Building ShipsThoughts, Feelings

By Design, We Are Educational Institutions

Building Ships button#RyersonSA proudly presents Building Ships, an article series written by several Senior Student Affairs Executives from Canada and the U.S., sharing their perspectives of the current SA profession. Knowing it’s not enough to just direct the work, they bring visions and dreams of where we can, need, and will go. They inspire us to construct the boat then fill our sails with wind, offering us all the vast ocean of possibility…

I have worked in the field of student affairs for over 20 years and I am increasingly anxious about the expectations placed on us related to very serious societal issues like mental illness, addictions, and sexual violence. We work at universities, educational institutions by design—yet there are growing expectations and pressures from media, students, parents, the government, and others in the larger community that we will have all the answers and always respond perfectly to each challenging and complex case that emerges in our day to day work. How do we respond to these issues in a way that will meet the expectations that many have of us?

We are educational institutions designed to provide learning opportunities for our students, to make their worlds bigger and more diverse, to challenge their assumptions, to help them develop expertise in a field of study, to encourage their development into good, productive citizens, and to provide them with a credential that will confirm they completed what we asked of them as part of their time with us. We are hopefully helping them lay the academic foundation for their careers and the rest of their lives.

By design, we are educational institutions—we are not mental health facilities, hospitals, or addiction treatment facilities.

When one of our students lives with a mental illness or struggles with an addiction, it is our responsibility to have empathy, provide support, services and referrals, and to appropriately accommodate individuals in need of accommodation. Universities have excellent counselling staff who work with students struggling to manage all manner of illnesses and issues. Universities have excellent academic accommodation support staff who work directly with students with psychological and other disabilities in determining appropriate accommodations so they can be successful in their programs.

But some—very few but some—students are really not well enough to be in school and to manage the rigor of full time study even with accommodations, but sometimes those individuals, their parents, and others don’t understand or accept the idea that they might need to take time away to get well before being able to be successful in their academic work. These cases are the most challenging and complex for any institution to manage and often leave many of us at a point where we frankly don’t know what to do anymore. I am a professional with lots of experience in handling challenging cases, but when I reach the point where I don’t know what to do, it is hard not to feel like I have failed. Having said that, in cases like this the student and/or their family members may not acknowledge that there is an issue or may not know what to do either and they are looking to us to find a solution or to fix the situation.

By design, we are educational institutions—we are not law enforcement agencies or courts of law.

Sexual assaults take place on university campuses. Sexual assaults take place in our society. As a society we have been unsuccessful in addressing and eliminating sexual assault, far too few survivors of sexual assault come forward and report the crimes enacted upon them, and many have sought justice through the police and courts only to endure a drawn out process where they are left feeling re-victimized and where there are too few convictions. In the last year there has been an increasing call for universities to address this issue, to reduce the number of sexual assaults on campuses, and to hold perpetrators responsible through policies and tribunals that, for some, serve as an alternative avenue of justice for on campus survivors wanting to avoid the court system. This is important and essential work but we don’t have all the answers and I am not sure that each case will result in an outcome that will satisfy all parties. In fact, as a lawyer who was presenting to a group of university stakeholders said recently, “managing this issue is like walking on a razor’s edge with peril on both sides.”

In my consultations on our campus on the issue of sexual assault and sexual violence, I heard loud and clear the need to change the culture, to believe and support every survivor, to develop a culture of consent, and to hold perpetrators responsible. In some cases, I heard members of the community insist that all perpetrators should be removed permanently from campus. I heard some say that the names of anyone accused should be shared publically so people knew “who to stay away from.” I also heard, albeit behind closed doors, in more hushed voices, that they had real concern that innocent people would be held accountable for things they did not do, based on the report of one person. In many cases our ability to determine the appropriate outcome in a formal complaint could come down to a determination of the credibility of both parties.

We are an educational institution.

By design, we are educational institutions—we are laying the academic foundation for our students’ future careers and lives.

I work in this field because of the experience I had in my early career of helping students overcome challenges, getting to know and mentor student staff, the amazing, fun, smart, and committed people that I worked closely with who are still some of the closest friends that I have today. I continue to work in this field because of the amazing energy and creativity of our students, because of the challenging issues that we deal with that ensure that no work day ever becomes routine or boring, and because of the fun, smart, committed staff that I interact with everyday as we do our work. Spending your life talking about and working with and for young people is invigorating and makes you feel young. I love working at an educational institution, a place where people talk about learning, development, purpose, ideas, innovation, and the importance and impact that education can have on people’s lives.

By design, we are educational institutions, not mental health facilities, hospitals, addiction treatment centres, law enforcement agencies, or courts of law. These community agencies and organizations have the expertise, resources, and infrastructure to respond to these really important societal issues and they are key partners for us, but our expertise is in the provision of learning opportunities, academic credentials and places where students can grow and develop. By design, we are educational institutions.

Please don’t misunderstand me—I am committed to ensuring that we meet our responsibilities in all the areas I have mentioned here, as we support our students and other members of our community. Seeing our students succeed despite challenges that they may face or roadblocks that appear for them is what feeds a desire to continue to do this work. But, there appears to be expectations that we will always handle these challenging and complex issues perfectly, that we will have  answers that the larger society around us doesn’t have, and that the outcomes will be ideal, in each difficult case, for all involved. I fear that these expectations and the anxiety that they can inspire will cause some of the very smart and talented people who work in this field to make the same decision as Lee Burdette Williams. I hope you will read her story. Losing dedicated educators would not serve the best interests of our institutions or our students.

That wraps up our RyersonSA article series Building Ships, but if you’re interested in further reading on leadership in Student Affairs, check out our previous series, 5 Directors; 5 Days. Join us anytime, as new articles by student affairs professionals are posted weekly to Thanks for reading!

  • John Hannah

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as always Heather. It just so happens that I listened to this podcast this morning: – gets at that “razor’s edge” point you make about adjudicating sexual assault cases on campus.

  • Sarah Thompson

    Heather, I appreciate your voice and your courage in posting this. As the Clinical Coordinator of the Centre for Student Development and Counselling, I resonate very strongly with your thoughts related to expectations for perfection, all too often in cases where perfection is an abstraction that can not exist in the eyes of multiple beholders, each with different needs. Appropriately, and perhaps by design given our different foregrounds, we will converge and diverge in some aspects of our perspective, perhaps driven in part by scope. My slice is narrower, but the wider perspective is not lost. I appreciate you sharing this, will continue to reflect upon it and, as always, look forward to the opportunities for dialogue that I know exist within OVPS, and RU.

  • Mark Solomon

    I 100% agree Heather. As the Director, Student Conduct we are increasingly told to take on rolls that in no way should be ours. This is not coming from administration but a mandate from government. I worry that we lack training, and resources to do this well. We in fact may harm more than we help.

  • Tim Rahilly

    I think we all live with high expectations on us from many fronts. Reading this highlighted for me the importance of setting reasonable expectations for ourselves. Thanks for this thoughtful approach to the issues.