students. As an area coordinator that number jumped to 1000. As a Director of Residence Life, it climbed again to 2000. Now, as VPSA it is about 13,000. Do I know these students? No. Do I have direct contact with these students? No. However, my actions do influence them.

I influence students in at least two ways. The first is through other people—the people I hire, train, develop, supervise, mentor, and advise. My direct contact is with staff, not students. The second way I influence students is through the type of work I have performed in my various senior level positions during the past decade, such as organizational restructuring, program development, strategic planning, professional development, and on various committees (such as suicide prevention, freshman advising, the transfer student experience). This “bigger picture” work has put into place programs and services that are positively influencing the lives of students.

There are, not surprisingly, at least two challenges in this.

The first is that I refer to much of my work as “faith-based practice,” because even the best assessment practices cannot capture the actual influence of many organizational actions on individual students. This is very different than the heartfelt “thank you” you may have received from an individual student for a conversation you had with them or from the assessment of the direct impact of a particular program or project. We must face this challenge and continue to explore multiple and creative ways to assess the impact of programs and services on the growth, development, and learning of students.

The other challenge is that the skills focused on and developed early in one’s career (e.g., listening, advising, supervising, training, counseling, translating theory into practice) only form the foundation of the broader skill set needed to be successful higher in the organizational hierarchy. Competencies in such areas as leadership, organization development, resource attraction, talent (staff) development, marketing, intrapreneurship, strategic planning, financial management, and political management must be recognized, appreciated, and learned. Ideally, the recognition and appreciation of the importance of these competencies should come early so that developing them can begin through observing and engaging with successful middle- and upper-level administrators.

Obviously, there are many professionals who have long and fulfilling careers in direct contact jobs, such as counselor, academic advisor, and career counselor. However, most of us eventually start to move up the organizational hierarchy and that direct contact diminishes. I especially invite graduate students and new professionals to reflect on this issue and let me know your thoughts.

Follow me at @pglove33

 

 

 

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5 comments

  1. Patrick,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This is a conversation I often have with new master’s students who come into a grad program convinced that want to be VPSAs, but also convinced they want to hold on to high levels of direct student contact. I sometimes use myself, a faculty member, as an example. I rarely interact with undergraduate students, and generally have interactions with 35-40 master’s students each year. But, I see my work has having a broader impact on the lives of undergraduates. As those master’s students begin their professional lives, they will touch the lives of countless college students, and will also play roles in shaping campus policies and contributing to conversations that will impact the field for years to come.

    I will be sharing this post with master’s students for some time.

    Brian

  2. I politely disagree, Dr. Love. After serving as a Chief Student Affairs Officer from 1995-2013 at three Rochester schools (where the student populations ranged from 2000 to 17,000) I never lost sight of the importance of student contact. It has enriched my personal and professional life and helped me make the best decisions for our most important constituency. Now as a college president, I continue with that approach. At the gym working out alongside students, grabbing a meal once a day in the dining hall and talking with students as I walk home to my house on campus gives me great joy and fulfillment. Long days dealing with faculty issues, enrollment concerns, budget planning and trustees who need to be communicated are critically important to leading any institution and I attend to those tasks each and every day -but I make sure I connect with our students as well. I am not buying into what is being suggested that you have to give that up. It hasn’t been my experience. Respectfully submitted, Mary-Beth Cooper, President of Springfield College and a student advocate

  3. I must agree with Mary-Beth. I think that whether or not someone stops having direct contact with students has they move up the Student Affairs ladder depends more on choice than it does on whether or not their position allows them to have such contact. I went to a professional conference once where I voiced my concern about moving up and how I was told that I would need to give up student contact to do so. The presenter, who was a VP for Student Affairs said that he did not think that was true. He himself still maintained a great deal of student contact, but he did say that he had to make the choice to do so because it would be very easy to allow his job to prevent him from connecting with students.

    But I think something that is even more concerning is how many students actually do not expect to have much contact with those in higher levels, even though they often will voice concerns that people in the higher level positions are out of touch with what they are going through. Even in more current position as Director of Residence Life, I was amazed at how how shocked RAs, Welcome Team members, and students alike were when I started showing up on move-in days (we have 16 a year), RA Interest meetings, stopping by programs, etc. I guess my predecessor never did any of those things. Now, when we ask staff to complete exit surveys upon graduation they all comment on how much they like seeing me out and about and that it makes them feel like what they do is appreciated and they also feel more comfortable coming to me with ideas, suggestions, concerns, etc.

    So from my experience, including the experience gained from working with some amazing VPs (who spend a great deal of time ensuring that they do not lose their connection with students), I believe that how much connection an AVP, VP or even President of the college has with students depends more on how much they want to maintain that connection than it does on the responsibilities of the position. I also believe that the better VPs are those who have those connections so that it helps put a true face on how their decisions will impact students and the student experience on campus.

    Sincerely,
    James H Manley Jr.,PhD
    Director of Residential Campus Life
    The Culinary Institute of America

  4. One final comment. I also believe that when a VP takes steps to maintain a connection with students (attends programs on campus, has lunch with students, ensures open office hours for students, etc) it sends a positive message to those people working under the VP on the organizational ladder that student connections are important and that we should never lose sight of why we are doing what we do. It makes it easier to reinforce expectations with those you supervise when they see that you are also follow those expectations.

    Now I would not expect that the level of connection is the same between a RD and a VPSA but it should still be there. And I know from personal experience that working with VPs who maintained those connections had a much more positive impact on me and other professionals and encouraged us to strive to go above and beyond in making a difference then when I worked for VPs who tended to isolate themselves away from students and student interactions unless it was required for appearance sake.

    Having met you Dr. Love and attended many of your presentations I know how much this field means to you so I was kind of surprised that you would seem to encourage the idea that as you move up the ladder it is ok to lose that connection with students. After all, as you stated in your most recent post, your actions influence thousands and thousands of students. Would it not make sense to make those decisions and take those actions knowing that you have first hand knowledge of the students you will be impacting?

  5. Mary-Beth and James,
    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the dialogue, and I don’t think we are that far apart. I would say three things:
    The first is that there is no way I could have anywhere near the same amount of student contact as a VP as I had as either a director of res life or as a hall director. That does not mean that I am out of touch with my students.
    Second, I have not “stopped” having student contact. However, I do know that I need to be strategic in putting in place actions to maintain some student contact, such as periodic lunches with SGA and other student leaders, participating in student events and attending athletic contests when I can, and making myself visible and accessible to students (for example, I moved my Manhattan office off the Exec Admin floor and down into the Campus Life area).
    The third thing is that I do see a distinction between having student contact and obtaining student perspectives. I go well beyond the still relatively little student contact I have (as compared to other positions I have had) to make sure I am getting student perspectives on a wide variety of issues. Things I have done include “pulse interviews” where grad students and staff do periodic 15 minute interviews with students; monthly Net Promoter Score surveys to 100 students on each campus; and soliciting the student perspective from my staff and student staff who I count on to inform me.
    Partly what I am saying in the post is that I neither bemoan nor feel guilty about the decline in student contact I have experienced over time and as I have moved up the organizational hierarchy. Instead, I have appreciated the opportunity to influence more students while definitely informing my work and decisions with the perspective of the students who attend my institution.
    Thanks again for your reactions and disagreements. I really appreciate it and wish you the very best in your work.
    Sincerely, Patrick

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