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Critical Conversations #19: How Can We Determine What Is Essential in Student Affairs Services and Programs?

October 24, 2019 Simone Himbeault Taylor

Simone Himbeault TaylorIn "Making the Invisible, Visible: The Enduring Essence of Student Affairs” (Journal College & Character, vol. 20, no. 4, November 2019), this quarter'sJCCFocus Author Simone Himbeault Taylor, University of Michigan, explores the essence of student affairs and its enduring nature.  She argues that while the vehicles for delivering the work of student affairs may evolve over time, the essential work is well-defined, principled, and lasting. She responded to the following questions posed by JCC co-editor Jon Dalton:

1. The field of student affairs work encompasses so many diverse services and programs that often overlap.  How can we determine what is really essential when we create and evaluate student affairs services and programs?

In my article, I assert that what is essential to student affairs was provided to our profession within the foundational document, the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View, when it articulated that our purpose is to attend to “student[s] in developing to the limits of [their] potentialities and in making [their] contribution to the betterment of society.”

Determining What Is Essential

The key to this question is in the word how, that is how to determine what is essential because there are multiple manifestations of the what of our work in student affairs. How to determine what is essential is often embedded in different ways within each institution’s mission, but what should be universal is the intent of student affairs professionals to make the greatest difference in students’ lives so students can have the chance of making the greatest difference in society.

How we manifest what is essential into specific offerings as we look into the future is a matter of not holding too tightly to what is currently, allowing for flexibility but at the same time holding securely our purpose such that we may swing widely but not untethered to inform ourselves where we want and need to go.

Clarity About What Is Core 

The past is prologue. We don't want to live in the past, but we want to leverage what we know about usus being student affairs, our students, higher education, and society—so that we know what to keep and what we can let go, that we know what is core and what is simply in-service-of.  Those aspects that are in-service-of will keep changing and will need to be informed by new knowledge, new tools, and an ever-evolving new age. And how exciting is that?  Clarity about what is core allows student affairs’ educators to nimbly release from the how without and by not forgetting the why.

2. You argue that organizational forms of student affairs work should be determined by first clarifying the primary purposes of the work (form should follow function). Why do you believe this to be true? Why do there seem to be so many differences today in how student affairs programs and services are organized on college and university campuses?

I suspect there are several reasons why there are so many differences. Organizational forms of student affairs work should be determined by first clarifying the primary purposes of the work. As I raise in my article, currently, across higher education there are numerous examples of student affairs organizations being reconceptualized, reorganized, and, in some cases, eliminated, some for reasons more legitimate or grounded than others. Sometimes these changes are driven by a notion of how to achieve greater integration between academic and cocurricular domains. Sometimes these changes are simply promoted as a means to achieve cost savings or to respond to perceived external threats and risks. 

Intentionality and Integrity

Too often, regulatory, political, litigious, and funding realities can subjugate educational priorities thus not simply informing but replacing principled decision-making. The issue is not that there is only one way to organize but that intentionality and integrity of educational purpose must reside at the core of any principled decision-making such that form follows function.To do so ensures that the essential educational mission to engender the development of the whole student is not compromised or lost.

The Imperative

Different models will exist across campuses because institutions are idiosyncratic entities defined by their history, purpose, and culture. Student affairs, and for that matter all other domains of the institution, resides and is subject to the implications within these parameters. Student affairs, in turn, has an imperative to keep students at the center of any decision-making. The point is that there can exist many legitimate differences in approach as long as they follow from an educational position of strength.  Clarity of purpose is essential to a coherent and principled organization. 

3. You utilize the images of "weaver" and "tapestry" to describe the work of student affairs.  How do these images help one to understand the essential purposes of student affairs? 

Metaphor, simile, and analogy are powerful literary devices.  They can serve as even more powerful tools of reflection and meaning making, especially for complex and multi-layers constructs. I turn to these tools often to help create my own understanding and to help others connect ideas. The creation of tapestry—the object itself and the role of its maker—offers a rich image for the work of student affairs.

Foundational Threads

I point to the warp as the foundational threads that underpin the purpose of student affairs and to the weft as the multiplicity of threads that come together to create unique patterns, such as are represented in the wide array of specific efforts associated with student life. The warp is constant while the weft can be ever-changing.  I love this imagery that also creates room to consider the artisan, the agent knowledgeable in bringing together the science and the art of the craft.  As educators, I believe this is our unique contribution, as well.    

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