2019 Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs

Now in its 6th year, Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs (MPPWSA) is a national recognition that celebrates student affairs workplaces that are vibrant, diverse, supportive and committed to staff work-life balance, professional development and inclusive excellence. MPPWSA offers institutional leaders information that can be used to improve practices across their student affairs community, while also serving as a useful tool for employers, career services staff and job-seekers across the country.


Institution Senior Student Affairs Officer Location Level Control Enrollment
Bowling Green State University Dr. Thomas Gibson Bowling Green, OH 4-Yr Public 17,357
Brevard College Dr. Debbie D’Anna Brevard, NC 4-Yr Private 677
California State Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo Dr. Keith Humphrey San Luis Obispo, CA 4-Yr Private 22,370
California State University-Channel Islands Dr. Richard Yao Camarillo, CA 4-Yr Public 7,455
College of William & Mary Dr. Ginger Ambler Williamsburg, VA 4-Yr Public 8,740
James Madison University Dr. Tim Miller Harrisonburg, VA 4-Yr Public 21,836
Pennsylvania College of Technology Elliott Strickland Williamsport, PA 4-Yr Private 5,457
Rhode Island College Dr. Jason L. Meriwether Providence, RI 4-Yr Public 8,171
Rutgers University-New Brunswick Dr. Salvador B. Mena New Brunswick, NJ 4-Yr Public 49,577
Saint Louis University Dr. Kent Porterfield St. Louis, MO 4-Yr Public 14,581
Samuel Merritt University Dr. Terry Nordstrom Oakland, CA 4-Yr Public 2,141
Sonoma State University Dr. Wm. Gregory Sawyer Rohnert Park, CA 4-Yr Public 9,481
St. Louis College of Pharmacy Dr. Heather French St. Louis, MO 4-Yr Private 1,195
The Ohio State University-Columbus Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston Columbus, OH 4-Yr Public 59,837



Dr. Terrell Lamont Strayhorn (principal investigator) is vice president of academic and student affairs at LeMoyne-Owen College, where he also serves as professor of urban education. He is CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting, LLC, a research firm that specializes in translating research discoveries to improve policy and practice. Author of 10 books, more than 200 journal articles, chapters and reports, Strayhorn is a prolific scholar, internationally known student success expert, and highly- sought public speaker. He has delivered keynotes and public lectures at more than 500 campuses and conferences across the globe. In 2011, he was named as an Emerging Scholar in his field by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.

Dr. Royel Montel Johnson (co-principal investigator) is assistant professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University within the Department of Educational Policy Studies. His research focuses on major policy- and practice-relevant issues in education such as college access and success; race, equity and diversity; and student learning and development. He is co-editor of a forthcoming book on historically Black colleges and universities and has published dozens of journal articles, book chapters and other academic publications.

This project also benefitted from the contributions of many others over the course of time who have helped contact administrators, write institutional profiles, and elicit quotations from personnel at featured institutions. These include (in alphabetical order): Stanley Gates, Shay Merritte, Danny Ndungu, Tiffany Steele and Catherine Wang.



The MPPWSA survey consists of approximately 60 items, organized into 10 major sections. For example, one section elicits contact information for the survey respondent and identifying information about their respective institution (e.g., control, minority-serving institution [MSI] status). Another section includes several items to assess the structural diversity of the institution and student affairs department in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and disability status. There are several sections that measure the availability and extent of support services provided to student affairs staff on campus, such as professional development.

The survey was authored by Terrell Strayhorn, with input from experts on the project advisory board, and is not available in the public domain. Now part of the larger project, Most Promising Places to Work, the survey has been administered by Strayhorn and his teams at various centers, Do Good Work Educational Consulting LLC,
and in 2018 by a paid external consultant hired by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. All analyses presented in this edition were conducted by Terrell Strayhorn and Royel Johnson.



Tracey Cameron, Ph.D.
Assistant Dean of Intercultural Education
Director Harambee House
Advisor to Student of African Descent
Wellesley College

Stan Carpenter, Ph.D.
College of Education
Texas State University

Kristen A. Renn, Ph.D.
Professor of Higher, Adult, & Lifelong Education
Michigan State University

Joan B. Hirt, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Sue Saunders, Ph.D.
Program Coordinator, Higher Education and Student Affairs
Extension Professor, Department of Educational Leadership
Neag School of Education

Promising Practices

Building on the success of previous years, we are excited to include a set of “promising practices” in this year’s report for Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs 2019. As the MPPWSA project matures each year, we learn more and more about what’s going on at various institutions to increase staff diversity, to foster a sense of belonging and to equip college student educators for their work with students. In previous editions of Diverse, we shared practices that hold promise for achieving the outcomes we desire with student affairs staff (for more, see Diverse Online); this year, we present the growing list of promising practices.

A Culture of Evidence Based Practice

The American College Personnel Association (ACPA), along with several other national professional associations, acknowledges the important role that research, theory and scholarship play in effective student affairs practice. So much so that the most recent Professional Competencies and Standards Report affirms the importance of evidence-based practice, which is one of the “promising practices” that distinguish MPPWSA institutions from their peers. Our conversations and site visits revealed an obvious ethos within these divisions of student affairs that pressed for the use of research, theory and scholarship in everyday practice.

More than just a one-off mention of Alexander Astin’s “involvement theory” or a drive-by lecture from a highly-acclaimed speaker, MPPWSA institutions were largely characterized in both structure and form as workplaces that infused the collection, use and sharing of evidence or “provocative information” consistently throughout the entire division. For instance, student affairs staff at St. Louis University get the message from “day one that research and evidence are critical for effective practice” as part of their onboarding process, which is also reflected in the division’s guiding documents and policies. SLU’s Division of Student Development hiring plan includes multiple references to published literature on effective practices for building multicultural competence, sense of belonging and power/oppression.

Although many MPPWSA institutions are marked by a culture for evidence-based practice — where decisions begin with questions about data, information and current research — the institutions we visited were quite different in “how” they created this distinctive culture. Some did this through book clubs, affinity groups, rubrics and box-whisker plots, while others preserved a culture of evidence through guest speakers, webinars, strong partnerships with graduate prep programs on campus and so on. At the University of West Georgia (UWG), Vice President Scott Lingrell and his team have developed a literature review, chockfull of APA citations, that supports the division’s five strategic imperatives. The school requires all new staff to read the review. UWG and other featured campuses perpetuate the culture of evidence by incentivizing staff to justify funding requests, new programs and work success using data, assessments and the science of college impacts. We were impressed by the explicit mention of theory, evaluations and “value-added models” in these student affairs workplaces. In many ways, MPPWSA institutions possess evidence-based cultures that compel staff to marshal of their impact on students, which makes them a viable partner to other units on campus in ensuring student success!

Engagement in the Broader Profession

If we learned anything from our conversations with and visits to several MPPWSA institutions, it is that staff at these institutions feel as if they belong in the campus, division and broader profession. Time and time again, staff at MPPWSA institutions emphasized that they were encouraged to be actively engaged in the broader profession. Through stories and anecdotes, staff shared how SSAOs at Most Promising Places provided strong support to their direct reports and all staff to get involved in various professional associations, such as ACPA, NASPA, and functional area-specific groups like those in campus activities, academic advising and housing. Not only did senior leaders encourage active involvement in professional roles and responsibilities but they also role-modeled the importance of such activities by being actively involved in national leadership, consultancies, advisories and committees themselves. For instance, senior leaders and staff at Most Promising Places include former ACPA presidents, editors of professional journals and magazines, conference program chairs, heads of counseling associations and even members of national advisory boards.

Engagement in the broader profession was encouraged in other ways as well. For instance, some staff shared that they received “release time” from some work responsibilities in order to assume responsibilities in the larger profession. While serving as program chair for a national student affairs association, one staff member at a large public university was given “half a day per week” to concentrate on those duties, access to resources that support their success in that role, and even travel support, when needed, to meet with other members of the program team. It also became clear that staff are socialized to this way of life from the very first day. Many talked about how their on-boarding process included explicit mention of them joining the “campus community, the division’s team and the profession of student affairs.” Connecting the dots for some staff was particularly helpful for introducing them to the profession at large.

Indeed, SSAOs at MPPWSA campuses understand the value that active engagement in the broader profession adds to the quality of programs and services provided by the division. They also see their role, at least in part, as furthering the development of new, mid-, and other senior-level professionals in the field of student affairs. In that way, their division becomes another training ground for competent staff to apply theory to practice and to become familiar with the norms, values and expectations of the larger profession.

Commitment to Inclusive Excellence

Beyond the development of taskforces and strategic plans for achieving diversity or inclusive excellence within their divisions, senior leaders at MPPWSA institutions demonstrated deep commitment to inclusive excellence in the day-to-day operations of the division. For example, Saint Louis University’s vice president for student development, Dr. Kent Porterfield, commissioned a committee in 2011 to develop a comprehensive guide for the recruitment and retention of diverse staff. Grounded in empirical research on multiculturalism and social justice, as well as best practices in the field, SLU’s guide offers hiring committees and supervisors actionable items to follow to achieve the diversity they envision for their unit. As an example, staff are encouraged to discuss hiring goals with human resources (HR) recruiters and to request full view of candidates without pre-screening. This strategy helps ensure that all candidates are carefully considered in an equitable manner.

Ensuring inclusive excellence in student affairs is hard work. It requires that institutions move beyond rhetoric — the mere acknowledgment that diversity is important — to action. Leaders at MPPWSA institutions have taken bold new steps for sustained transformational change within their division. We encourage SSAOs across the country to also engage in the necessary, and sometimes difficult, decision-making that demonstrates an abiding commitment to inclusive excellence. It’s hard work but hard work is no excuse for retreat!

Organizational Mindset for Learning & Improvement

Dr. Carol Dweck, a renowned psychologist, is best known for her work on mindset as a psychological trait. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she illustrates the power of growth mindedness or a set of beliefs that create success through effort, motivation and persistence. Growth mindsets stay open to learning, discovery, feedback and continuous improvement. Interestingly, we discovered a common theme among Most Promising Places — an organizational mindset focused on learning and improvement. Virtually all of the senior leaders with whom we spoke echoed words reminiscent of Dweck’s book: “We’re a division in the making … we’re not perfect, but striving” or, “If you’re looking for a perfect division, then we’re not it … but if you’re looking for a place to learn and grow, then we’re an exciting place to be.” Emphasizing the importance of learning, honest assessment, continuous improvement, feedback loops and admitting “gaps or weaknesses” seemed to permeate the division and how staff thought about their work on campus. To cultivate learning as part of this effort to establish an organizational mindset, many divisions took strides to encourage learning and professional growth of staff. For instance, at Virginia Tech (VT), all staff within student affairs “have at least 7 times a year to come together to learn with others in the division” about the state of affairs in the field, best practices, and what can be done to improve the work of student affairs.

The Division of Student Affairs at VT, under the leadership of former ACPA president, Dr. Patty Perillo, offers staff breakfast meetings several times per year where all staff — “even front line workers and administrative assistants” — come together to acquire new information about aspirations for learning, StrengthsQuest (NOTE: VT is the first university in the country to use this campus-wide), and to recognize high-performing staff , faculty and students on campus, one of many mechanisms for providing performance feedback.

Not only that, but divisional leaders at many MPPWSA campuses work with senior staff to extend learning opportunities for the entire Division. For example, at several campuses we visited, senior leaders provide funding ($500-1,000) to host speakers or presenters on campus, encourage staff attendance at conferences and their participation in webinars. Virtually all campuses provide annual performance evaluations, in addition to constructive feedback about staff work as a way of encouraging self-discovery, personal learning (e.g., social media trainings, graduate training) and achievement. In fact, the University of West Georgia’s theme was once “The Learning Year,” according to UWG president Dr. Kyle Marrero.

Diversity Benefits


An organizational mindset for learning and improvement showed up in other ways too. At Virginia Tech, the vice president of student affairs (Patty Perillo) has “office hours” available to meet with any staff member about any topic — what her staff now affectionately call “Patty-gogy” (a spin on “pedagogy”) or simply teaching and learning with Patty. One staff member remarked, “It’s a real conversation, sitting in a circle, touching on real-life topics … you feel like you really get to know people including senior leaders … what matters and what are we about.” At both the University of West Georgia and The Ohio State University, student affairs staff are encouraged to learn, grow, take chances and even experiment with new approaches to supporting students — Ohio State is part of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), an 11-campus cluster committed to testing and scaling effective interventions that “may or may not work,” but staff are advised not to internalize “muted effects” as failure but rather as a wonderful opportunity to learn more about their students, themselves and what really works. In many ways, MPPWSA institutions reflect organizational mindsets that make the Division a safe space for learning, discovery, experimentation and continuous improvement.


Would you like to know more about the “Most Promising Practices” that we observed through this project? We invite you to connect with us on social media and stay tuned for informational sessions at upcoming Conventions. You can follow us on Twitter: @tlstrayhorn or @royeljohnson … be sure to use #MPPWSA19

Staff Profile

The Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs are promising because of the amazing staff members that constitute the team. The following charts and tables summarize data, facts and figures about this year’s Most Promising Places and how they stack up against all schools surveyed.