What I’m about to propose may sound a bit sacrilegious, in a challenging-the-sacred-in-student-affairs kind of way: Have you ever attended a conference outside student affairs…or even, gasp, outside higher education?
We in student affairs are provided an extensive slate of career-related development opportunities. The acronyms of our state, regional, and national conferences and meetings are a large part of the language of our professional culture. And though we love all of them, we each have our personal favorites. (You know you do.)
And yet here I am, encouraging us all to attend a conference or class outside higher ed. And here’s why. The most impactful conference I’ve attended in 25 years in student affairs was “Leadership: Beyond Management,” a weeklong Executive Education seminar offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business. But wait, this program sounds kind of higher ed-ish, doesn’t it? In fact, UW-Green Bay was the only educational institution represented. Other participants worked for insurance companies, architectural firms, manufacturers, financial institutions…you get the picture.
As a leadership educator, I was familiar with some of the content of this program, like Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Practices Inventory. However, the LPI was used more extensively than I had ever seen it used before. This seminar is about strategy and business goals, the “entrepreneurial spirit,” and project teams. We discussed impulse control, communication norms, candor, positive influence, power, persuasion, and credibility. And when we weren’t in “class,” we did homework.
One particularly useful assignment for me was developing a vision statement for my work area. We were asked to put in writing: 1) where we wanted to go, 2) why this change was necessary, and 3) what success would look like. The document, which was to be shared with my department, had to be clear and concise, supported by facts, and inspiring. . . . I participated in this seminar in 2007 and introduced my vision statement almost immediately when I returned to campus. Several years later, it continues to guide our work. Student Life staff members call it “the manifesto” (affectionately, I think). I created the framework, and together we’ve made it come alive.
In all of the classes I’ve taken and all of the student affairs conferences I’ve attended, I had never before learned to express a vision. And having my document-in-progress evaluated by non-higher ed people at the seminar was amazing! Managers in banking, engineering, insurance, and technology don’t think or work like we do. They were intrigued by the peculiarities of university administration.
Really, some of the things we do are very unusual! If we want to improve higher education, we need to look for ideas in other types of institutions. What can we learn from, say, the health-care industry, amusement parks, or the local farmer’s market? How can we, as insiders, learn to examine ourselves from the outside…from beyond the usual university lingo, culture, and systems?
Higher education needs change; it needs transformation. Therefore, we must generate new models for our work. It’s so much more than whether we say “dorm” or “residence hall.” To take that example a step farther, it’s whether we should offer housing (or activities or leadership development or…) in a vastly different way or, perhaps, at all.
Like the business seminar I attended, Twitter provides opportunities for student affairs professionals to connect with people in completely different fields, and this experience similarly can stretch our thinking. What are we learning from them (and they from us)? How else can we connect with and learn from people outside higher education? Has your campus implemented an idea borrowed from another type of institution? What if we invited non-higher ed people to some of our brainstorming and planning meetings? What if . . .