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Preparing Students for Success

The following is an interview with President F. King Alexander conducted April 20 by Paula Gleason, co-editor of “In Touch.”

What has been your experience working with a large and complex student services organization?

When I taught at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois, the vast majority of my students worked in student services areas, whether it was residential life, student recreation wellness, academic advising or financial aid. So, most of my former students with whom I developed wonderful, fond relationships are now student affairs vice presidents and associate vice presidents all over the country. In many ways, I’m perhaps the most comfortable in dealing with student affairs staff because, for more than 15 years, I’ve been working with them in their educational capacities and getting internships and creating graduate assistantships for them.

I know how important student affairs professionals are to campuses, especially large, complex public universities. Society puts pressure on us to do things private institutions don’t have to do. Our mission is much broader—it’s not just internal, it’s internal and external. That’s the difference between most privates and publics.

This means our professionals have to understand the full range and scope of our mission. Meeting students’ needs is the most important mission we have. It’s also helping our students understand the needs of society, so when they leave here, they’re ready to help change society in a variety of ways. This is very comfortable to me because it’s about helping students succeed, and it’s the same for student affairs professionals.

How can the Student Services Division enhance the delivery of services to students?

There’s lots of logistical ways to meet student demands. For example, there’s the matter of student hours. Students keep different hours. Students utilize technologies better than many professionals and faculty. Students are creative and our services have to evolve to meet growing student expectations and demands. It’s no surprise that as enrollment grows, and as the university continues to serve a student population, one-third of whom are first-generation, the demands on student affairs professionals will continue to grow and expand.

The federal government has spent 30 years worrying about student access. Well, now they’re worried about access and student success, which introduces a whole new series of variables, programs and expectations. Who are we going to turn to when it comes to addressing these issues? We have to have the whole campus involved. When push comes to shove and students get ready to fall off the map and we’re about to lose them, we’re going to turn to programs involving student affairs professionals. (next column)

President F. King Alexander President F. King Alexander

What vision and priorities do you have for the university in the amount of time* that you’ve been here?

There are several. One, we really need to work on expanding our endowment. Doing this will give us greater flexibility to help students, to help faculty, to help the educational environment.

Two, we need more students on campus. We need more student housing, better dining facilities, more activities for students on our campus all week long, not just in the middle of the week.

We need to make sure students understand their college education is first and foremost while they’re full-time students. We need to help students understand that even though they need to work—many will work and continue to work, and that’s just the nature of the environment today, where 75-80 percent are working—they cannot let a part-time job overshadow the long-term economic and social reality of what graduating will do for their lifetimes.

Also, we’ve got to address the issue of faculty and staff housing. If we don’t, we’re going to lose our best faculty and our young faculty. The regional housing cost issue impacts us more than the vast majority of institutions in the country.

Helping students develop confidence in themselves personally, academically and professionally is our greatest challenge and our greatest reward. In the macro sense, the one thing I think we should be doing as a campus is when someone asks, “What do you want your students to be able to do when they leave,” is to say we want them to have the confidence to achieve whatever they want to achieve and belong wherever they want to belong. From there, they will achieve things we could never imagine.

The great British historian Macaulay stated a college education is to assist students in determining when they’ve heard rubbish. Well, I think students having confidence when they walk out of here is essential. They’re going to change jobs many times in their lifetimes, they’re going to change careers, and they’re going to move to new places. We have to help them understand they have the ability to meet life’s challenges successfully.

I’d like to add that I really appreciate the work everyone does. I recognize what we’re doing comparatively with other institutions, and it’s remarkable.

*102 days as of the date of the interview.