Where You Work Matters: Differences by Institutional Type in the Nature of Professional Life for Student Affairs Professionals

Where You Work Matters: Differences by Institutional Type in the Nature of Professional Life for Student Affairs Professionals
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  Where You Work Matters: Differences by Institutional Typein the Nature of Professional Life for Student AffairsProfessionals    by Joan B. Hirt, Denise Collins & Ellen Plummer January 4, 2005From NASPA's NetResults  The extensive support that higher education garnered throughout the 1990s touched most campusarenas (Gaither, 2002). Economic growth led to increases in funding at the state and federallevels. This enabled campuses to introduce new academic programs and attract more students.Growth in student enrollments led to expanded services and increases in the number of studentaffairs professionals, as well. The boon ended abruptly at the turn of century, however, and nowadministrators are faced with leading during an era of retrenchment.Managing change is inherently challenging (Dalton & Gardner, 2002) and this challenge isintensified during times of declining resources. Since the bulk of institutional funds on mostcampuses are associated with personnel costs, in these parsimonious times chief student affairsofficers are devoting increasing amounts of time to personnel matters. This includes not onlydecisions about positions, but related matters like resources devoted to operating expenses and professional development. Their work is further complicated by the increasingly complex natureof student affairs work. The profession now includes services that range from functional programs like admissions and housing to population based services for women and minoritystudents (Austin, 2002).Given the amount of time and energy student affairs professionals exert on personnel matters,they might expect literature to exist that can inform their work. Indeed, there is research on thestudent affairs profession but it tends to focus on one of three areas. First are studies thatexamine attrition among professionals (Bender, 1980; Burns, 1982). These works delineateemployment patterns in the profession but do not explain the reasons behind such attrition. Asecond body of work has explored the experiences of certain groups within the profession, mostnotably those of women and minorities (Steward, Patterson, Morales, Bartell, Dinas, & Powers,1995; Twale, 1995). There are reports on the characteristics of successful student affairsadministrators (Evans, 1986; Estanek, 1999) and the pathways they have taken to advance their careers (Blimling, 2002; Evans & Kuh, 1983).While these studies are informative, they focus on the individual and ignore the other element inthe personnel equation, the organization. The American system of higher education is structuredaround types of organizations that are distinctive in their missions and the students they serve.Work that looks at life for student affairs professionals at different institutional types is limitedand tends to consist of testimonials from those who work in certain environments (Estanek,1996; Tederman, 1997). Anecdotal evidence suggests that student affairs work at a communitycollege is very different from professional life at a liberal arts college or a research or comprehensive university. Yet data that examine these differences are quite limited. It was this  gap in our knowledge of student affairs practice that NASPA and a team of researchers sought toexplore.The annual NASPA conference attracts professionals from all types of colleges and universitiesacross the country. As such, it served as the laboratory for this study. A team of doctoralstudents, led by a faculty member and two student affairs practitioners, conducted a series of focus groups at the 2003 national conference in St. Louis, Missouri. The purpose of the focusgroups was to explore what professional life was like at different types of post-secondaryinstitutions. Specifically, we explored how the work professionals do and the rewards they valuediffer by institutional type. Methodology  We invited all those who registered to attend the conference to participate in the study. A total of 176 practitioners volunteered to participate in one of the 24 focus group discussions. Thisrepresented roughly 10% of the non-graduate student conferees. Each group consisted of  professionals from a single institutional type. We conducted 4-5 sessions with representativesfrom each of five types of campuses. The participants were fairly well distributed over four of the five institutional types. Thirty-five percent (35%) worked at research universities, 24% atliberal arts colleges, 18% at religiously affiliated campuses, and 14% at comprehensiveuniversities. The community colleges were somewhat underrepresented in the sample (8%)though this was not unexpected given the limited number of NASPA members from communitycolleges. Half the respondents were female and 85% were Caucasian. The majority of  participants (56%) were cabinet level officers, but 32% were mid-level administrators and 13%were entry-level professionals.Sessions were held in two rooms at one of the conference hotels and lasted 90 minutes. Led by ateam of two facilitators, participants were asked to complete written exercises about the nature of their work and the rewards they garnered for that work. After completing the exercises,respondents engaged in a dialogue about their responses and offered richer data about their  professional lives. This enabled the researchers to gain a fairly clear picture of professional life atdifferent types of colleges and universities. Findings  Combining written exercises with a focused discussion yielded both quantitative and qualitativedata. This enabled us to compare numeric ratings among groups as well as to expand on anydifferences in those ratings via participant comments.  Nature of Work   The first issue we explored examined the differences in the nature of work among those whoworked at different types of campuses. Results revealed three themes: work environment, work  pace, and the production of work.  Work environment   There were certain shared perceptions in responses from participants across all institutionaltypes. For example, respondents in general reported that their work environment was far more practice-based than theory-based. As one participant noted:We don't find ourselves talking about theory....especially when we talk to faculty.We don't talk student affairs jargon. I think that would be a turn off and we wouldlose our credibility. Faculty's language is not student affairs theory anddevelopment. (Liberal Arts Participant)Likewise, most participants reported that they did not receive a lot of recognition for their work from others on campus, particularly from faculty:The analogy that I use on my campus is that sometimes student affairs is likeCanada. The United States-faculty-do not spend a lot of time thinking about us.They only spend an enormous amount of time thinking about them[selves].(Comprehensive University Participant)The overwhelming sentiment from respondents was that faculty did not understand studentaffairs work, nor appreciate the impact of that work on the overall educational experience of students.In many other ways, however, the work environments at different types of institutions variedconsiderably. Those at research universities and community colleges for instance, report their campuses are far more political than their counterparts at other types of schools and talk aboutthe need to politic with various other constituencies:Showing face at events . . . [is] time consuming, but if you're going to be senior administrative officer at a university, and you're going to be working withstudents in particular, you've got to be at events that they're having. And the president expects you to be at events that the university is doing. And alumniexpect you to be at events, so you're doing a whole lot of things. (ResearchUniversity Participant)It might be out of necessity that you have to be political. That is the life of things... [When] you work with facilities, the business office, and academicaffairs, everybody has their own agenda...You need to know personalities and youdo need to play the politics...You have to smooth these egos and do somecompromising and behind the scenes dealing. You just have to...that is the realityof it, even though, you don't want to have to do it. (Community CollegeParticipant)Work at community colleges and research universities is also more bureaucratized than at theother types of campuses:  Two weeks ago, I had faculty propose a new curriculum for a new certificate theywant to start awarding in eight weeks because the program will be done in six[weeks]. They just got it approved by the state. They didn't tell me and now Igotta [sic] have a whole administrative system ready to admit and award degrees -in six weeks. On top of all the other processes that are in place for ongoingstudents. (Community College Participant)Participants from all types of institutions see their work as service oriented (as opposed to business oriented) but those at liberal arts and religiously affiliated colleges and universitiesreport the highest degree of service to students:In fact, particles might not even exist until they came into a relationship withsomething else. That is how I view students now. They are bundles of potentialityand it's the interaction with students at small liberal arts colleges that actualizethis. I know all of our residential students by name, where at [name of large public research university] I knew some students because I sought out sub-groupsto work with. (Liberal Arts Participant)Working with students is my favorite thing about the student affairs profession,and I can get to know students and help them with their academic goals and helpthem clarify what their academic plans are going to be so that is 70% of my time.So I spend most all of my time everyday in appointments with students.(Religiously Affiliated Participant)Those at liberal arts and religiously affiliated institutions also report their environment as beingfar more centralized than their counterparts at other campuses, as well as far less professionalized:For me the big difference is that when a student begins to have a problem or aneed, then residence life is not the only one dealing with it but [the] sports center  person, counseling center - all the resources will come to the table within fiveminutes and we can solve a problem before it becomes a crisis. (Liberal ArtsParticipant)You can trip over things that you realize are issues because it's the college way or the Presbyterian trained way and they hold that to be sacred and you stumble over that because at your old place nobody cared about it. (Religiously AffilaitedParticipant) Pace of work   The second theme that emerged in the analysis of the data related to the pace of the work environment. This included issues like the speed with which change on the campus could occur,whether the work was reactive or proactive, and the degree to which professionals could balancetheir work lives with their personal lives.  Again, there were some common responses across groups in terms of pace or work environment.Participants from all types of campuses reported that the pace provided them with a challengethey considered positive. Those at religiously affiliated institutions and comprehensiveuniversities, however, reported some dramatic differences from their counterparts at other typesof campuses. At religiously affiliated colleges, for example, respondents reported that their campuses were much slower to change. One respondent noted that " . . . our connection or affiliation with the [name of] church sometimes feels like thousands of years of history to moveagainst."In terms of ability to balance work and personal life, however, those at religiously affiliatedinstitutions reported higher levels of balance. This may not be surprising when comments fromthose at other institutions reveal just how intensely personal lives can conflict with professionallives:My husband and I chose not to have children because we looked at our  professional careers in the future and knowing what we both wanted to do, didn'tthink that there would be adequate time to do both and chose not to have a family because of professional expectations. We just felt that that would be too muchconflict with having a family. And so we chose not to have a family. (ResearchUniversity Participant)Those at comprehensive universities also reported differences from their counterparts at other types of schools. Their comments revealed a higher level of stress and a stronger sense that theylacked control over their work, hence were more reactive than proactive:I'd say my stress comes from a different area. And that's the growing emphasis onassessment, number crunching, having to prove [things] numerically. And movingfrom assistant director to director, the pressure for those numbers increases andthe student contact lessens. And then we have the current budget crisis... In [nameof state] it's actually worse than most states, and it's projected to be longer lasting because of the legislation in our state regarding taxes. So [there is] a lot of  pressure to justify their existence.[What is] most stressful about the nature of our work is that if you're a personwho needs a lot of control, you do not want to go into student affairs because you just don't have a lot of control on a daily basis. You cannot predict when a studentis going to commit suicide, can't predict when there's going to be a tragedy onyour campus, just the nature of the work. I think that goes along with themultitasking. You don't know what's going to happen. Production of work   The final theme that the data about the nature of work revealed related to how work gets produced at different types of institutions. At issue here are the degree to which creativity isvalued, whether work is team-oriented, and the degree of competition (versus collaboration)
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