My family and I have always loved theater. My first exposure to theater was back in high school when I saw a casting flyer for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I auditioned and was selected for a critical role … the butler. Although I enjoyed being the butler, and memorized my two lines early on, I was even more excited to be involved in the stage crew where I assisted with sound, lighting, set design, and special effects including pyrotechnics. I loved that for the production to succeed, it required everyone involved (sound, lights, stage crew, costume, makeup, and directors) to work together and be the star in their unique roles on the team. I mean the “wow” factor of Dracula disappearing in a loud bang and cloud of smoke could not have happened without me setting off the flash pot at just the right time. I found that theater was as much, if not more, of a team sport than any of the sports I played growing up.
Theater has always been a tool to promote social discourse, create dialogue, and inspire social change. In 2008 I was selected to serve on the 2010 ACUI Conference Program Team for New York City. I was very excited for our first site visit, as I had never been to New York City or to Broadway. I was fortunate enough to be selected to work on pre-conference programs where we were able to create the Wicked pre-conference experience that included a tour, lunch with the stage manager and the Wizard, attending the matinee performance of Wicked, and remaining in the theater for an hour reflection on the social justice connections to higher education found in Wicked, led by Kim Harrington and myself. Even with a huge snowstorm hitting the day before the pre-conference, we had over 150 people “defy gravity” and attend the session where they were hopefully changed for good.
My wife and kids all wished they could have flown out to the conference and attend Wicked, but it was just not feasible. I made them a promise that I would take them to see the show some day. In 2014, while living in Richmond, Virginia, and working at Virginia Commonwealth University, it was announced that Wicked would be returning to Richmond and would be performing a block away from our student union in the historic Altria Theater. We purchased tickets for the whole family as soon as they went on sale. As we counted down to the show, rarely a day would go by where the complete Wicked album would not be playing in our house. Two days before the show I received a call from my 80-year-old grandfather saying that he and his partner Carolyn were going to be driving through Richmond and asked if we could get together on the same night as the show. I let him know that our entire family was going to see Wicked that night and sadly we would have to miss him. He asked if there were seats still available and if so, they would buy tickets and we could grab dinner before and then go to the show together.
My grandfather was not a “theater” kind of guy – he was a “loudly swear while umpiring a softball game and smoking a cigarette behind home plate” kind of guy, so I confirmed again with him that this is really what he wanted to do, and he replied, “Absolutely.” I still remember the looks on my kids’ faces as we walked out of the theater, as well as hearing my grandfather talk about what he liked about the show and listening to him hum one of the songs as we walked away. My grandpa died a few years later from cancer. That visit, and seeing Wicked together, was our last real shared experience before he was diagnosed. I can’t hear “For Good” now without thinking of him and the impact he had on my life and I am so thankful for that final experience together.
As many of you know, we were scheduled to have our annual conference in New York City in March of 2021; unfortunately, due to COVID, we remained virtual. With this conference being where I would have been sworn in as president, I had intended to bring Kate and our four kids along as none of them have ever been to an ACUI event (but feel like they know so many of you through the stories I share) and they had also never been to New York City. My plan was to surprise them with tickets to see Dear Evan Hansen (as each of them knows the entire album) while we were there – but sadly that was not possible. A few weeks ago, we were able to watch the Dear Evan Hanson movie, and although it was no Broadway show, we all still really enjoyed it. One of the songs in the show, “You Will Be Found,” really connects for me on our role on college campuses and what we are navigating this fall. “There’s a place where we don’t have to feel unknown, and every time that you call out you’re a little less alone. If you only say the word, from across the silence your voice is heard. You will be found.” Student unions have always been that place where students can go to feel less alone … it is where they could go to be found. Now, more than ever, our students need college unions and campus activities offices to become actively involved in creating a community space where nobody ever has to sit alone.
Before COVID, we were already seeing our students lonely and isolated. In 2017, the American College Health Association surveyed nearly 48,000 college students and 64% said they had felt “very lonely”, 62% reported “overwhelming anxiety”, and 69% reported feeling “very sad” in the previous 12 months. Fast forward to fall of 2021, after 18 months of social distancing and isolation, we welcomed students desperately in need of connection back onto our campuses. Not surprisingly, we are seeing higher rates of loneliness, anxiety, severe depression, and burn out resulting in significant increases in mental health support. Investing our time and energy into creating community space and programs that allow our students to make connections, find balance, and deepen their engagement in the campus community has never been as important as it is today.
As we continue to navigate the needs of our students this fall, we are also balancing that with the needs of our staff. CNBC is reporting that during this period, now being called the “Great Resignation,” 55% of Americans anticipate changing jobs. If you look at our own ACUI job posting website, or on Higheredjobs.com, you can see the impact this is having on higher education with the growing list of job postings. Staff vacancies, combined with student employee shortages, is taking its toll on student unions and campus activities offices across the county.
We must continue to create retention strategies to maintain our profession, continue to develop our staff for advancement opportunities within our profession, and look for ways to strengthen pipelines to grow our profession. Like a theater show, higher education requires everyone involved — academic affairs, student affairs, operations and services, housing, dining, campus activities, counseling centers, dean of student offices, student unions, and others — to work together and be the star in our unique roles on campus, centering the student and staff experience. Like theater, supporting students is a team sport and requires all of us to play our unique roles.