Last fall, I was walking to lunch with my boss and we were discussing the “Improving Retention and Graduation Rates” report that had just been distributed by the Student Success Committee from our Office of Enrollment Management. He was bemoaning the fact that in this more than 60 page
was virtually no mention of student affairs having a role in retention at Rutgers University. He was frustrated that this committee of 30 members and contributors did not think to add student affairs either as a past contributor or as a potential contributor to improving retention and graduation rates at the university.
I took a deep breath and said, “Actually, it’s our fault.” He asked what I meant. I shared my perspective that we could not hold people outside of student affairs responsible for knowing about our work if we didn’t do anything to tell them about what we do and how we influence the lives of students and their decisions to persist or not. I explained that I didn’t see how academic administrators could know anything of substance about our work if we did nothing to inform them about it. I argued that we have not done an adequate job of telling our story. We had done virtually nothing to market ourselves to important constituent groups on and beyond our campus.
Student affairs at Rutgers University is not unique in this regard. Last fall, I had a graduate student investigate marketing efforts in other student affairs divisions. An extensive web-based search resulted in identifying only nine institutions (e.g., Illinois State and East Carolina) that appeared to have any visible focus in student affairs on marketing (not including marketing to prospective students or marketing student programs). Basically, there appeared to be very few student affairs divisions in our country who are actively trying to tell their story to their non-student affairs colleagues on their campus.
I relate this issue to the complaint that I’ve heard so often during my career—that student affairs professionals are treated as second-class citizens and not respected by other units at our institutions (especially academics and faculty). It is mind-boggling to me that this complaint persists and that professionals across the career spectrum can tell story after story providing evidence of this being the case. This is so disheartening to me because it comes from a place of disempowerment. If I am invisible to you is it your fault for not seeing me or is it my fault for not making myself visible.
A more empowering perspective is that if we do a better job of telling our story and marketing our work and accomplishments (assuming that we are doing a good job of assessing our work) to people beyond our division, faculty and academic staff would have a better understanding of who we are and what we do. That is why we are developing a Marketing, Media, and Communication Team in Student Affairs. One of the goals of this team is to not only market who we are and what we do to people and groups beyond the boundaries of our campus, but also to each other. We have more than 20 units and 300 professional staff, so most of us don’t know all the good work being done in the division. It is my intention that in the future when any committee gets together to discuss the student experience at Rutgers University they will naturally think about the influence of student affairs on the student experience because they will be well-informed about who we are and what we do.
Tony and I share the perspective that marketing is a core competency in Unconventional Leadership and should be a core competency in student affairs. Professional staff should know the importance of telling the story of their work and should know how to do it through writing, publishing, social media, networking, newsletters, magazines, brochures, websites, applications, personal testimonials, assessment data, etc.
We welcome your comments and perspectives!