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The ‘Legalization’ of Student Affairs

The evolution of student-affairs divisions across the country as de facto legal arms of colleges and universities is happening at an alarming pace. Student-affairs professionals are battling to balance our commitment to student development with our responsibility to comply with increasing federal and state oversight.

At many colleges and universities, student-affairs divisions carry more liability than any other division or unit. Much of that liability is tied to federal funding—student financial aid that nearly all institutions and students rely upon to operate, survive, and thrive. Student-affairs divisions are overwhelmed with the responsibilities of managing and administering complex federal and state regulations—the Clery Act, Title IX, the Higher Education Opportunity Act, the Campus SaVE Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Title IV, contract liability, case law, constitutional due-process requirements, and much more. Attention to compliance eats away countless hours of the time we could devote to the people we care about most … our students.

Did you know that there exists a statutory requirement that all institutions receiving federal money engage in programming for Constitution Day, on September 17 of each year? I mention the rule not to criticize it but to make the reader aware of yet another regulation that typically falls under student affairs’ responsibility to administer.

Only 30 years ago, one of the most complex cases that judicial officers in student affairs adjudicated was the case of the student who wrote a bad check to the college. Of course, most students today do not even know how to fill out a check, but more significant is that our cases have become far more complex. In contemporary case adjudication, we hear allegations involving rape, physical assault, felony theft, computer hacking, identify theft, stalking, sexual harassment, and almost anything else you can imagine. My colleagues across the country talk about writing books cataloging our adventures in case adjudication, but who has the time?

There is another complication: Student affairs seems to be in a needless battle with academic and non-student-affairs colleagues to justify our resource needs and even our very existence. I am fortunate to have strong relationships at my institution with such colleagues, who understand the unique resource needs of our division. Unfortunately, my counterparts around the country are not so lucky. Though federal and state oversight grows, resources for student affairs at most institutions have remained constant or have shrunk.

Student affairs has been forced to streamline processes and services, potentially eliminating desperately needed programming in order to set aside funds for statutory compliance. When our services and programs shrink in the cause of compliance, our capacity for one-on-one work with students slowly diminishes. Our students suffer, and when our students suffer, our institutions suffer. Retention and overall academic success are affected, and our chief financial officers contact us, concerned about the bottom line.

We often say in student affairs that our commitment to the development of the whole student is paramount. The “legalization” of our work in recent years has left many of us wondering if our jobs are right for us anymore. This is not the same field we entered years ago. We question how we can sustain our commitment to student development in the face of overwhelming federal and state oversight and dwindling institutional funding.

If nothing else, I hope this commentary will serve two purposes: first, to remind my colleagues around the country that the work you do does matter and that your developmental impact is felt by many, many students; and second, to educate our presidents, academic colleagues, and other non-student-affairs staff members about the work we do.

As regards our presidents, please ask us what we do and why we do it. I am fortunate to have a president who cares about my work and finds ways to support my student-affairs colleagues and me. Too often, I have heard our academic and non-student-affairs colleagues refer to us as babysitters. I have even been referred to as the “kumbaya” guru, as  colleagues picture me sitting around a campfire with students holding hands and singing. Those categorizations ignore the critical service we provide to our students and to them.

Our work is rooted in decades of research by noted social psychologists and theorists, and our master’s and doctoral programs continue that scholarly legacy. Student-affairs compliance with federal and state regulations helps to ensure the financial health and operations of the entire institution, including sustaining the employment of those who mock or do not understand our work. Our programs and services contribute significantly to student retention. But most important, we support the academic mission of our institutions by developing the whole student and ensuring that shared living-learning outcomes are met.

How then, with all the competing interests, do we find balance in our commitment to student development and our ever-evolving need for legal expertise? As federal and state governments seek to exercise more control over our institutions, we should be ready—ready for action and ready to play catch-up. After all, no one on a campus is more flexible and adaptable to change than student affairs. Our purpose is extending beyond our care for students; it now permeates the entire institution, and our obligation, while primarily to our students, now belongs to all of our colleagues.

Brian A. Carlisle is vice president for student affairs at Pitzer College.

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