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Kevin Kruger, NASPA President

2013 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker


Kevin-Kruger-150x150.jpgPresident, NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education

Educational Background: Ph.D., Counseling and Personnel Services



Many institutions are now offering free online courses and degrees. What influences will this shift to online educational pathways have on student learning and well-being?

In 2003, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen wrote about “disruptive innovation” in The Innovator’s Dilemma (Harper Paperbacks). Nine years later, in May 2012, Harvard and MIT announced the creation of EDx, a partnership between these two elite institutions to deliver free online education to learners anywhere in the world. The number of institutional and corporate players offering what are now called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, has increased dramatically during this past year. Over thirty colleges and universities have joined Coursera, which was originally founded by Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, and Penn. Even small liberal arts colleges are jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. Just this past month Wellesley joined Coursera. The pace of adoption is happening so quickly that it has become increasingly important for institutions who want to compete to have a MOOC strategy. One can just look at the drama around the firing and re-hiring of Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, this past year as a sign of the pressure universities are facing in this arena. While the circumstances around Dr. Sullivan’s initial firing were complex, it is clear that one factor was a difference in strategic direction around MOOCs between Dr. Sullivan and the UVA Board chair.

There are a lot of unknowns about the extent to which MOOCs will be a central part of the higher education landscape. There is a series of critical questions that will need to be addressed before MOOCs become a standard part of the educational experience:

  • How can we verify that the identity of the person taking the class is actually that person?
  • How will colleges and universities award credit for MOOCs?
  • Will MOOC companies go outside traditional higher education and offer certificates and “badges” for the completion of a set of competency based courses? Will employers accept these credentials?

Regardless of the mass adoption of MOOCs, it is clear that technology is transforming the learning process. College will be less “place-based.” I believe that the trend towards “hybridized” learning will increase significantly. But in this hybrid experience, the role of locally based faculty will be enhanced. Meaningful learning will need the one-to-one interaction with faculty that can only be provided on campus. Employers will demand this as well. The college experience is more than the accumulation of technical competencies.

In this hybridized model of faculty instruction, it will also be important for student affairs to adapt its practice to develop hybridized approaches to traditional student affairs.

How will the role of student affairs evolve in light of these changing dynamics?

Student affairs will need to adapt to the new learning paradigm just as faculty are adapting. Frankly, I think student affairs has been slow to adapt to these changes. Some of this is understandable. The critical work that we do with students has traditionally been a personal, one-to-one model based on a counseling model. From residence halls to student unions to career centers, student affairs professionals interact with students one-to-one or in small groups to advance a student learning, student development, or student support agenda. This is the bedrock of our profession.

What we need is a more flexible and hybridized view of the functions such as orientation, campus tours, freshmen year experience, career development, student organization advising, and leadership development programs; these are but a few traditional student affairs areas that could benefit from a more sophisticated use of technology.

In an era where resources will be limited, it will be important to identify the area where one-to-one interactions are critical and where a more virtual experience will yield the student learning we value. The following example illustrates this balance:

Leadership development programs could be developed so that the “content” of leadership and group dynamics is taught in small online modules, similar to “Ted Talks” style lectures. These modules could be in small ten-fifteen mini-lectures formats or guided readings with opportunities for reflection and writing. All of this would occur online, asynchronously. On campus, through video-chat experiences, or through online discussion groups, trained student affairs professionals could then work with students to tease out the learning and provide a space where they could interact with other students.

If this model was expanded to a wide range of traditional student affairs functions, could we develop models to retain the critical interactions with students while benefiting from a learning platform that is technologically more efficient? I think so.

There is a truth out there that is rarely expressed. When college graduates are asked to reflect on their college experience whether it be recent or years ago, there is a virtual universality to their response to the question “What did you learn most from college?” The answers are almost always about how they learned about themselves, how they learned to work with others, how they learned to problem solve and learned how to communicate effectively. The list goes on, but has one common theme. College students learn as much, if not more from the out-of-class or co-curricular experience as they did from their classroom experience. Interestingly, this co-curricular learning is also what employers prize the most and, I suspect, is at the core of success in the workplace.

The challenge will be how we adapt to the disruptive innovation of online learning and still retain opportunities to develop key competencies and learning that we value as part of the college experience. Pamela Hieronymi, professor of philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles, expressed this well when she said,

The core task of training minds is labor-intensive; it requires the time and effort of smart, highly trained individuals. We will not make it significantly less time-consuming without sacrificing quality. And so, I am afraid, we will not make that core task significantly less expensive without cheapening it.

I would say the same of student affairs. How can we be more effective in using technology and online learning without cheapening the learning experiences of our students?

While social media and other forms of technology might have negative influences on students, in what ways can student affairs utilize these resources to enhance student learning and well-being?

Social media are powerful communication tools. They are the ultimate tools for the democratization of communication. They provide a “voice” for those who may otherwise not be heard. Their use provides a huge opportunity for student affairs professionals. The widespread adoption of social media by our students gives us opportunities to interact with students in ways that were not previously possible.

At its most unsophisticated level, social media can simply be a marketing/communication channel. They can be used to inform students about a campus crisis or to alert students to an important deadline. They can also be used to inform students about campus events and opportunities.

However, if campuses just use social media as a marketing channel—then we will have missed the biggest potential of these new media. The power in social media is the “collective” conversation that can occur through a well constructed social media strategy. Social media can engage students in conversations and dialogues that expose them to different perspectives or views on political and social issues. Social media can provide a safe place for students to reflect and test out ideas.

Social media can also provide new opportunities for student affairs staff to “engage” with students. Through social media channels we can create meaningful interactions with students who otherwise may not have engaged in co-curricular experiences. They expand our reach.

Finally, social media can provide an inside look into what students are thinking. They can be powerful customer service tools or snapshots into the campus climate.

If you had to guess, what would the typical college day be like for students five years from now?

Higher education is changing dramatically in so many areas, that this is a very hard question. The demographic changes alone will alter the higher education landscape. The significant increase in students of color, the increase in first generation college students, and the shrinking 18-22 year old demographic will all affect the traditional “college” experience.

For the traditionally-aged college student, on a four-year, residential campus—the experience will be similar and different. In five years students will simply spend less time in college classes. Large lecture experiences will be less commonplace. There will be few books and few book bags. Most course content and reading will be done through tablets. Course content will be increasingly online and in video formats. Students will interact with faculty in smaller “discussion-based” experiences. Learning laboratories will be commonplace in traditional academic buildings.

For these students, there will be an increased emphasis on deciding on a major earlier. Taking a full course load and staying on track to graduate in four years will be a central theme for all students. Leveraging data analytics, campuses will guide students to courses and academic programs that give these students the highest probability of success.

While there will be a range of recreational and social activities on campus, students will choose to spend time on activities that increase their employability—participating in co-curricular experiences that develop skills and competencies that increase their likelihood of securing a job after graduation.

In five years, college will look very similar—but there will be a focus on learning that is more intentional.

You note in Leadership Exchange that student affairs officers choose their career because they want to make a difference in students’ lives. As president of NASPA, you have many responsibilities that fill your day. Do you still have time to interact with students? If so, in what ways? How do such interactions influence your attitudes on students’ needs and interests?

I have few opportunities to interact with undergraduate students. The NASPA Undergraduate Fellows Program (NUFP) does provide some contact but it is limited. I do have a chance to interact with graduate students who are enrolled in a student affairs graduate preparation program. This past fall, using video-conferencing, I was able to “guest lecture” in eight different master’s classes. This provided me with a convenient opportunity to talk about future and current issues in higher education with these young scholar practitioners. I am very encouraged by what I see in our young professionals. I see a strong commitment to make a difference in the lives of college students; I see a commitment to social justice issues and creating inclusive campus communities. And like my friends and colleagues, I see a commitment to serve—to make our campuses places for transformative learning.

In college life today students are encouraged to join many activities and choose options at a time of considerable personal freedom. Do you think that a college can encourage students too much to be involved in co-curricular activities? Why or why not?

Whether you are in college or working full-time, achieving balance is a key part of happiness and success. For college students, who are exposed to an endless array of activities and distractions, it is critical to find a balance in the way they spend their time. Co-curricular activities are an important part of the developmental process. Critical life skills such as interpersonal communication, problem-solving, leadership skills, intercultural communication, and ethical decision making, etc., can all be advanced through intentional co-curricular experiences. One of our roles on campus is to provide opportunities to facilitate this kind of learning but another role is to help students find appropriate balance. Time management and work and task prioritization are important life skills for students to develop.

There is convincing evidence that engagement in co-curricular experiences has a positive effect on learning, retention and persistence and academic performance. But like anything, finding balance is important, and student affairs professionals should be diligent in discouraging students from becoming over-committed.

Do you think there should be more efforts in connecting student activities to their academic experiences? Why or why not?

In my opinion, one of the worst phrases we have used in student affairs is “the out-of-class” experience. This assumes a distinction between their lives in class and then suddenly they move into some other realm. The entire college experience is about learning and development. This, of course, happens primarily and most importantly in the classroom (or in a virtual classroom). However, we know that powerful learning takes places when we find intentional ways to make this learning more integrative.

An obvious example of this is when we are able to link learning in a class to a set of experiences in a service learning program–when the community-based work provides an opportunity to reflect and write about something learned in the academic class. This is integrative learning.

However, it is equally important when co-curricular programs focus on competencies that enhance the academic experience. For example, programs that develop critical thinking and problem solving in a leadership program can be a valuable learning asset in a government and politics class. It’s all about learning and being intentional about that learning and being clear about what outcomes we are trying to achieve.

Some critics think that students should stick to work that relates only to their academic education. In other words, it is the not the business of higher education to teach students to be good citizens, virtuous people, or caring souls, but rather knowledgeable and skillful in their fields. How would you respond to these comments?

Our society has complex problems that need to be addressed. We aspire to be a world leader and one of the world’s most successful economies. The global demands of today’s workforce will require college graduates to have intercultural communication skills. The workforce today is increasingly diverse—and will require leaders who can create work climates that support equity and inclusivity.

All of the above can only be achieved through academic and campus environments that support that kind of learning. To address the complex issues of our society we will need both academic content expertise as well as competencies that are best developed in the co-curricular.

What has most prepared you in your educational background and experiences to be a leader of such a large and influential organization as NASPA?

Like most successful leaders I have benefited from several influential mentors and supervisors. Most NASPA people are familiar with Gwen Dungy, who served as NASPA’s executive director for the 17 years before her retirement last year. Gwen was a caring, nurturing, and supportive supervisor who helped me develop my own leadership style and provided endless opportunities for me to be innovative and creative in developing programs and services for NASPA members. Those experiences helped provide a foundation for me to be successful as the NASPA President.

I also think that my own intellectual curiosity developed through my graduate work at the University of Maryland and helped prepare me for this role. I spend 15%-20% of my week reading, watching Ted Talk videos, and attending briefings—all to understand the major issues facing higher education and our society in general. This intellectual curiosity and the ability to synthesize these diverse resources help me develop a set of strategies for NASPA in serving the needs of its members and for student affairs in general.

What has been your greatest challenge as president of NASPA so far? 

I think higher education and student affairs are facing some significant challenges in the next five-ten years. I am trying to develop a capacity within NASPA to address these challenges and to provide transformative solutions that will secure the important role student affairs plays on campus. This, for me is my biggest challenge. I see my role as ensuring that NASPA be a viable and successful organization that meets the needs of its almost 14,000 members. But more importantly, I see my role in representing student affairs within the larger higher education community—to be a voice for student affairs and to more effectively “tell our story.” That is both challenging and rewarding.

What advice would you give our readers who might be aspiring leaders of organizations such as NASPA?

Get involved locally. Participate in a regional or state activity. Get involved in one of NASPA’s 26 knowledge communities. Develop an area of professional interest and write, present, and engage with others in that area. Develop an expertise that becomes a part of your professional brand.

What do you like best about your work?

Just like in student affairs—every day is unique. There has never been a day where I have not looked forward to coming to work. Never been a day where the time drags. It is exciting and meaningful work. We are working on issues that will have an impact on our society. This is noble work and I am honored to be a part of this profession. It makes coming to work a privilege.

Plus, through NASPA, we get to work with the best, brightest, and most talented people in our profession. Scholars, thought-leaders, outstanding professionals who are committed to our students. Who wouldn’t like that?

What is the downside? And how do you best cope with problems that arise?

The biggest downside is trying to pace myself. I am in a big rush. I am in a rush to make progress on a wide range of issues. And there is a sense of urgency about all of it. But, I need to pace myself. I traveled over 100,000 miles this year on behalf of NASPA. I delivered over 30 speeches and presentations. Just like all of us in student affairs, it is important that we find activities and time for meaning outside of work. I am blessed with two extraordinary children, my son Kevin and my daughter Kerry. They remind me of the value of balance. As much as I love my job with NASPA—my favorite job and the job I am best at—is being a father. I try to keep that in mind every day.