I was at a meeting with the Deans and the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (VCSA) at my university a few weeks ago. At that meeting, we talked about the role of social media in how we communicate with our students. One of the Deans noted that, in addition, we can also use data to communicate the value of our work to the campus. She specifically spoke about the use of assessment to demonstrate the student service units’ contributions to student learning and success. It was at that moment when I realized the need for student affairs leaders to be “multilingual” in order to be effective in building relationships and in collaborating with the campus community. I’m not talking about multilingual just in the sense of having the capability to speak multiple languages but rather, the ability to communicate in ways that resonate with who we work with.
On any given campus, there are groups who use data (quantitative, qualitative) to interpret and convey what we do at the institution and at departmental levels. There are those who view their work primarily from technical perspectives. Even how college students are defined by the staff and administration vary depending on the roles and services they provide according to this book Business Practices in Higher Education: A Guide for Today’s Administrators. The book cites three of the more popular metaphors: students as a product, a customer, or a partial employee (co-producer). In addition, how the organization and staff approach their work depends on the orientations they use. This book on Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) talks about the following orientations:
- Administrative Orientation which focuses on process and business processes.
- Student-focused Orientation puts the individual student in the center of SEM using student development theory, leadership training, and experiential training.
- Academic Orientation puts the academic mission of an institution into SEM. The focus is on academic programs, curricula, research and teaching through the eyes of the faculty.
- Market-centered Orientation looks externally at the market perspective (not marketing) and the market position an institution has among its competitors.
Student Affairs leaders must be cognizant of how different individuals and units view their work and take the additional step of adapting their communication approach to have meaningful conversations. Here’s one example where it is applicable:
The VCSA is in the position to promote and gain support towards a one-stop web site. The website would integrate different enrollment management units (registrar, financial aid, admissions, orientation program, …) for a more effective student service. The IT department would also need to be involved in the discussion. Certain units or individuals may resist the idea for various reasons. The VCSA could use different approaches to convey the value of such a web site and how the units and staff impacted by this project could benefit. When speaking with IT, the VCSA could approach it from a technical perspective. By having an integrated web site, IT could avoid duplication of effort in developing and maintaining the systems. When speaking with staff who are student-focused, he/she could potentially use Astin’s Input-Environment-Output (I-E-O) model. By having a one-stop website, the student’s university experience could be improved by reducing the stress experienced by students in having to conduct their various businesses from different websites that may not even be consistent. Consider the idea that from the period when new students apply to the university until they set foot on campus, they would have used many, many websites from confirming their attendance, applying for financial aid, reserving their orientation session, paying for their bills to registering for their classes.
For leaders to be multilingual requires some understanding of the culture, the politics of the various communities on campus and beyond. For leaders to understand our students, we must spend some time working with them where they are, both inside and outside the classroom. To understand our staff, it would help to take some time to talk with them where they work and even spend some time doing their work.