Breaking the “Indiscernible Wall”

Lakshmi Nathan Balasubramanian

June 21, 2017

When the rate of enrollment increased rapidly, colleges and universities across the United States had to bifurcate as Academic Affairs and Student Affairs in order to manage everyday operations of the college campuses. In that process, both branches were given the responsibility to be a prime factor in the student development process –

“Academic affairs attending to intellectual development, and Student Affairs focusing on social and emotional development” (Arcelus, n.d.).

Researchers have identified that students grow in a variety of dimensions by enrolling in a higher education institution. The identified areas are, as noted by Pascarella and Terenzini (2005), academic and cognitive, attitude and values, psychological, career and economic, and quality of life. Research findings also suggested that growth in these areas are interdependent on one another and that is why colleges are expected to provide a holistic experience for students (Arcelus, n.d.). In reality, as the bifurcation of college campuses materialized, student development was also split into two – inside class room experience and out of classroom experience. As student affairs divisions grew, they specialized itself to a position where it assumed the role of providing the out of classroom experience. This coerced the academic affairs division to pursue a stronger role in research and professional development. As these two divisions continued to work towards a common goal but with different missions, an indiscernible wall began to build between them. While both branches vowed to provide the best college experience for students, they became competitive with each other.

Theories proposed by Robert Hutchins and John Dewey in 1930s regarding the differences in pursuing a purely intellectual mission versus educational mission reveal that these dual goals have existed for more than a half century. As the two branches of academic institutions begun to chase two different missions, the need for academic affairs and student affairs to collaborate has been recognized for more than two decades, yet a clear pathway for collaboration has never formally existed. This isolated operation of student affairs and academic affairs impacts the delivery of whole-student aspect. As noted by Marcia B. Baxter Magolda,

“[Students] cannot be expected to connect the cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal dimensions of their adult lives if their education has led them to believe these dimensions are unrelated. It is clear that our current approach of bifurcating the cognitive and affective dimensions of learning does not work” (as cited in Arcelus, n.d.)

In today’s world, as institutions of higher education continue to face increased fiscal difficulties, the lack of collaboration between student affairs and academic affairs will be a critical issue for institutions of higher education. Academic faculty assert the need to reduce the student affairs division as they believe that student affairs division diminishes the academic priority, while student affairs administrators continuously cite the lack of engagement of faculty when it comes to educational mission (Arcelus, n.d.). The need for breaking the indiscernible wall has increased, as the debate between faculty and student affairs administrators heat up during these unprecedented times of financial hardship.

Misunderstanding the roles is a big reason why collaboration has failed in the past. Lack of knowledge on what goes on the other side contributes to misunderstanding the roles. Student affairs professionals will not be in a place to contribute to classroom experience if they are unaware of the academic expectations of a student. On the other hand, faculty members are so disconnected from rest of the community that they often have inaccurate ideas about the resources available for students in order to enrich the out of classroom experience (Dungy, 2011). Pederson (2015) identified a specific barrier that relates to academic affairs: the faculty members are not usually rewarded for their participation in campus community outside of their academic realm (Pederson, 2015). In the pursuit for academic excellence, the lack of recognition makes it pointless for the faculty members to engage with the campus community. Competition for resources is another important barrier, especially when an institution of higher education is facing financial hardships. Ideally, as noted by Arcelus (n.d), institutional mission and philosophy should dictate the operational budget for any academic intuition. This will prioritize the resources needed to carry out the institutional mission. However, if the institutional leadership provides insufficient direction, the priorities will be determined through a constant battle of competition between academic and student affairs. The difference in values and priorities, organizational culture, organizational structure, and even lack of trust are some of the other factors that act as a barrier to successful collaboration between SA professionals and academic affairs.

Despite the differences, both divisions operate to achieve a common goal – student development. It is important to create intentional partnerships in order to offer the whole student experience. Collaboration only increases the opportunity for using the shared resources, so it is vital for the university leadership to encourage such partnerships. As Pederson (2015) rightly points out, collaborations will not occur overnight. Creation of both formal and informal processes is required to foster a collaborative environment. (Pederson, 2015).

More importantly it is critical that professionals who understand the value of both academic and student affairs be a catalyst in breaking the indiscernible wall.


Arcelus, V. (n.d.). If student affairs – academic affairs collaboration is such a good idea, why are there so few examples of these partnerships in American higher education? Transforming our approach to education: Cultivating partnerships and dialogue. In Philosophical Foundations of Student Affairs (pp. 61-81).

Dungy, G. (2011). Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. The Higher Learning in America. New Haven: Yale, [1936].

Pederson, J. (2015, August 27). Bridging the Gap between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students (Vol. 2). K. A. Feldman (Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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