Unleashing the Power of Student Affairs

excerpted from Journal of College & Character (vol. 12, No. 4, Dec. 2011)

As a result of environmental turbulence created by economic turmoil and shifting social policies, the world of higher education is experiencing widespread change. Student affairs professionals are well-positioned to influence the future direction of higher education and the impact education has for students and society. The NASPA 2012 conference theme Ignite Leadership Influence Change will offer attendees the opportunity to explore dynamics associated with elevating our presence and our impact.

Planning for the NASPA 2012 conference in Phoenix is now well underway. The planning committee is excited as we pursue our work. As we approach our planning, we are aware of the awesome responsibility we have in order to provide experiences that educate, stimulate thinking, engage passions, encourage consciousness, and forward the values of NASPA and the student affairs profession. NASPA President, Patricia Telles-Irvin, challenged the committee to think deeply about the major issues confronting higher education. She asked that we consider themes that will both focus our time together in Phoenix and give us a broad enough frame to be inclusive of the many domains in which student affairs work is practiced.

The conference planning committee chose the theme Ignite Leadership Influence Change. The theme was selected to describe the profound engagement imperative and responsibilities that lie before student affairs leaders. The responsibilities that have been presented to us fall into four domains: to be a catalyst (ignite); to exercise leadership; to use our voices (influence); and to make the world different in positive ways (change). How we respond and how we position ourselves will have deep implications for the future of higher education and the student affairs profession.

Our campuses and the entire higher education community are in the midst of culture-shifting conversations that are resulting in landscape shifting decisions and outcomes. There are profound questions regarding mission focus, program structure, policies relating to access and opportunity, and many other issues that can dramatically affect the future of education. This is a time for student affairs leaders to inspire those around us to consider bold possibilities, to move beyond the narrow confines of traditional disciplines, and forge new alliances. Student affairs leaders must be a stimulus for considering new ways of working, new relationship alignments, and new approaches to achieving our desired educational outcomes. Our charge is to ignite new energy and encourage creative thinking about ways to fulfill our missions. Igniting our leadership means having the courage and commitment needed to cross arbitrary boundaries for the sake of our students, our institutions, and the world we hope to shape.

Leadership may be our most valuable contribution. As student affairs professionals, we can help to navigate our institutions through challenging times to promising outcomes. Our leadership must be boundary-spanning. Unleashing our leadership means taking risks on behalf of our mission to construct essential relationship networks; it means demonstrating the depth of our commitment to the core values of our profession; it means being other-centered and creating meaningful, socially relevant organizations that serve a broad range of stakeholders. We are required to demonstrate future-focused leadership that honors our heritage but thoughtfully and responsibly acknowledges the future toward which we are called.

The influence of student affairs must be felt throughout the academy. Historically, the student affairs profession has focused its influence in higher education on those areas that have been defined as “student issues.” The significance of the times in which those of us in higher education find ourselves requires those in the student affairs profession to find a new voice; we must acknowledge to ourselves and others that the stakes with which we are confronted demand that we act as full citizens in the academy, that we assert our knowledge, and that we allow ourselves to make a difference in the fate of our institutions. In order to achieve a level of influence that befits the depth of our investment in the souls of our institutions and the futures of students, it is essential that we forge new partnerships with academic colleagues, fiscal officers, student leaders, board members and regents, and other parties who are involved in decisions regarding higher education’s future. Our influence will be felt through engaging in future-shaping conversations, asserting leadership in critical areas, provoking the thinking of key decision makers, and demonstrating value through the outcomes we produce.

Change is a hallmark of our current higher education landscape. Student affairs leaders must both embrace change that is inherent in an environment responding to social and economic turbulence and create and facilitate the kind of change implied in efforts to re-vision, re-invent, and transform higher education. As change leaders, we will engage deeply, think critically, contribute positively, and work diligently in an effort to uncover the best possible future for our campus. The change we inspire and facilitate must be thoughtful; it must demonstrate that there are direction and intentionality to our leadership.

Now is the time for new, bold, integrated leadership. Now is the time to expand the capacity of our institutions, our colleagues, and ourselves. We are well-positioned to change the way we navigate the landscape of relationships and organizational life. From the perspective of the 2012 conference planning team, we are challenged to alter the way we approach our work, if we are to stay relevant in a changing environment. In this spirit, our planning team challenges conference attendees to join us in exploring these questions:

  • What ignites the spark of leadership in each of us?
  • How can we influence our traditional environments in this new world of virtual interfaces which span boundaries?
  • What steps can we take to stay open to change?
  • What strategies do we use to create new possibilities for our organizations and communities?
  • How do our founding values inform us in times of uncertainty? How do we elevate those values during such times?
  • How do our roles and identities shift in a boundary-free organization?

At the same time the 2012 planning team was exploring possible conference themes, we also had at the front of our minds awareness of the concerns some members have about our conference location. The current and evolving political and social climate in Arizona will challenge us as social justice leaders and present us with the types of teaching and learning opportunities educators crave. We also feel it necessary to acknowledge that as a diverse profession, we have members who are ambivalent about NASPA being held in Arizona, while there are some members who are in support of the direction of legislation and social dynamics in that state. The planning committee and NASPA leadership are committed to doing all we can to create space and experiences within the conference for education, social action, awareness raising, and other forms of engagement that reflect the diverse nature of our leadership community.  The planning team will use our best thinking to provide a conference experience that honors the complexity of the context in which our conference will be held. We will rely upon our members to use the program submission process to propose programs, roundtables, poster sessions, and preconference workshops so that members can contribute to the dynamic conference experience we aspire to offer.

As leaders, the most powerful dynamic upon which we can rely is our values, which we can ultimately translate into visions, voice, leadership, and action. True leadership is more than mere activity—leadership involves respectful relationships, effective communication, and deep connection, among other dynamics. As educators the most potent tool we have at our disposal is education.  As we all know, education is more than just an activity of the mind—true education touches the soul and spirit, awakens consciousness, inspires action, and arouses the heart.

The NASPA 2012 planning team aspires to provide a learning experience that will touch, inspire, and provoke us to engage in values-worthy work as leaders and educators. Our time together in Phoenix will allow us to draw upon the best we have to offer, consider ways to unleash our energy, and engage in the kind of leadership higher education most needs from us right now.

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