Changing Students, Evolving Priorities: Challenges for Incoming SSAO’s


I recently picked up a copy of the book “Exceptional Senior Student Affairs Administrators Leadership: Strategies and Competencies for Success,” (2011) edited by Gwen Dungy and Shannon Ellis. This collection of articles are written for current, incoming and aspiring SSAO’s and outlines in great detail the skill set that new SSAO’s must have, the challenges they may encounter and the seven competencies for “exceptionally effective leadership” (which is a phrase they use throughout the book) in Student Affairs.

These seven competencies are:
Responsibility and accountability
Learning from personal and professional experiences
The power of knowledge
Listening and communicating
Functioning in a large, networked universe
Collaborations, partnerships and relationships
Innovation and creativity

As we think about these competencies, it is important to consider the full scope of the SSAO position and what will be asked of chief Student Affairs officers in the years to come.

Here are my five take-ways from this book that really resonate with me professionally.
1) Risk is at the core of this position: The book begins with a central question: “Do I seek more leadership responsibility and assume more risk?” This is the basis for understanding the changing nature of the role of the SSAO. New SSAO’s are now entering roles that bring with them a high level of risk from a variety areas including financial, legal, human resources, etc. SSAO’s must have the skill set to problem solve, be innovative, quantify the work of their division, ensure that talented people are hired and retained and create a common vision and purpose that their employees believe in and work hard to achieve.

2) SSAO’s must grow and cultivate important relationships and allies: The contributors in the book emphasize the growing challenges of managing large Student Affairs divisions. “In some respects we are like the deputy mayors of small to medium-sized cities, responsible for the services and programs that create and maintain communities of common purpose based on shared vision, values, and commitment to excellence,” (pg. 33). It should be no surprise that understanding the institutional culture, political savvy and innovation are key skills to have as an SSAO. An ability to connect with faculty, create community partnerships and understand the local governmental policies and structure are vitally important.

3) For SSAO’s to succeed in gaining resources and support, they must emphasize their divisions role in student learning and development: Because of the history of how our field developed, we must understand the critical partnership between faculty and staff. Now, more than ever, we must demonstrate how we add value to the college experience and how we complement and contribute to student learning and development. One aspect of development that was discussed in the book was the need for SSAO’s (and the people they hire) to have a deep understanding of how to work with students who are in need of medication and consistent therapy to keep them stable and functioning. Faculty members expressed appreciation for the work Student Affairs professionals do to help teach these students life and coping skills that can make them more functional in the classroom.

“The new role for Student Affairs practitioners is to introduce shared learning processes into organizational decision-making and planning. This entails bringing our skills of facilitating shared learning in student organizations and residence halls to an institutional level.” (pg. 53)

We are also challenged to teach them transitional skills. In these difficult economic times, “We must respond to the pre-professional drive of students and their parents, along with societal demands for accountability,” (pg. 6). In other words, how are we teaching and preparing them to transition from college to the real world? The old model that a student simply needed to graduate from college to secure a good job is no longer the case for all students. What skills and experiences are we providing to our students to be competitive candidates in a changing economy?

4) Parents as partners: It should come as no surprise that parental involvement has increased on college campuses. The book offers a new way to think of their participation. “It is as if they are the clients of an investment firm and we are managing their portfolios–their children. Parents increasingly tend to see institutional rules as simply the starting point for negotiation, so we must make clear that we support the judgment of our faculty and staff colleagues to evaluate students and determine whether they have met the academic and behavioral standards of our students.” (page 7).

What does this mean for the hiring and selection process for new SSAO’s? While some institutions may be looking at candidates from the business sector to lead a university division, people who have come up the ranks in Student Affairs may be the most prepared practitioners to manage parents because they have dealt with parental involvement at every stage of their professional journey. The new SSAO must both function as a businessperson and a resource for parents in order to be successful in their role.

5) The new SSAO must be committed to learning and development of their own skills: Successful SSAO’s are embracing social media, finding new ways to disseminate their message, and challenging themselves to learn something new. They are also presenting at regional and national conferences, publishing in journals and are encouraging their staff to be involved in professional associations. They are innovative in how they create committees and strategic planning teams. They understand that leadership may not simply be positional, but also based on unique skills—regardless of experience level “The decision-making processes of the past are outdated and no longer respond to the demands of today’s world….ongoing self-improvement is critical,” (pg. 71).

There are so many lessons to learn from this book. Whether you are a current SSAO or aspire to be one someday, what are your thoughts on the skills needed for SSAO’s to succeed in our changing world?

If you have read the book, what stuck out to you as being an important skill for future SSAO’s?

Follow me on Twitter @annmarieklotz

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About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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2 Responses to Changing Students, Evolving Priorities: Challenges for Incoming SSAO’s

  1. Eric Stoller says:

    I think you just convinced me that I need to read this book! I wonder if I could get a review copy? I need to post more book reviews on my Inside Higher Ed blog!

  2. engagingbystanders says:

    Another fantastic read along these lines is Shannon Ellis’ “Dreams, Nightmares and Pursuing the Passion: Personal Perspectives on College and University Leadership,” about her first year as a SSAO. A must read!

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