Dear Student Affairs Professional,
As I reflect on the course of my career thus far, I have been blessed to fulfill a dream of becoming a director of student life, dean of students, vice president for student affairs and now a college president. As a community college student who tested at developmental levels, failed developmental math, and worked graveyard shifts during college to pay for education, I embraced early on the significance of resiliency. That resiliency and internal drive to improve the economic mobility of my family propelled me forward, even during my hardest times.
My mother raised me completely by herself and doing so was far from easy. However, it was the life experiences of my mother that ultimately taught me how to lean forward in times of difficulty. Before my mother was 12 years old, she lost both of her parents at separate times. Along with her two brothers and one sister, these orphans learned how to depend on themselves and create a brighter future, despite the harshness of their realities. It is with that same level of grit and resiliency that my mother instilled in me how to take hold of my own destiny, establish my own networks for advancement, make sacrifices where necessary, and work relentlessly towards the fulfillment of my desired goals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world and the higher education sector has certainly experienced its number of crises and casualties. As a college president who rose through the ranks of student affairs, I know firsthand the difficulties, hardships, and pressures placed upon student affairs professionals to maintain a high-quality student experience amid turmoil and crisis. I know firsthand the unrealistic expectations and goals placed upon student affairs professionals, despite limited resources and lack of support. It has broken my heart the amount of student affairs professionals who have resigned from institutions they loved or divorced themselves from the higher education profession entirely due to the burnout experienced due to elevated levels of frustration, anxiety, and stress.
The question now we must answer, student affairs professionals, is where do we go from here? The fall 2021 semester is well underway and despite some earlier projections, COVID-19 and its array of variants are still present. Enrollments continue to remain down throughout the nation, and the political debates of mask and vaccination mandates are becoming more volatile by the day. The needs of our students continue to climb. Yet, the well-being of our students, faculty, instructors, and staff at our institutions continue to decline. Again, I ask, where do we go from here? I propose, back to the drawing board.
The academy is being forced to innovate beyond its levels of comfort due to the pandemic. However, truth be told, these innovations were long overdue. The needs and expectations of our students have and will continue to evolve. Yet nationally, our institutions are stubbornly fighting amongst themselves to return back to how things “used to be.” The future of higher education and the student affairs profession is depending on educators to rediscover their “why” and commit themselves to pursuing higher ranks within the profession. Now is the time for more vice presidents for student affairs to become presidents. Now is the time for deans and associate vice presidents to become college executives? Why? Who better to lead our nation’s institutions of higher learning than those who have been charged with creating diverse and inclusive learning experiences? Who better to lead than those who have been given the responsibility of ensuring the completion of student academic pathways during unprecedented times? Who better to lead than those who have supported students and provided spaces for understanding, development, and advocacy when others would not? Who better to lead our nation’s colleges and universities than those who have served on institutional frontlines and experienced the impact of broken systems and broken promises?
This is not to insinuate that the path to change will be easy, but revolutions were never designed to be such. Now is the time for us to support one another like we never have before. Now is the time for us to create more bridges toward career advancements and create new pathways for the profession, like we never have before. Now is the time for us to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure the future of the student affairs profession and higher education. This call for revitalization, revolution, and advancement is not one blind of the challenges and environments we all face. Instead, this letter is being written in the spirit of resiliency and determination. The promise of social and economic mobility must not be lost. The ethical responsibility of creating institutions of higher education that are mission-driven and relentlessly committed to equitable student success must be realized. Student affairs professionals, rediscover who you are and renew your thoughts to who you will become. The future of higher education is depending on you.
Mordecai Ian Brownlee, Ed.D.
About the Author
Dr. Mordecai Ian Brownlee serves as the president of the Community College of Aurora. Prior to assuming this post, Brownlee served as vice president for student success at St. Philip's College in San Antonio, Texas. Brownlee currently serves on the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.