"Hurray! We Got Noticed!" ACPA's Response to NAS Residence Life Statement

Peter Wood

Several days ago, a blogger drew our attention to a statement by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) which comments on NAS’s July statement “Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative.”

Written by nine people designated “ACPA Senior Scholars,”[1] the response endeavors to soothe the hurt feelings of student affairs staff, many of whom had trouble sleeping after they read the NAS statement. Their slumber was particularly disturbed by our comment that, “Staff members in residence life may be well-meaning, but they can never be ‘equal partners’ with the faculty.” (“Equal partners” with the faculty is how some ACPA members describe the role of student affairsians.)

The ACPA Nine set out to defend the organization’s 1994 document “The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs.”   Although we didn’t mention that document by name in our July statement, we had it in hand and referred to the concept of “the student learning imperative.” So ACPA is right to put its 1994 document forward as a key source. We agree that the Student Learning Imperative was and still is a seminal source for the curricular model of residence life.

This is not to say that everyone in ACPA regards the Student Learning Imperative with fondness. One former officer wrote to us that the document is:

weak, ill-considered and not supported by anything except the author’s assertions as ‘iconic.’ It certainly is widely referred to, but that does not make the SLI valuable or accurate in any meaningful way.  

Some ACPA-lites uphold the notion that students affairs should be conceived as “co-curricular” but regard the Student Learning Imperative as too thin a reed on which to build that house.

Be that as it may, ACPA chose to respond to our statement by defending its 1994 document. Actually, the ACPA Nine’s new statement seems more self-esteem pep talk than an attempt to dispute any of NAS’s points. The ACPA Senior Scholars ask “all educators who care about student learning [to] savor the moment” because NAS’s mention of it gives clout and academic legitimacy to the Student Learning Imperative. They write:

The numerous scholarly references to the “Student Learning Imperative” are testament to its relevance and its influence on American higher education. The National Association of Scholars’ statement affirms ACPA’s role in bringing the importance of learning to the attention of student affairs professionals as well as educators throughout our institutions. The fact that the National Association of Scholars statement disagrees with the core principles of the SLI, suggests the NAS takes the statement seriously.

Why yes, we do take SLI seriously, and we recognize its influence in higher education. Incidentally, we also number ourselves as among those “who care about student learning.” But caring about student learning is not the same as buying into ACPA’s vision of education as a combination of psychotherapy and social activism.

ACPA is pleased that we have paid attention to their work. You are welcome, ACPA!   Anytime.

But while ACPA savors its moment of notice, we still regard the Student Learning Imperative and the residence life movement it sparked as misguided.  This movement seeks to diminish classroom learning as merely cognitive and disconnected from the lives students will lead after college; and while diminishing the classroom, the movement elevates experiences outside the classroom—dorm life, student leadership, peer groups, community service, etc.—as “educating the whole student.” (That phrase is actually from a subsequent ACPA document, Learning Reconsidered.) In this vision, the student affairs staff heroically set forth programs that are a “precursor to desired outcomes.” Unlike the professors, they teach “practical competencies,” and prepare students to “live productive, satisfying lives after college.”

Although you might not have been able to predict it from the original text of the Student Learning Imperative, the call for student affairs staff to step forward and take responsibility for providing students the education their professors deny them soon took a shape of its own. Lacking any real content for those “practical competencies” they hoped to teach, the student affairsians fell back on platitudes and on promoting their own politics. Not in every case, but in a great many, the student learning imperativists found their way to creating programs that preached ideology. In some cases, the ideology is extremist, as in the notorious University of Delaware residence life program that characterized America as a racist, oppressive society. ACPA is also an aggressive partisan in promoting the idea that a society can achieve “sustainability” only through the pursuit of socialist versions of social and economic justice.

NAS believes this politicking is illiberal and inappropriate in American colleges and universities.  We indeed hope that our statement on the student learning imperative has drawn attention to the mischief, but—sorry ACPA—our indictment of your attempt to warp American education doesn’t confer respectability. 

The ACPA writers find the NAS “absolutely correct” when, in our statement Rebuilding Campus Community, we call for “responsible faculty members to assert their rightful stewardship,” and agree that “colleges and universities should seek to rebuild community.”  But ACPA seems to think that the best way for faculty to get involved in building community is to fall in line behind those visionary leaders in student affairs who have already figured this out. 

No, the role of faculty members is to re-assert their traditional stewardship for the whole of education on their campuses. This means they must decline the offer of their student affairs colleagues to split students into two parts: the part getting a formal education by the professors and the (larger, better) part that is acquiring “practical competencies,” and preparing them to “live productive, satisfying lives after college.” Of course, the ACPA folks speak of “educating the whole student,” but this phrase is really a way of marginalizing the formal curriculum in favor of the restorative warmth of the programs run through student affairs. 

When we speak of the traditional stewardship of faculty members we refer to the idea that the faculty have the authority to decide what the college will teach and how they will teach it. The ACPA approach was, first, to carve off a little sliver for themselves: faculty teach courses, we teach life. The little sliver, over time, grew. The corner with the frosting…another corner…

We do agree with ACPA that the faculty of many colleges and universities helped to create this situation by retreating from certain kinds of involvement with students.  That’s a complicated story that goes back to the campus unrest of the 1960s when students aggressively demanded more autonomy and colleges and universities gradually relinquished their traditional oversight. It turned out that a large percentage of students in the following generation were not especially happy with a form of higher education that lacked much sense of community. William Willimon and Thomas Naylor wrote of their feeling in a book aptly titled The Abandoned Generation. The Carnegie Foundation produced a study in the early 1990s recording “lack of community” as the most frequent complaint of American college students. 

ACPA was responding to something real when it issued The Student Learning Imperative. College administrations and faculties had been remiss. But ACPA’s answer—to empower student affairs staff to pick up the slack—was an unfortunate choice. Even more unfortunately, a good many faculty members quietly made their peace with this new division of labor. An attitude spread among faculty: “What a relief. Someone else is taking care of this.” 

In our statement NAS argued that the new residence life movement is hostile to liberal education. ACPA disagrees, and conjures an intellectual genealogy. “Student affairs, as a profession,” writes ACPA, “emerged at a time when John Dewey and Robert Maynard Hutchins debated the focus of liberal education.” Dewey, founder of the AAUP and an architect philosophical pragmatism, is best known for his work in K-12 education; Hutchins, champion of perennialism and the Great Books curriculum, is best known for his reforms at the University of Chicago. The ACPA writers promptly side with Dewey, who they say promoted “learning informed through students’ full involvement with real problems in their communities.”

ACPA thus characterizes the two schools of thought (Dewey and Hutchins) as being in competition against one another, with student affairs on the “whole person” side and NAS on the stuffy intellectual side. But reducing these complex ideas to an either/or choice oversimplifies the debate. Liberal education, properly done, doesn’t have this division. What it teaches is both perennial and applicable to one’s “whole” life. ACPA’s false dichotomy is its license to “educate” students outside the classroom, to teach what the faculty does not teach – citizenship, identity, activism. This approach is not only unsound education in its own right, but also is antagonistic to true liberal education. Therefore, we cannot be content (as ACPA is) to take a side and resign ourselves to disagreement.

The ACPA writers close their statement by urging their supporters not to “simply dismiss the assertions” of NAS’s Rebuilding Campus Community, which “helped bring this concern to the attention of many.” They conclude, “The statement demonstrates that the contribution of student affairs professions, although contested, is being noticed, and it offers clues about the work that lies ahead.”

We are glad to have given ACPA a clue.



[1] The term “ACPA Senior Scholars” is somewhat misleading. The scholarly attainments of this group are not very high. According to ACPA’s website:

Implemented in 1984, the ACPA Senior Scholars Program provides scholars with a continuing opportunity to share their scholarship through the presentation of programs of their own choosing at each national convention and to serve the association on projects related to their fields of interest. ACPA Senior Scholars represent the best of engaged scholarship relevant to student affairs work in higher education. Nominees are senior members of the profession (for example, full professors or senior student affairs officers) who have made exemplary and sustained contributions to ACPA’s mission of generating and disseminating knowledge and who have the commitment to further advance research and theory.

The ACPA Senior Scholars who signed the response to NAS are Jan Arminio, Trudy Banta, Tony Cawthon, Diane Cooper, Richard Keeling, Peter Magolda, Bill McDonald, Marylu McEwen, and Denny Roberts.

Jan Arminio received her bachelor’s degree from Ohio Northern University, her master’s degree in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University, and her doctorate in College Student Personnel Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently the chair of the Department of Counseling and College Student Personnel at Shippensburg University. Her writings include “Exploring the nature of race-related guilt” in the Multicultural Counseling Journal, Waking up White: What it Means to Accept your Legacy, for Better and Worse” in About Campus, “The Complexities of Measuring Multicultural Learning Outcomes” in Pennsylvania Counseling Journal, and The Influence of Students’ Racial Identity on Campus Programming” in Programming Magazine.

Trudy Banta is the Vice Chancellor of Planning and Institutional Improvement at Indiana University. She received her bachelor’s (in Biology and History) and master’s (in Counseling) degrees from the University of Kentucky and received her doctorate in Educational Psychology from the University of Tennessee. She is interested in outcomes assessment in education and is the founding editor of the periodical Outcomes Assessment.

Tony Cawthon is a professor of Counselor Education/Student Affairs and is the Interim Chair of Leadership, Counselor Education, Human and Organizational Development at Clemson University. He received his bachelor’s in sociology/psychology, as well as a master’s in sociology from the University of Tennessee, and he received a Ph.D. in Counselor Education-Student Development at Mississippi State University. According to his bio, Cawthon worked for fifteen years as a student affairs administrator at three universities. As an administrator, he worked in the area of Housing and Residential Life. His research interests include student development theory and multicultural and diversity issues.

Diane Cooper received her bachelor’s degree from Miami University, her master’s in counseling from the University of Missouri, and her doctorate in Counselor Education/Student Development from the University of Iowa. She is currently a professor of Student Affairs Administration at the University of Georgia.

Richard Keeling is the founder of the International Center for Student Success & Institutional Accountability, as well as Keeling & Associates, a higher education consulting firm. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Virginia and his M.D. from Tufts University. After completing residency training in Internal Medicine and fellowship in Hematology at the University of Virginia, he directed the Department of Student Health at that institution for 13 years. He left Virginia to become Executive Director of University Health Services and Professor of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he served through 1999. His research interests include intersections of health and learning, strengthening liberal education, improving our ability to educate students as whole people, and reform in higher education.

*Keeling, along with Richard H. Hersh, wrote “Call for Renewal of Liberal Education is Only Partly Right” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in response to NAS’s statement, Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative. NAS executive director Peter Wood replied to Hersh and Keeling in a subsequent article, “‘Whole Person’ Approach Belongs to the Liberal Arts,” also in the Chronicle.

Peter Magolda earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from LaSalle College, his master’s degree in College Student Personnel/Higher Education at Ohio State University, and his Ph.D. in higher education administration at Indiana University. He is currently a professor in the College Student Personnel program at Miami University.

Bill McDonald isVice President for Student Life at Presbyterian College. He received a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, M.A. from Appalachian State University, and a Ph.D. in from the University of Tennessee. McDonald’s scholarly interests include building campus community, assessing student perceptions of community, and developing model programs for faculty involvement in residence halls. He edited the book, Creating Campus Community: In Search of Ernest Boyer's Legacy, which was published in 2002.

Marylu McEwen is an associate professor in the Counseling and Personnel Services Department at the University of Maryland. She received her bachelor’s degree from Purdue University, her master’s in College Student Personnel Administration from Indiana University, and her doctorate in Counseling and Personnel Services from Purdue University. She wrote two chapters (entitled “The nature and use of theory” and “New perspectives on identity development”) for the book, Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession (2003).

Denny Roberts worked at Miami University for thirteen years as the assistant vice president, then the associate vice president of student affairs. He is now the Assistant Vice President for Faculty and Student Services at the Qatar Foundation, a private higher education organization that coordinates U.S. branch campuses in Qatar. He also serves on the editorial review board for NASPA’s Journal of College and Character. His educational information has not been published online. His publications include:

Student Leadership Programs in Higher Education. Washington, DC: ACPA. 1981.

“Student Learning was Always Supposed to be the Core of Our Work. What

Happened?”  About Campus, 3 (3),18-22. 1998.


“Miami's Leadership Commitment.”  In C. L. Outcalt, S. K. Faris, & K. N. McMahon (Eds.), Developing Non-hierarchical Leadership on Campus: Case Studies and Best Practices.

(pp. 77-89). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 2001.

With C. Ullom. “Student Leadership Program Model.” NASPA Journal, I, 67-74. 1989.


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