ACUI’s Core Competencies Revised and Ready to be Put Into Action

It was just over 20 years ago that a special ACUI task force of 11 member volunteers was asked to develop a set of core competencies for higher education professionals working in the area of college student unions. Their work would include an extensive literature review and then the development of a framework for identifying core competencies—a set of composite skills, knowledge, and behaviors-—that could be used as a guide for the successful professional practice of college union and student activities work. 

Now, for the first time since integration of the competencies into ACUI programs and resources began in 2005, a revised set of core competencies has been introduced and adopted by the Board of Trustees following a review and updating process led by the Education Council that began in 2017. The total number of competencies has been reduced from 11 to 10 after Communication and Technology competencies were dropped and realigned as threads in every other competency, new competencies for Assessment, Evaluation & Research, and Event Management were added, and Management was merged with Leadership. In one last action, the Education Council elected to change the name of Intercultural Proficiency to Social Justice. 

In dropping Communication and Technology, the Education Council introduced the concept of threads as components of  separate core competencies that  are essential elements of each competency. The Council determined there were four points of emphasis that ran through every competency: communication, technology, ethics, and equity. These threads stress the emphasis of these areas in all roles within the  field. The identified threads are: 

  • Communication: The ability to successfully exchange information through verbal and nonverbal symbols and behaviors 
  • Technology: The ability to understand the overall intent of and to choose from appropriate tools, equipment, and procedures for service delivery and problem solving 
  • Ethics: The ability to develop and maintain integrity 
  • Equity: The guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all members of our communities, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups 

With those changes, ACUI’s core competencies remain to serve as a foundation for educating, hiring, and training; for enhancing the status of unions and student activities within higher education; and to provide a structural tool and a common language for assessment and evaluation.  

Recalling that charge from 1999, original task force member Keith Kowalka, now assistant vice president for student affairs at the University of Houston, said ACUI’s Board of Trustees at the time was looking to create a pathway for professionals to move beyond foundational knowledge and awareness of the college union experience and toward mastery. 

“I think the impetus at the time was to provide some context to our work because while ACUI represented the college union professional, we were a very broad group that worked in a number of areas, from facilities management to campus programming to leadership,” Kowalka said. “Providing these competencies was a way to train beyond the foundational and to be original, successful, and to become a complete professional with mastery in these areas.” 

Two years after the original task force completed work, ACUI’s International Education Council took over the project and developed a five-stage process that would guide creation of the first competencies: 

  • Determine how the Association would use the competencies 
  • Cultivate member involvement 
  • Conduct an environmental scan of existing materials 
  • Consistently validate information 
  • Report findings establishing core competencies 

A final, five-member task force provided the Board of Trustees with a set of core competencies that were adopted and then integrated into ACUI programs and resources beginning in 2005, skill sets were developed within core competencies in 2008, and by 2009 members were being surveyed on competency levels. ACUI’s Education Council in 2017 made review and revision of the competencies a priority, and last year that led to a new literature review, a needs assessment, feedback sessions, and the draft of a revised set of competencies. 

Clayton Kolb, associate director of student engagement and campus life at Virginia Tech, said core competencies have been used there in developing programming and for benchmarking outcomes. 

“When creating a student staff experience program for our department, we utilized the ACUI core competencies as part of the foundation of our learning outcomes and programming elements,” he said. “Each of our learning outcomes have connections to one or more of the competencies and have helped us create a robust program that prepares our student staff for their roles in the union, as well as building career readiness.” 

Justin Camputaro, director of Washington University’s Husky Union Building, said professional staff there have used ACUI’s core competencies in a variety of ways, and that there is a plan to implement the new revised competencies into their staff development program. 

“The best way we currently use the competences is in developing job descriptions for staff,” he said. “We typically refer back to them to ensure we are listing skill sets within actual responsibilities, as well as within qualifications. The specific competencies vary by position, of course, and not every role is expected to have the same scale and scope of knowledge.” 

Each of the 10 core competencies has a unique number of skill sets associated with it. Student Learning has two, Organizational Leadership has seven, with the rest falling in between those two then each of those individual skill sets have “knowledge of” and “ability to” sections that offer specific, measurable examples for success. 

Alison Ward, assistant director for event services at the University of Tennessee’s student union, said they’ve found the recommendations in the “ability to” sections especially helpful. 

“We use the core competencies, specifically the ‘ability to’for our student staff learning goals,” she said. “We shape each competency in to four rubric levels—Beginner, Developing, Accomplished, and Advanced—that ascertain their ability to succeed at which ever specific competency. We have also incorporated specific language from the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ core competencies so the data can be used by us and our Center for Career Development.” 

As the new core competencies are rolled out during the upcoming Regional Conferences and then published online at ACUI, opportunities have been identified for them to be used within the organization. The Education Council intends to collaborate with ACUI’s Volunteer Development Team to identify connections between volunteer positions and the core competencies and then to publish volunteer job descriptions that include the associated competencies. The council and the team also plan on updating ACUI 101 materials with the revised materials. 

Additional next steps that look to be implemented no later than June 2020 include: 

  • Create and introduce a tool with which members can self-assess knowledge and skills related to core competencies 
  • Create and disseminate a template with which members can track their education related to the competencies 
  • Continue launch of updated core competencies at the ACUI Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia 
  • Develop and disseminate assessment methods to ensure ACUI educational programs and volunteer experiences support core competency development 

Each of the revised core competencies, their definitions, and skill sets follow. Each is designed to better define the role of the college union and student activities professional, graduate students, and undergraduate students, and to offer an opportunity to change and develop focus based on current trends. They represent a standard knowledge base that coincides with an obligation to foster strong professional and are designed to serve as the structure for educational programs and services. Through their implementation they should enable clear and meaningful learning experiences through volunteer opportunities.  


For personal and professional development: 

  • Develop personal performance plan goals and objectives 
  • Further the profession’s resources and knowledge base in the core competencies by conducting research 

Within your department: 

  • Use in training your staff and new hires (e.g., in manuals and during retreats, orientation, and workshops) 
  • Incorporate the skill set language into learning outcomes for student employees and student leaders 
  • Update job descriptions and performance evaluations to include the competencies and skill sets 

With external stakeholders and partners: 

  • Use in discussions with senior administrators and fellow colleagues in student affairs 
  • Share with preparation program faculty to encourage the use of the core competencies in curricula and syllabi


  • Elizabeth Beltramini

    Elizabeth Beltramini served as ACUI's director of content curation and chief diversity officer. She worked at ACUI for more than 20 years before leaving in 2022 to pursue new challenges. Upon her departure, Beltramini received ACUI's Honorary Membership and Presidential Award for Distinguished Services.

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