From Student Affairs to the Presidency: Who Knows Campus Culture Better?

“The Presidency and Student Affairs: An Imperative Partnership,” by Jerrid P. Freeman of Northeastern State University and Shana L. Warkentine Meyer, McPherson College, represents the seventh chapter in “The Evolving College Presidency: Emerging Trends, Issues, and Challenges,” published in June 2022 by IGI Global and edited by Quincy Martin and Matthew A. Cooney, associate professors in the College of Education at Governors State University.

In their preface, Martin and Cooney note that the goal of the book is to serve as a guide for aspiring university presidents, so it should come as no surprise that over the course of 12 chapters issues like enrollment management, institutional budgeting, presidential selection processes, and leadership skills are addressed by a contingent of authors representing 18 unique institutions of higher learning. But it is the “imperative partnership” chapter that Freeman and Meyer present on the relationship between university presidents and student affairs divisions that should be of special interest to ACUI members.

Citing research showing the record high turnover rate for presidents (107 resigned in 2021), the 10-year increase in the average age of this group to 62 since 2016, and that 54% plan to step down in the next five years, Freeman and Meyer pose an expectation of opportunities for those looking to advance up the higher education ladder. And while only 5% of presidents have experience in student affairs, Martin and Cooney posit that institutions will cast broader nets during searches, and student affairs professionals are positioned well, in that context of today’s circumstances, to benefit in these scenarios.

Freeman and Meyer are quick to declare that senior student affairs officers are often well-versed in the primary virtues of institutional culture that represent points of strength when consideration is being made for presidential leaders. The experiences student affairs officers have in creating “one-team” environments, being effective communicators, working within a shared vision, using strategic planning, and implementing measurable outcomes correlate directly with the skill sets required for establishing broader institutional culture.

“It takes a campus to educate a student,” they write. “Ultimately, the overarching goal of higher education, no matter the institution, should be creating a student experience and education that creates knowledge and skills that are applicable for work, life, and citizenship. Student affairs professionals are experienced and seasoned in many of the factors that help to create a positive student experience and address the needs of the campus.”

The chapter references a litany of research that makes it clear that student affairs professionals are well-versed in two key areas that point toward a successful higher education experience and positive outcomes thereafter: 

  • Businesses want students to be equipped with a litany of soft skills that often go beyond the degree they receive in the classroom. Some programs do strive for these skills, but research shows the deficiency in others.
  • Students who are engaged within the institution and feel connected, valued, and that they matter are more likely to be retained and graduate. While this is the responsibility of every faculty and staff member within the institution, oftentimes, the support services to focus on these outcomes reside in student affairs.

“The effective senior student affairs officer (SSAO) builds a symbiotic relationship with the president by bolstering the very aspects of culture the campus leader is striving to achieve,” note Martin and Cooney. “A successful SSAO can assist the president in focusing the institution on a student-centered perspective and help guarantee that students remain at the center of decision-making. Ultimately, the establishment of healthy dialogue ensures that ego, control, power, pride, and resources do not control institutional direction.”

Student affairs professionals are consistently in a position to connect a campuses’ academic vision and mission in a dialogue relevant to their own work. They must “reach across the aisle” in collaborating with academics and administrators working in classrooms, laboratories, athletic facilities, and business offices, with each of these interactions affording an opportunity for “one-team environment” building. By modeling collaboration within student affairs and across campus, the authors note, they can seize the opportunity to contribute to a shared vision, to strategic planning goals, and to meeting measurable outcomes.

“Communicating a shared vision that connects to the academic mission and vision will drive relevancy for student affairs,” they write. “Today’s college president needs to be adept in addressing topics students are passionate about, like life on campus, social justice, shared governance through student government, food insecurity, and the cost of higher education—topics traditionally handled by student affairs staff. Colleges and universities must address these issues as they can affect a student’s ability to learn, an institution’s effectiveness, retention rates, and marketability. SSAOs and other student affairs professionals have the competence in and knowledge of student experiences and campus climate.”

With those connections realized, student affairs officers should seize on the opportunity to build symbiotic relationships with presidents “by bolstering the very aspects of culture the campus leader is striving to achieve. A successful SSAO can assist the president in focusing the institution on a student-centered perspective and help guarantee that students remain at the center of decision-making.”

Presidents and student affairs both must deal with societal change, mental health and student crises, finances, student services, assessment, workforce development, unfunded mandates, and, as the researchers put it, “everything else.” But it is also student affairs officers that “deal with practical issues on a daily basis while providing out-of-classroom experiences that complement the educational mission of an institution.” Might that be one reason Freeman and Meyer cite two sets of results comparing the views of presidents and student affairs leaders on the topic of mental health: While both presidents and student affairs leaders listed student mental health as their primary concern, when the responses of student affairs leadership were compared to those of presidents, 78% of student affairs leaders cited mental health as their top priority, compared to 49% of the presidents.

“Student affairs staff serve as boots on the ground triage through roles as social workers, case workers, and student advocacy coordinators who oversee counseling centers, 24-hour hotlines, and mental health apps, which are commonplace on the college campus to address mental health concerns,” they write. “A campus-wide, comprehensive approach that is both proactive through education and promotion can help to prevent reactive crisis interventions. Beyond walking the talk, campuses must ensure these programs are accessible, affordable, and meet the needs of a diverse student body. Involving students in discussions about their needs is imperative.”

And who is more practiced in the campus community with student involvement and driving communication with students than student affairs practitioners? Freeman and Meyer cite a body of research that cumulatively corroborates the connection between student engagement and student success, and that much of the work is done by student affairs professionals. Their chapter relies on nearly 60 unique references that leave little doubt of the importance of achieving enhanced student learning through the collaborations between academic and student affairs. Their citations include higher education and student affairs leaders like C. Carney Strange and James H. Banning, University of Vermont professor emerita Kathleen Manning, National Survey of Student Engagement founding director George D. Kuh, and Susan Komives, professor emerita of student affairs at the University of Maryland.

“The world of student affairs is as diverse as the students we serve,” write Freeman and Meyer. “Perhaps key to student affairs professionals’ success is a focus on holistic student development and an understanding of the impact that the life lived can significantly impact a student’s ability to succeed in the classroom. Enhancing the academic outcomes of the institution through support and connection, enhancing soft skill development for career success and community engagement, and engaging students in the collegiate experience where they know they matter and feel connected to the community are more essential than ever before.”

A president is at the apex of the higher education hierarchy, managing it all, setting vision, and expected to meet anticipated outcomes, but it is the student affairs professional who plays that “vital role in connecting the classroom knowledge and experiences with the soft skills needed for college graduates to be successful in their career and in their communities.” In doing so, Freeman and Meyer believe, not only is the “imperative partnership” sealed, but it may well pave the way for senior student affairs professionals to set a course for the campus presidency.


Freeman, J. P., Meyer, S. L. W., (2022). The Presidency and Student Affairs: An Imperative Partnership. In Q. Martin III & M. A. Cooney (Eds.), The Evolving College Presidency: Emerging Trends, Issues, and Challenges (pp 103-125). IGI Global.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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