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Three critical issues to consider when partnering with Academic Affairs

by on August 14, 2013

Kerry W Foxx
Associate Director, Office of Student Activities
Student Affairs Parterning with Academic Affairs (SAPAA) Region II KC Rep
Syracuse University

The mission of the SAPAA Knowledge Community is to provide a forum for interaction among student affairs professionals serving in an academic unit and/or those who are interested in the collaboration between student and academic affairs. The former speaks, in my opinion, to a growing realization in Student Affairs of the need to support professionals across Institutions – as opposed to only those functionally silo’ d into Divisions of Student Affairs – who administer day-to-day operations, manage crises, supplement classroom learning, etc. in ever-increasing numbers in academic and auxiliary units. It makes perfect sense. Our profession is growing; and, our support systems must grow as well. The later part of SAPAA’s mission, however, is a bit more complicated to digest.

I tend to think of functional units within Student Affairs as small businesses or non-profits that function independently from one another. This statement may not resonate with everyone but really think about it. It’s been my experience that Directors typically have a great deal of autonomy with respect to administering office budgets, managing staff, setting office policies, organizing the office environment, etc. Certain units in Student Affairs – oftentimes Residence Life – are auxiliaries and generate their own operating budgets while others are funded by donors and/or grants with loose ties to the Student Affairs hierarchy. TRIO programs are a great example of this grant-funded paradigm. Obviously, we all answer to a higher authority: senior administration in Student Affairs as well as at the institutional level. However, in the day-to-day operation and administration of offices, we operate fairly independently. Academic Affairs, in my experience, operates similarly: as a decentralized organization. It is this organization of our Student and Academic Affairs units that makes the concept of partnering as stated in SAPAAs mission so complicated.

Let’s say that the Career Center – which is housed in Student Affairs – partners with the Psychology Department to host a panel entitled “What to do with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology”. Is this a Student Affairs: Academic Affairs collaboration? Or, is the Career Center simply partnering with the Psychology Department? This example may seem like semantics but it speaks to a critical issue that gets little attention when talking about collaborations between Student and Academic Affairs: scope. It’s fairly easy for individual units in Student Affairs to build beneficial and lasting partnerships with departments or units on the Academic Affairs side of the house. I would wager that the majority of collaborative relationships fit this model. It’s a lot more complicated and subsequently less common to see divisional-level or macro-level partnerships between Student and Academic Affairs. An example of this type of partnership is Learning Communities at Syracuse University. The Office of Learning Communities has two directors: one is an associate provost on the Academic side and the other a residence life director on the Student Affairs side. Decisions related to the growth and development of the community are vetted and approved by both sides of the house; and, most importantly, both sides have a vested interest in the success of the program which brings me to the second issue: understanding.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second. Student Affairs professionals are not always the best at collaborating. Now I’m sure that we could all name multiple occasions when we have reached out to colleagues about being involved in a new program, training our student leaders, or joining a committee to think about something. I was recently asked to facilitate a training program for a group of students; and, I frequently ask colleagues in other units with expertise in certain areas to do training for certain students and student groups. There is nothing wrong with reaching out to colleagues for this type of support; it’s just not collaboration. Collaboration involves the mutual construction of something that has mutually agreed upon goals and expectations as well as investment. When was the last time a colleague sat in your office and asked about your office’s goals, priorities, challenges, and/or strengths? When was the last time you asked colleagues those same questions? Understanding is a necessary step to the development of true collaborative partnerships. We get so bogged down, however, in our day-to-day stuff that we seldom take the time to understand our own strengths, challenges, expectations, goals, etc. let alone those of our colleagues. In terms of Student and Academic Affairs collaborations, understanding becomes all the more important as a necessary step in the development of collaborative relationships because (1) our work is different, (2) our loyalties are different, and (3) our priorities and understanding of what constitutes success are oftentimes different. It is for these reasons that understanding is such a critical part of the collaborative venture; and, if understanding is a necessary step then relationship building is a necessary first step in the process.

I have worked at various types of institutions during my career in the Academy: big and small institutions, liberal arts colleges and research one institutions, as well as secular and religiously-affiliated schools. A common theme that has resonated with me throughout my career at these diverse institutions has been the difficulty associated with building trusting relationships. Colleges and universities – despite the size of their student populations – are fairly complex organizations with multiple and oftentimes competing priorities. This complexity coupled with strained budgets, insufficient human resources, as well as the campus environment – which oftentimes organizes people into office spaces based on affiliation as opposed to function – makes relationship building all the more challenging. Mutually beneficial collaborative partnerships require the creation of trusting relationships across offices, functional areas, and divisions. In the ever changing and political landscape of the American University, building relationships with stakeholders from across campus is the only way to both determine and stay abreast of changing priorities, expectations, goals, challenges, etc. These relationships, which are built on a foundation of trust and understanding, are a necessary – though challenging – first step in the process of building mutually beneficial collaborative partnerships. When I started my career, I found relationship building pretty daunting. I didn’t know where to start. Here are a few tips:

  • Start from a place of introspection. Identify the goals of your office? Understand the expectations that your supervisor has put on you with respect to the office’s priorities? Consider and re-consider opportunities for growth in your office. Deepen your understanding of the priorities in your Division.
  • Next, Identify stakeholders on your campus who have expertise or an interest in areas that meet the goals and priorities of your office or Division. Ask your supervisor for help in identifying these people if you need it.
  • Invite those people out to lunch to learn about their work, their offices, their priorities, etc. I have been consistently surprised at how willing people are to talk. Take good notes.
  • If and when you are ready to approach one of the stakeholders, it is vital that you begin from a place of humility and flexibility. Don’t approach people with a fully realized idea when collaboration is the goal but be sure to connect whatever the idea is to their goals and priorities.

Understanding scope, building understanding, and creating relationships are essential to building successful collaborative relationships; and, these ideals must be at the core of SAPAA’s work, education, and outreach. As we look to expand SAPAA’s presence in Region II, we do so with an understanding of both the complexity and centrality of our mission to the short-term work and long-term success of Student Affairs specifically and to the Academy generally. Do you have some other promising practices to share with the Region? Have you created a true collaborative partnership on your campus between Student and Academic Affairs that you’d like to talk about? Are you looking for some advice on getting a partnership started? If any of these questions are true then keep an eye out for more information from the SAPAA Region II KC!

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