Moving Up from Student Affairs, or Staying Put

March 05, 2002

Vice presidents for student affairs may rank at the low end of the administrative hierarchy, but they deal with the sort of intense controversies that land institutions in the headlines -- racial tensions, student alcohol abuse, suicide, and rape, to name a few. While some vice presidents are interested in moving up the administrative ladder, many others are content to make their entire careers in student affairs.

Ever since she was in graduate school, Frances Lucas-Tauchar knew that she wanted to be a college president. But she had no plan to get there through the traditional route: chair to dean to provost to president. She got there after a long career in student affairs. Ms. Lucas-Tauchar, formerly the vice president for campus life at Emory University, landed her presidency in 2000, when she was named to lead Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.

It remains unlikely that a research-oriented university would tap a vice president for student affairs as its next president, but that's not necessarily the case anymore at teaching-oriented campuses, especially liberal-arts colleges. Ms. Lucas-Tauchar has joined the ranks of a small but growing number of vice presidents for student affairs-turned-presidents, including Maureen A. Hartford, president of Meredith College; James M. Dennis, president of McKendree College; and Dennis C. Golden, president of Fontbonne College.

David A. Ambler, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Kansas, is secretary of an informal national group of 24 such vice presidents. In the past 10 years, he says, about 10 members of the group have gone on to become presidents. "They're being recognized for the kind of administrative experience they've had," he says. "We touch alumni relations, university relations, academic affairs. Because of some of the business operations of student unions, housing, and health centers, we've had a lot of people develop the financial wherewithal" that it takes to be president.

Given the range of responsibilities the job entails, the move from student affairs to the presidency was a "natural evolution" for Ms. Lucas-Tauchar. Back in her graduate-student days, she says, "I thought about the skills I'd need when I got to the president's office." She had a good example in her father, Aubrey K. Lucas, who was president of the University of Southern Mississippi from 1975 to 1997, and is serving a one-year term there as an interim president this year.

Ms. Lucas-Tauchar began her career in student affairs for a practical reason: to pay for the Ph.D. in higher-education administration that she earned from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1985. But she stayed in student services because she loved the "stimulation, the opportunity to have a high impact on the lives of students." People in student affairs tend to be "warm and fuzzy" folks who "try to create community," she says. "Obviously that's what a president does with donors, trustees, legislators, and external constituencies. They're exactly the same skills, just different constituencies."

In some ways, she says, the student-affairs job can be more emotionally draining than the presidency. She and her student affairs-peers-turned-presidents like to joke about how much easier their job is as president. "Vice presidents for student affairs have to deal with some of the most painful tragedies that befall students," she says. "They're hard jobs. They can be heartbreaking jobs at times."

Some vice presidents for student affairs, like Mr. Ambler of Kansas, have no interest in using their position as a steppingstone to a presidency. He resisted, he says, when one of the chancellors he worked for wanted to nominate him for various presidential openings. "I quite frankly never thought about doing that because when I came into the position very few people in student affairs succeeded to a presidency," says Mr. Ambler, who plans to retire at the end of this academic year after 25 years in the position. "I also enjoy what I do." He is an executive officer of the university, but unlike a president, he says, he can still maintain close contact with students, the part of the job he likes best.

Back in his undergraduate days at Indiana University, Mr. Ambler says he knew he wanted a career in student affairs after he was elected a senator in student government and president of the campus dormitory association. He discovered that he had some talent for organization and administration, as well as a fondness of university life. Like many others in the field, he says his undergraduate experience working with vice presidents for student affairs -- people who make time spent outside of the classroom seem just as important as time spent in it -- persuaded him to become one himself. He watched a mentor, the dean of students, handle a situation in which a student was arrested on a drug-related charge. When the prosecutor subpoenaed the administrator to testify against the student, the vice chancellor refused. "He believed in the integrity of his relationship with the student," Mr. Ambler says. "I was always impressed that he'd risk his own career and welfare."

While the job does not carry the same cachet as other positions in academic administration, many vice presidents for student affairs say that having an advanced degree has helped them. "We need to make strong partnerships with deans and department heads at all levels," says Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs at Duke University. "A terminal degree establishes that peer level."

According to a 1998 survey conducted by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 70 percent of senior student-affairs officers have Ph.D.'s or Ed.D.'s, says Kevin W. Kruger, the group's associate executive director. Those degrees can be in higher-education administration, counseling, or "in anything," Mr. Kruger says. "There are folks who rise to the position who are from the faculty, though that's not the typical path."

James W. Vick followed that path. The professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin became its vice president for student affairs in 1989. In addition to teaching mathematics at the university, he had also served for 11 years as an assistant and then associate dean in the College of Natural Sciences there before taking the vice president's job.

Mr. Vick, who still teaches a mathematics course every semester, took the job because "it was an interesting opportunity" and because he enjoyed working with students and making things happen for them. In the last eight years, for example, he has converted three dormitories into special residence halls for honors students. "If I'm a faculty member and I have an idea about something good for students or the university, it's very hard for me to make the idea happen if I don't have a budget and staff who could help," he says. "It's much more reasonable to make things happen when I'm here than if I was the same person with the same idea back in the math department."

The job's other lure, he says, was its hefty salary. He earns $175,000 a year. According to the latest administrative salary survey by the College and University Personnel Association, the average salary of a chief student-affairs officer ranges from $131,120 at a doctoral institution to $72,986 at a two-year college.

As dean of student affairs at Rollins College, Steven S. Neilson is at the lower end of that pay scale, earning about $80,000 a year. He was a professor of theater for 15 years before taking the student-affairs position in 1988. He switched jobs because as dean, he thought he could "help students in a more profound way." But he didn't leave the classroom for good. He still teaches a theater-management course every year. Mr. Neilson likes working at a small, private, liberal-arts college where "you feel like you can make a difference." And even if he wanted to become vice president for student affairs at another institution, he's not sure he could. "My mobility is very limited," he says. "I don't have a doctorate." Mr. Neilson holds a master's degree in arts administration from the University of Miami.

At Rollins, he says, his office and the academic side of the house communicate very well. But that's not always the case at other institutions, as he realized at a recent conference for administrators. Of the 30 people who attended a session on alcoholism on college campuses, Mr. Neilson was the only student-affairs officer in the room. He grew frustrated as two academic administrators gave an hour-long presentation on ways to combat alcohol abuse on campus and suggested that campus officials remind students to "Just say no." Recalling the talk, Mr. Neilson says sarcastically, "There's a good idea." After the presentation he weighed in: "I said, 'How many people in this room have had this conversation with your student-affairs officer on your campus who deals with this night and day?' Not one raised their hand."

"We haven't done a good job of telling people what we do," he says. "That has to change, not because I want people to appreciate me, but fundamentally, if you're going to help students in significant ways, you've got to do this."