A Pathway to the Presidency
Student affairs professionals are increasingly moving into the top job on college campuses
By Kendra Hamilton
If you took a random sampling of student affairs professionals, they’d all agree: without the work they do with students, campus functions would simply grind to a halt.
“Student affairs professionals spend 80 percent of their time with students. We do admissions and registration, we house them and feed them, we do the counseling and guidance and all the other things they need to properly develop in the classroom,” says Dr. Roosevelt Littleton, president of the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals and special projects manager for Jackson State University’s office of development.
But ask that same random sampling of student affairs officers how they assess their role within their universities, and you’ll find they agree about this, too. “Far too much of the time, we’re taken for granted,” Littleton adds ruefully.
A Question of Respect
“My perception is that a vice president of student affairs is one of the hardest working people on campus,” says the Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, one of the few who’s made the difficult leap from student affairs to the presidency. Battle started his career as the campus chaplain at Hampton University in Virginia — and through a series of canny career choices, he’s now at the helm of Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center.
Battle adds that, in student affairs, “You’re the one who gets called when a student gets in trouble, when something happens in the dorms, when students are leaving on trips.” But still “there are people who have the image of student affairs as a less favored profession, especially in academic affairs. Those people just don’t bother to find out what we do.”
Ignorance has its costs, however, and salary survey data offer a stark perspective on those costs. According to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), which offers one of the most respected annual surveys in the industry, chief research officers are the most highly valued of top administrative executives, with White chief research officers earning an average of $165,000 annually and minorities holding the position earning an average of $182,104.
Executive vice presidents follow, with an average annual salary of $142,554 for Whites and $126,374 for minorities. Next in line are chief academic officers with salaries of $122,550 and $130,000, respectively. They’re followed by chief financial officers, who earn averages of $100,000 and $104,590 in the two racial designations.
And bringing up the rear are chief student affairs officers. Top White student affairs officers earn an average of $94,348; the average for minorities is $108,244.
(It should be noted that the salary figures for minorities are affected by the fact that their numbers are significantly smaller than those for nonminorities. For example, there were 1,001 chief academic officers in the nonminority sample. The number of minorities, by contrast, was 117.)
Dr. Melvin Terrell, vice president of student affairs at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and an award-winning professional in the field, says it’s a well-known fact that the salaries in student affairs are low in comparison with those in academic affairs.
“But the bottom line is this: To be in student affairs, you have to have a desire and passion for it. We’re not doing it for the money. We’re doing it because we enjoy our work,” he adds.
Indeed, passion appears to be the thing that draws most student affairs officers to the field. Most of the people interviewed for this report could tell stories similar to Emilye Mobley’s. For Mobley, vice president of student affairs at Bennett College in North Carolina, it was the student development aspect that hooked her on the work.
“As a kid, I had so much trouble with adjusting to the separation from my family, so the work really resonated for me. You get to see students who don’t even know if they can hold on through the first semester and watch them as they grow and develop and change. And the victory is so sweet when I see them emerge. Just watching girls become women and boys become men is just so gratifying.”
Increasingly, however, student affairs is providing rewards that go beyond the satisfactions of a job well done. More and more, student affairs is proving to be a pathway to the presidency.
Changing the Odds
Just ask Dr. Walter Kimbrough. Though only 37, he’s in the process of moving to Little Rock, Ark., to become the 12th president of Philander-Smith College. And what was Kimbrough’s launching pad to the presidency? He got a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Georgia State University, and served 13 years as vice president of student affairs at Albany State University in Georgia.
Kimbrough knows well that he’s something of a prodigy. He recalls meeting Dr. Walter Washington, the former president of Alcorn State University, at an Alpha Phi Alpha convention when he was just 22 years old. “I said to him, ‘Brother Washington, I want to be a college president. What should I do?'” Kimbrough says, chuckling at the memory.
“Here I am deciding at 22 that I wanted to be a college president — and not only that I wanted to be a college president, but that I wanted to take a nontraditional route,” he adds.
Few have that level of focus and determination from such a young age, but more and more student affairs professionals are starting to think seriously about academia’s top job.
Terrell is one of that number. He stresses that, at his institution, “I don’t feel like a second-class citizen. I have publications and national recognition. I am not just the student affairs leader on campus — I’m also a faculty member. And most importantly, I feel I’m valued by my president beyond my role in student affairs. I serve on the leadership team and they value my input.”
Indeed, Terrell says he’s participated in several presidential searches, and he thinks his chances of finding an institution that’s a fit for him are good.
Dr. Darnita Killian has her eye on the presidency, too. Her career has taken her coast to coast and South to North — from Spelman College to San Francisco State to Emory and finally to Pace University, where she serves as vice president of student affairs. Now, more than ever, she sees opportunities for student affairs professionals to rise to the top.
What’s paving the way, she says, is “‘the new college presidency.’ Primarily now, the president is a fund-raiser. And as things move and more away from the academic trajectory, that’s creating opportunities.”
Kimbrough and Battle both agree.
“The traditional route is still the academic route — from assistant professor to professor to chair, dean, vice president and so on,” says Kimbrough. “But if you come through the traditional route, there are things you’re not prepared for: dealing with various constituencies, like parents, students, alumni; annual campaigns; even crises — no one calls you in the middle of the night if you’ve been a biology professor. And anyone who doesn’t have that exposure is learning a tough job on the fly.”
“The fact is,” Battle adds, “through student affairs you learn more about the intricacies of running a campus than you do in any other professional area. You’re managing areas from admissions to graduation and even post-graduation, because student affairs professionals tend to handle career and placement activities.
“You’re also managing areas that have 24-hour responsibility. And sometimes the job description is even broader. At Chicago State, for example” where Battle served as vice president of student affairs, “the athletic director reported to me. That meant that I had phenomenal responsibilities.”
A Plan for Success
So the consensus seems clear. The presidency is possible, even for professionals in student affairs. But experts also agree that it’s essential to have a plan to ensure you’ll succeed in your quest.
First of all, you’ll need that basic credential — the Ph.D. But is there one discipline that ensures success over and above any other?
“I do think the degree should be in student counseling, student development or perhaps higher education because these disciplines can make a person a better student affairs professional,” Terrell says. “But even if they have a more traditional academic degree, like chemistry or social work, it shouldn’t rule a person out because you can always hire specialists or staff with competencies in those areas.”
But it’s not enough just to have a degree, experts say. You also need to teach, to publish and otherwise participate in the life of one’s academic discipline.
Kimbrough calls this “speaking the language of scholarship.”
“Since I knew in advance I wanted to be a college president at a young age and to come from a nontraditional side, that meant I knew I had to do my teaching and research. That’s why, when my book came out last year, it came through an academic press. I wanted to show that I could serve as an academic leader even coming from this side,” says Kimbrough who is widely published on the subject of Black Greek-Letter organizations.
Thirdly, it’s important, says Killian, “to continuously seek out opportunities that make you stand apart.” Killian has participated in three leadership programs at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education: the Management and Lifelong Learning Program; the Management Development Program; and the Institute for Educational Management (IEM) for vice presidents and presidents.
“I call it going to Harvard for my five-year tune-up,” Killian says, adding that she also studied in Oslo, Norway, and held a Fulbright fellowship in Germany to broaden her understanding of international education issues.
There are many other leadership training opportunities available. Kimbrough was a fellow in 2002 at the Millennium Leadership Initiative offered by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and calls it “the best leadership development program I’ve ever participated in” (see Black Issues, Aug. 26). Terrell, meanwhile, swears by Harvard’s IEM and the American Council on Education’s presidential fellows program.
Finally, experts say, it’s critical to get involved in student affairs professional associations. Terrell is both a past president and the current president-elect of the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals (NASAP), which he notes offers conferences and publication opportunities through its journal.
There’s also NAPSA, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which offers awards and professional development and networking opportunities. And in addition to these two, there’s a veritable alphabet soup of organizations catering to the needs and concerns of various disciplines within student affairs.
What they all offer, says NASAP’s Littleton, is an opportunity for self-definition.
“Far too often, outsiders are allowed to define the role and value of student affairs professionals within the institution, whether it is a traditionally White or historically Black institution,” he says. “Student affairs professionals deserve equal compensation and recognition for the services they devote to facilitating the development of the institutions’ most important commodity — the students.”
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