Navigating Campus Politics


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Author
Jay Lambert, Vice President for Enrollment Management & Student Affairs, University of Houston Victoria

Published
April 19, 2017


In March, two colleagues and I had the privilege to present on the topic of navigating campus politics at the 2017 NASPA Annual Conference.  One of my fellow presenters asked the group how many of them were comfortable with the campus politics at their schools.  In a group of 60-70 people, very few raised their hands.  I can’t say that this surprised me, but it did concern me.  Yep….it is a bit scary, especially when everyone relates campus political systems to what we see in our national and state politics.  But campus politics doesn’t have to be such a bad word.  As professionals, and especially as senior administrators, we need to become more comfortable with politics on our campuses, especially if we are going to stay in the field and succeed.  I’ll never raise my hand to say I like politics, but I know it is a part of the job.  First, we all need to recognize that we are all political players on our campuses.  Some of us don’t take full advantage of our political systems and some of us even think we can refuse to play within them.  Despite this, almost everything we do from our work with other administrator, to our academic peers, alumni, donors, parents, the media, business leaders and of course our students has political implications on our campuses.  

Regardless of our disdain for it, how you navigate the political side of higher education will directly impact your success, especially as you move through the ranks. Personally, I am not only curious about the politics we face from campus to campus, but often find myself asking those who work outside of higher education about the politics they face in their workforce. I almost always hear a different story which usually includes a description of the individual’s personal journal.  The general themes, however, often revolves around personnel, agendas, and the allocation of resources.  Politics is everywhere!

Throughout my career I’ve often wondered if we are all here for the same reasons.  Are we all here for the students…to prepare them to contribute to society?   For the most part, I would say yes. Everyone in higher education is after one thing, and that is to educate and prepare people for a place in our society.  I have to believe this is true. Yes, there are some faculty who are much more interested in their research and then there are some administrators who only care about their area(s). This can be frustrating, but is their focus selfish or are they just advocating and pushing the areas that they were hired to advance?  Shouldn’t we all advocate to the best of our ability for our areas?  It is hard for me to argue against this logic and I don’t find fault in those who work this way.  Nevertheless, for those of us who work more directly with students, our job has to embrace a bigger picture.  It can’t just be about our specific area and how we serve students, but about how students are served holistically within the university. 

Despite this, heavy agendas and perplexing decisions will continue to confuse and concern us all.  In this, it is vitally important that we all recognize our own limits and acknowledge that just because we don’t agree with something, doesn’t mean it is the wrong thing to do.  On the flip side, I generally believe that my student affairs colleagues and I have the best ideas regarding how we serve students, but common sense tells me that we can’t always be right. Couple this with shrinking resources, state legislatures drastically cutting funding, restricting increases in cost, unfunded mandates, and public perception issues, it is no wonder we are left competing for limited and declining resources.

The old saying, treat others as you want to be treated, just doesn’t seem to jive with campus politics, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still use it as a guide in working with others.  Working under this premise, here are a few things that have helped me navigate the politics on campus.

  1. Put relationships over being right
  2. Develop real friendships
  3. If you don’t want someone else to hear it, don’t say it. Own what you say!
  4. Smile…Play nice
  5. There is such a thing as a win-win situation…….when possible; try to find it.  
  6. You don’t have to win everything
  7. Focus on holistic service to students

I am hoping this short blog allows a few of you to come to grips regarding the inevitability of politics in higher education.  When I find myself getting frustrated, I think of the students who I know that I am impacting. My experience tells me that on top of those students, there are countless students that depend on what we do in Student Affairs.  They depend on me and they depend on you.   Students need us!  


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