2020 Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs




Now in its seventh 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
Davidson College Dr. Byron P. McCrae Davidson, N.C. 4-Yr private
University of California-Santa Barbara Jill Hurd Santa Barbara, Calif. 4-Yr public
University of West Georgia Dr. Xavier Whitaker Carrollton, Ga. 4-Yr public
Rochester Institute of Technology Dr. Sandra Johnson Rochester, N.Y. 4-Yr private
Samuel Merritt University Dr. Terry Nordstrom Oakland, Calif. 4-Yr private
University of North Carolina-Wilmington Patricia Leonard Wilmington, N.C. 4-Yr public
University of Florida Dr. Winfred Phillips Gainesville, Fla. 4-Yr public
Miami University-Oxford Dr. Jayne Brownell Oxford, Ohio 4-Yr public
Bowling Green State University Dr. Thomas Gibson Bowling Green, Ohio 4-Yr public
Pennsylvania College of Technology Dr. Elliott Strickland Williamsport, Pa. 4-Yr public
The University of Vermont Dr. Annie Stevens Burlington, Vt. 4-Yr public
Ohio University Athens Dr. Jason Pina Athens, Ohio 4-Yr public
The State U. of New York-College at Geneseo Dr. David G. Braverman Geneseo, N.Y. 4-Yr public
Rutgers University-New Brunswick Dr. Salvador Mena New Brunswick, N.J. 4-Yr public
College of William & Mary Dr. Virginia Ambler Williamsburg, Va. 4-Yr public
Sonoma State University Dr. Wm. Gregory Sawyer Rohnert Park, Calif. 4-Yr public
California State University-Channel Islands Dr. Richard Yao Camarillo, Calif. 4-Yr public
Lehigh University Dr. Ricardo Hall Bethlehem, Pa. 4-Yr private
California Polytechnic State U.-San Luis Obispo Dr. Keith Humphrey San Luis Obispo, Calif. 4-Yr public
Case Western Reserve University Louis W. Stark Cleveland, Ohio 4-Yr private
Texas A&M University-San Antonio Dr. Melissa Mahan San Antonio, Texas 4-Yr public
The Ohio State University-Columbus Dr. Melissa Shivers Columbus, Ohio 4-Yr public
University of Maryland-Baltimore Dr. Patty Alvarez Baltimore, MD 4-Yr public
West Chester University of Pennsylvania Dr. Zebulun Davenport West Chester, Pa. 4-Yr public
Virginia Tech Dr. Frank Shushok Blacksburg, Va. 4-Yr public


This study was first proposed by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education as a possible partnership with the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) in 2011. The ACPA Governing Board motioned for Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, Director of Research and Scholarship at the time to explore the merit and extent of this project. With input from a volunteer advisory board, the project was recommended to the Governing Board and approved.

Strayhorn was commissioned by ACPA and Diverse: Issues In Higher Education to serve as the project’s principal investigator. In this role, Strayhorn developed the Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs (MPPWSA) Survey in consultation with experts on the project’s advisory board. The original survey was tested on a pilot basis with a small sample of non-ACPA member institutions; feedback from those in the pilot then helped to clarify survey items, correct logic sequencing and determine the utility of our scoring algorithm.

The purpose of this commissioned study, was to examine the extent to which diversity and inclusion permeate aspects of various divisions of student affairs (or equivalent) at participating ACPA-member institutions across the globe including in their administrative structures, commitments, work environments and staffing practices.


The MPPWSA survey consists of approximately 60 items, divided 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 also 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 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 2019 by a paid external consultant hired by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. All survey rights belong to the author. All analyses presented in this edition were conducted by Strayhorn and Dr. Royel Johnson.

Promising Practices

Building on the success of previous years, we are excited to include an update to the growing list of “promising practices” in this year’s report for Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs 2020 (MPPWSA). As this project matures each year, we learn more and more about what various institutions are doing 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 an update to 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. In fact,  the most recent Professional Competencies and Standards Report affirms the importance of evidence-based practice, which is one of the “promising practices” that distinguishes 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 Saint Louis University (SLU) get the message from “day one that research and evidence are critical for effective practice” as part of their onboarding process. This is reflected in the division’s guiding documents and policies. SLU’s Division of Student Development’s hiring plan includes multiple references to published literature on effective practices for building multicultural competence, creating a sense of belonging and understanding power/oppression.

Although many MPPWSA institutions are marked by a culture of evidence-based practice — where decisions begin with questions about data, information and current research — the institutions we’ve visited are 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), student affairs leaders have over time developed a literature review, chock-full of American Psychological Association citations, which 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 workplace 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 evidence 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 over the years, it is that staff at these institutions feel as if they belong on the campus and in the 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 senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) at the 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, they 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 the Most Promising Places include current and former ACPA presidents and commission chairs; 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 resources that support their success in that role and even travel, when needed, to meet with other members of the program team. It is also clear that some staff are socialized to this way of life from the very first day. Many talked about how their onboarding 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 in 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 recruiters and to request a full view of candidates without pre-screening. This strategy helps ensure that all candidates are carefully considered in an equitable manner.

It’s no surprise that MPPWSA institutions are some of the most diverse divisions of student affairs in the nation. Look at the “Staff Profile” table in this report showing the demographic diversity of faculty, staff and personnel within the campus/division. Increasing the proportion of women, people of color and LGBTQ professionals among student affairs staff is critically important and should be on the agenda of SSAOs across the country. But what makes MPPWSA campuses stand out from their peers is not just the presence of staff with different backgrounds but an obvious commitment to incorporating diverse individuals into the leadership and core work of the entire division.

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 as well to 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 and 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 creates 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 the senior leaders with whom we spoke echoed words reminiscent of Dweck’s main thesis: “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 the learning and professional growth of staff. For instance, at Virginia Tech (VT), all staff within student affairs “have at least seven 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 offers staff breakfast meetings several times a 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. This is one of many mechanisms for providing performance feedback. At Sonoma State University (SSU), the Division of Student Affairs offers staff multiple opportunities for growing, learning and professional development. For instance, in 2020, SSU staff were encouraged to participate in an eight-week online course on applying and leading assessment in student affairs. Beyond encouragement and advertising the course, student affairs leaders provided space on campus for staff to convene and discuss course material.

Not just that, 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 the institution’s president Dr. Kyle Marrero.

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.

Staff Profile 1

Diversity Benefits

Diversity Benefits