A Rockin' Leader

by Bruce Harshbarger

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I'll be retiring next summer after 40 years in Student Affairs -- the last 26 years as a vice president, the past 23 as vice president at my present university. Colleagues are saying some gratuitously nice things about me as I complete what some are calling my "victory lap." I know that there are certain aspects of my role that I do quite well and some that never became my forte. Most of the things I do well are the products of years of effort and experience, but the one thing that has perhaps garnered me the most praise has required no preparation at all. It involves sitting in a rocking chair.

People who go into Student Affairs work generally do so because they love working with and being around college students. But it's an odd quirk of administrative structures that as one rises higher in rank, one's hanging-out time with students dwindles. As I took on higher levels of administrative responsibility in my career, I regretted the reduction of my face time with students. Concurrently, I came to realize that managing paperwork (and eventually e-mails) and keeping the top of my desk visible was not among my professional strengths. I would save up paperwork or backlogged e-mails and go through them all at once, one or two times a week.

Years ago, as I was slogging through the paper blob, it occurred to me that I could just as easily be doing so where the students were instead of being sequestered at my desk. I got myself a folding rocking chair and had a sign made up which read "Questions? Problems? Comments? See the V.P. for Student Affairs." I figured that if students wanted to talk to me, it'd be a win-win proposition for us both. If they didn't, the worst-case scenario was that I'd get to manage the paper blob while rocking under a tree on the front lawn of campus instead of being cooped up indoors.

At first I had few takers, but faculty and staff colleagues came by to chat. The students would see me standing there with them and probably took note that we were smiling and laughing. Perhaps I didn't seem so intimidating after all. Eventually, I began to get student visitors as well.

So, what do students want to say to a vice president who's rocking on the front lawn? Well, most don't say anything. I'll notice them looking at me, say "hi," and some will quickly look away as if they've been caught. Some will smile and say "hi" in return -- that's always nice. The most frequent comment I receive is simply that the student doesn't have any questions or complaints, but wants me to know that they appreciate that I'm out there with them. The Woody Allen postulate that 80 percent of success is just showing up is probably an underestimate for educators who work with college students.

In August and early September, I wind up giving out a lot of directions -- not deep, meaningful interactions, but useful for their needs at the moment. As we get farther into semesters, I typically get more problem-solving opportunities. Students will want to know how to appeal financial aid or say that they're having a problem with a particular instructor and we'll talk about possible courses of action that they might take.

Having my sign and me handy makes some students think of issues that have bothered them. "Are we ever going to start a football program?" (No, but it's important that you understand the reasons why so that you can answer the question accurately when your friends raise it.) "Why doesn't the library stay open later in the night?" (Let me get you connected with the library director for his explanation and with your student government Senator in case you want to propose that SGA consider a resolution on library hours.) "I'm fed up with campus parking!" (There's the Parking and Transportation Office -- go beat on them, not me.)

Sometimes I get questions that I can't answer. In those cases, I ask for the students' contact information and promise to get back to them. They seem genuinely amazed when I actually do so.

As our state's designated Public Liberal Arts University, my institution seeks to offer the type of personalized environment typically found at selective, private schools. A couple years ago, our university communications office decided that the image of me in my rocking chair with my sign was a good visual for that mission, and they invited a local TV station to come out and cover one of my rocking sessions. It was a great idea, but I found that nothing scares away student visitors like having a camera crew and a reporter with a microphone hovering next to me. I had to call my office and have our student assistants come down to the front lawn to pose as random students on the street who wanted to visit with the V.P. in the rocking chair. The station got their footage and on the local news that evening, I became an actual "rock" star.

Rocking on the front lawn has worked for me, but the moral of the story doesn't require a sign or a chair. It involves a willingness to be out where the students are and an interest in knowing what's on their minds. Being at campus events is a great methodology for doing that, as is paying regular attention to campus social media. Eventually, it's the caring that registers more with the campus community than the answer to any particular question or concern.

The rocking gig is part recreational and part PR, but occasionally I get an opportunity to actually make a difference. One day I was rocking away with my e-mails when a dejected young man came up and started reading my sign. He walked over to me and asked, "Can I actually ask you any question?" and I said "Sure." He looked me in the eye and said with a sigh, "Is love worth it?" I pulled my chair next to a nearby bench and said, "Sit down and talk to me."