Academic Affairs and Student Affairs: Bridging the Gap

A recent informal poll conducted by Magna Publications asked, “Would you like to see student affairs work more closely with academic affairs on your campus? What is preventing—or encouraging—collaboration on your campus?”

The replies from the academic affairs and student affairs respondents might be summarized with one big “Yes, but …”

But what? While some campuses are apparently making progress in building bridges between these two organizational units, the impediments cited fall into three main categories:

  1. lack of communication, willful or not,
  2. local politics, with a power imbalance that favors academic affairs, and
  3. faculty indifference to student development because of lack of incentives.

While the survey does not account for institutional types, a fair guess here is that private institutions and elite publics that are heavily dependent on tuition for funding (but in some cases well endowed with scholarship dollars) are more motivated to ensure that academic affairs and student affairs work hand-in-glove in recruiting, nurturing, retaining, and graduating students, with follow-ups on career placement, student satisfaction surveys, and alumni/donor tie-ins.

Larger public comprehensive institutions, on the other hand, are perhaps less likely to have the motivation, resources, and inclination to embrace bridge building in light of burgeoning enrollments, increasing pressure for research productivity and service, and such academic initiatives as outcomes assessment to satisfy regional accreditation requirements (the cause du jour). Community colleges and two-year private schools are perhaps on both sides of the aisle.

Sweeping generalizations, to be sure. My own take, however, is that we are witnessing at work the old adage that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Presidents would like to think that institutionally we are “all in this together”—and are in a position, with leadership from provosts and academic deans, to set the tone and the imperative for cohesive bridge building between academic affairs and student affairs.

Student affairs would like to think that in selling a “caring faculty” in the recruitment process and delivering a good crop of students ready for a productive college life in the classroom (as well as out), it has played a part that surely will be acknowledged, indeed appreciated, by academic affairs in general and faculty in particular.

Some faculty, however, would like to think that, with heavy teaching workloads and heightened research and service expectations for tenure and promotion, extracurricular nourishing is “not my job.” The flashpoint is advising, especially career advising, where many faculty see little reason to invest time in an essentially unrewarded enterprise—many, but by no means all.

John N. McDaniel is dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Middle Tennessee State University.

Excerpted from Parting Shot: The Student as College Customer: Do You Buy It? Academic Leader, May 2007.