Academic Affairs/Student Affairs Collaboration – How Does It Really Happen?

Mark McCarthy, Vice President for Student Affairs, John Carroll University

February 28, 2018

With nearly 40 years working in Student Affairs, this topic remains current and in some ways still remains more of a goal than a reality on many campuses.  Like many institutions, we have living-learning communities in residence halls, first year experiences with advising sessions co-led by faculty and student affairs staff, as well as myriad leadership and service-learning initiatives that involve colleagues who bridge the academic and student affairs divide.

All of these came into being because of the ideas, interests and commitment of a few faculty and staff members over time.  They are all good things, with positive outcomes that are assessed, evaluated, and capture the interest of some students. 

That being said, as one colleague in student affairs puts it, “If the university could be pictured as a Thanksgiving dinner, why is it that student affairs folks are always at the kids’ table?”  Although for many of us, the kids’ table is really where the action and fun can be found, the discussions about “what matters”, about real learning, about what has value often happens at the table in the other room where students and student affairs staff are not present and have no voice.

So what does it really mean to collaborate and how does it really happen? The answer is simple – relationships and institutional structures that support the development and implementation of strategic plans.

Recently, during a transitional time when there was no faculty leadership in place for the Center for Teaching and Learning, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences contacted me about the division of student affairs’ history providing professional development for staff.  For many years, we have organized three full-day professional development programs for student affairs staff in August, January and May.  Through our work together on the University Committee on the Student Learning Experience – a cross divisional governance group—the dean and I identified the need for greater collaboration and understanding of who are students are, how our talents can be developed to support student learning everywhere it happens, and how we (faculty and staff) could gain greater capacity to use technology and experiential pedagogies to engage and support student learning.  The Dean suggested that we consider an all-day professional development experience for faculty in Arts and Sciences and Business and staff in student and academic affairs – an experience that would foster relationships, further dialogue on critical issues and enhance our leadership and communication skills.

The result was a full-day, conference-style program in January prior to the first day of classes, with the theme “Building an Engaged Campus Community”.  It featured a keynote speaker who gave a talk on sustained dialogue, followed by sessions organized and presented by our faculty and staff members.  Topics included: Reflection to Action – how do reflective practices inform our work; using technology to enhance learning; serving underrepresented student populations; community based research; responding to students in distress; and developing skills for critical conversations.  We hoped that about 75 or 80 faculty and staff might participate and despite a snow and ice storm that morning, nearly 170 faculty and staff participated on a day when most area schools and universities were closed.

How did this happen? It happened because of the relationship between the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the vice president for student affairs and our willingness to take the lead and roll up our sleeves to make it happen.  Our engagement as leaders in the University Committee on the Student Learning Experience and willingness to try something new to engage faculty and staff in our shared responsibility to build an engaged community, fostered by collaboration, has set the stage for future ideas and commitment to bridging the divide between academic and student affairs.

Maybe we will need a larger table at our next Thanksgiving dinner – one that has seating for all of us in the university?

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