June Cover
Volume 82 | Issue 3
June 2014

The Big Assessment: Do We Feel Guilty When We Don’t Know?

Shirley Bird Perry

Reprinted from the 1976 Annual Conference Proceedings keynote address by Shirley Bird Perry

People are asked to make conference speeches for a variety of reasons: to inform, to inspire, to persuade, to provoke. This one is supposed to accomplish the latter. My comments about college unions are divided into two sections: three fundamental facts, which I Perry CCfeel, require restatement, and nine hypotheses for debate and discussion. Facts first:

Fact 1: College unions and student activities programs are diverse.

While that is a simplistic fact, and one we’ve recognized repeatedly, it remains significant. To generalize about college unions is risky business. Our settings differ, institutions and institutional goals differ, and people differ. Our facilities, our services, our programs are often widely dissimilar. Our specific goals may be unlike; our priorities may vary. What may be of enormous importance to some of us may be viewed as inconsequential by others. And of course, vice versa.

Fact 2: Formal goal statements for college unions and student activities programs reflect basic commitments to the total education thrust of the college or university.

Is there an institution represented here willing to produce an official goal statement which fails to deem the union and the activities program as essential to the overall educational mission of the college? The words may differ, and some may turn a phrase more splendidly, but eventually it is noted that what we should do (and I emphasize should) is critical to the total learning/living environment of the college or university.

Fact 3: College unions and student activities programs are uneven. Regardless of the measuring devices employed, none of us would deny that the quality of what we do is irregular.

Many of us do a number of things very well; we evaluate our efforts with pride and satisfaction. We make a difference, an enormous difference. But there are always those matters which bother us, things we know need improvement. We may have a super facility but a lousy program, an excellent arts program but a so-so recreation program, an excellent training program for students but a mediocre staff development program. There’s always that unfinished agenda lurking about. We need not be paralyzed or despondent about or organizational frailties, but we cannot work for change and high quality if they remain unrecognized, unstated, or ignored.

A Series of Hypotheses for Debate and Discussion

With those three fundamental facts laid out, it is now time to venture into deeper, more dangerous waters where the Jaws are. For purposes of discussion and debate, I will set forth nine hypotheses, hypotheses which I view as concerns facing college unions today. Time is limited so I have little opportunity to elaborate on them. I can only try to say enough to make the basic premise as clear as possible.Perry 1

Hypothesis 1: College unions are increasingly controlled by external forces, forces over which we appear to have little or no control.

By external forces, I am referring to municipal, state, and federal regulations; I am also referring to societal patterns and developments. You are familiar with the abbreviations: OSHA, Title IX, Affirmative Action, grievance procedures, due process. We function in a world of litigation, unionization, proliferation. These concerns are expressed by both private and public institutions. And, while many of us are philosophically in tune with the circumstances which contributed to the development of these external forces, we become ever more aware of the dangers of over-standardization, over-regulation, and over-legalization. While I would like to conclude that we in college unions are proactive and able to influence, head off, or defuse external forces which diminish our productivity and effectiveness, I fear we are too often the gnat attacking the elephant!

Hypothesis 2: College unions may be functioning as schizoid entities.

Because I see this as rather complex, I search for the words, which will allow me to be understood. On one hand, we are committed to bringing together individuals and groups with differing philosophies, life styles, and value systems. We adhere to the interdisciplinary approach; we try to bring together people and special interest groups who may otherwise find it comfortable to lead insular existences. But, as we work to prevent people and groups from writing each other off, from irresponsible labeling, from polarization, we serve diverse constituencies. Some of those constituencies may advocate separatism, may have little use for communication—with others or with us! Our schizophrenia increases. We respect a person or a group’s right to be separate and unique and advocate what is believed. But, we are dismayed when charges and counter-charges are hurled about, when important constituencies we try to serve battle with each other and resist open communications. That is antithetical to what we believe. We in the union may attempt the “something for everyone” approach—and we sometimes get caught in the crossfire, making everyone angry.

Some pressure groups are louder and stronger (and meaner!) than others; we have a tough time hanging in there and ensuring that the union’s program has balance, that multiple viewpoints are represented. We have scars aplenty. Why is it in academic community, where individuals and groups should be mostly open, there are so many closed minds? Why is there such eagerness to classify and stereotype, to deem someone or something “good” or “bad,” “right,” or “wrong?” All too frequently, I fear, the faculty is the worst offender. Faculty members, the first to righteously defend academic freedom, are often the last to admit complexities, to move beyond an obvious naiveté and recognize that few solutions are simple, that few people are “right” or “wrong.” In the academic arena, why is there such limited communication?

Closer in, I fear we college union people are guilty of perpetuating polarization on another level. Why do we insist on classifying people so tightly as “managers” or as “programmers?” While we know it is essential that we have generalists and specialists in the union field, and while all of us must not and cannot be both, why do we sometimes assume good programmers are not also good managers, and vice versa? Further, why do we attach a certain status to some specialties in the union? Why do we sometimes fail to appreciate the importance of all the many contributions, which combine to form an effective whole? While we advocate collaboration among campus constituencies, do we fail to communicate within our own organizations?

Hypothesis 3: College unions too rarely fully utilize the resources available to them.

We function in an incredibly rich environment. We operate in close proximity to “the body of knowledge,” to the very source of many technological and humanistic advances. But, I wonder if we use that knowledge, those resources. One example: We gaze across the street at the franchise food chains which lure away our customers but we seem hesitant to use tricks available to us and meet them head on. To use an even more specific example, we marvel at their computerized systems which track costs, labor, Perry 2inventory, product mix, cases, etc. Do we lumber along as if those same pieces of equipment, that same knowledge is beyond our understanding, our use? Our recent Association inventory lists financial concerns as our top concern. But I sometimes think we fight with bows and arrows—while our competitors have stockpiles of nuclear warheads! While the pros seem to know how to market their products, develop audiences, and stimulate participation, do we act as if these same techniques are beyond us? We watch our faculty members go consulting around the world. Do we try to corner that same expertise for the college union?

Hypothesis 4: Too many college unions seem unaware of their real impact on the academic communities they serve.

I hypothesize that we often simply don’t have a very good notion about how we’re doing. We worry a lot. And, we feel guilty because we don’t know. Financial stresses and the long, long era of accountability combine to force evaluation. I fear we have too few pages of homework to use as ammunition. While Scoop Jacksons might have known who would win Massachusetts, we don’t seem to have a very good handle on why a concert series failed, or why a crafts sales shop didn’t make it. Now, before anyone gets excited, let me state—once and for all—that I know that many of the values of a college union cannot be measured with computers or statistics, that much of the impact we have is impossible to calculate. It is hard to quantify creativity, human growth. But, there are also multiple possibilities for evaluation, feedback, and input. Services, facilities, and programs can frequently be evaluated quite accurately; the users and participants can share invaluable reactions and make priceless suggestions. To put it bluntly, we need to be better market researchers if we are to more fully fulfill our goals and meet the needs of the community. Again, I remind you that an entire session has been included on his topic. We simply need to know more—and feel
less guilty.

Hypothesis 5: College unions infrequently function as highly effective organizations.

Our role statement indicates that the college union is “not just a building, but an organization and a program.” Our literature is filled with material focusing on our role in developing leaders and on our need to serve as model or near-model organizations. Although I hope I am wrong, I fear there are too few of us who would invite in a hoard of visitors to inspect our model organizations! We often have a good bead on theory but can’t manage to put it into practice. Do we translate our lofty goals into more specific, more achievable goals for an era, a year, a semester, a month? Are goals shared? Do we establish priorities and strategies? Do we carefully chart courses, plot out plans of action? Do we review the process and the content concerns of our organization? Do we truly evaluate, confront problems, capitalize on opportunities, and organize for change?

Hypothesis 6: When forced to be evaluated, our services and facilities seem better than our programs.

Before the arrows begin to fly, let me underscore that I believe we have some outstanding programs which contribute magnificently to the learning on our campuses. We do some splendid programs. But, overall, I hypothesize we are more pleased with our services and our facilities than our programs.

Is there anyone among us who would deny that a strong program is important to us? I think not. Even the filling station unions, the “bus station” unions are probably not very happy with that status. When we discuss programming, we cannot ignore our never-ending tightrope act. On one hand we are forced to be businesses, to fight it out on the commercial turf; on the other hand, we are service/educational organizations. It is easier to evaluate our businesses-oriented efforts; evaluating program efforts is tough, yet possible.

Programming can be exhilarating; the people who do it should be devoted to it. Jack Sturgell has often said, “Good programming takes people who love it and know what they are doing.” While both are important, perhaps we too frequently get caught up with the process of programming to the detriment of the content of the programs. I fear there is too much disparity between what college union programs are and what they can be. The measure of our success may be cosmetic. Cookie-cutter-like, canned, spectator programs can be found out by robots who have access to those stacks of catalogues! But knowing how to make the most of an artist, Perry 3a film, a speaker, and knowing how to facilitate the creativity and blend the elements of an in-depth focus, or a special interdisciplinary program, that takes dedication, talent, resources, and knowledge. Because I believe it so strongly, I’ve often said, building a building from the ground up is ultimately easier than building a program from scratch.

Hypothesis 7: Our primary need is more effective leadership by students and by staff.

Please know that I plan to use the terms “leadership” and “management” interchangeably. I believe the presence of an effective staff is directly related to the quality of the student leadership or the volunteer force in the college union or the student activities program. I’m fully on record on this score so I allow that to stand without elaboration.

The importance of the selection of staff cannot be over-emphasized. Because we are frequently forced to cope with what we’ve inherited, or live with what we hire, the hiring era is critical. Now, there’s never been a person more committed to training than am I. I believe people can be trained and taught and can grow. But, while I’m a fairly optimistic person, I fear sow’s ears do not frequently become silk purses.

I have other corollaries, which relate to my hypothesis regarding the need for effective student and staff leadership.

  • To effectively lead or manage, students and staff need the training and tools required. Again, I’ve had so much to say on this core, I elaborate only briefly. Training and development programs are of ultimate importance. They require some expertise, time, energy, commitment, and some expense. Good ones are the best investments you can make.
  • If staff members are to be effective, they need the freedom to manage. Having the freedom to manage is the responsibility of the institution and the union/students activities organization. If the institution does not make clear and support the strong management role of the union administrator, management responsibilities may be usurped by student-faculty governing boards. Clear-cut understanding regarding the appropriate roles of the administrators and the various boards are mandatory if a manager is to function effectively. While I would fight forever for an active union and/or activities board with important responsibilities, I would fight just as energetically to be certain that boards respect the management roles of the administrators. I grow immensely impatient with the union director who is too timid to lead, to fight for rightful responsibilities; I am leery of the director who abdicates responsibilities to a transient group which should have quite different roles.
  • Freedom to manage also means having the ability to manage without daily rabbit chases, chases which cause energy to be expended on the insignificant to the detriment of the important, the innovative.
  • Effective management and leadership require a deep commitment—and lots of time. While I am the first to agree that our lives need balance and that we must take time to be people, I am increasingly bothered when union administrators become clock-watchers and boast about precise 40-hour weeks. If an individual can provide the leadership required in 40 hours, more power to ’em. I’m dubious. I simply do not believe an effective union director can do the job with a 40-hour average. I think that includes a large sprinkling of copping-out. I think some things and some people are suffering. I’d like to do a bit of investigative work and interview the staff, administrators, and constituents on the campus of the 40-hour-a-week administrator. If I’m proven wrong, and we discover a super-wonder who never does union work on weekends and nights, we ought to put him on the Association’s payroll. Now, helping the rest of us would take more than 40 hours per week!
  • While I’m not willing to back off from my earlier remarks regarding the time commitment required of union leaders, I feel it is important to address concerns which seem to plague some of us who have remained in the field for a spell. Too frequently, I hear really fine union administrators or student leaders share deep frustrations—frustrations which seem to result from too many battles with the budget, the ups and downs of campus politics, the all-too-predictable stance of the student newspaper, the society of transients who must be forever oriented, and the weariness of weeks without an hour to sit quietly and be. That’s a management problem, and it must be faced.
  • Although I could mention many concerns relating to our need for effective leadership, I must move along, mentioning only one more. I fear too many leaders set standards far too low. If mediocrity is accepted and reinforced, substandard levels may come to be viewed as excellence. Rewarding best efforts is important but signs and vistas need raising. I happen to believe people want to be challenged, grow, and improve. If leaders do not provide that important element, people stagnate, “get by.” Strong leaders want to keep moving toward higher standards—and I think they take others with them.

Hypothesis 8: College union people have a difficult time functioning effectively in the political arena.

I believe that the college union’s recognition as an important force on the campus is critical—and directly related to how well we are able to function in the political arena. First, of course, we need to produce—do our homework, offer appropriate services and facilities and high-quality programs. But, we need to attend to human relations concerns. We need to know the tricks of establishing credibility—with the right people, at the right time, and in the right place. I do not intend to appear cold and calculating, but I do think we need to be able to “tell the union story,” as Porter Butts termed it. Union people must function in a highly political Perry 4academic community and world. Every organization has its politics, its power centers, its figureheads. There are written rules and unwritten laws. We have all seen competent people come—and have seen them go—because they didn’t take the time or make the effort to learn how to function in that unique culture. If we are to serve the union well, we must focus on our role in a political community; we must be able to express what we believe, rally support, ward off those who view the union as ancillary or expendable.

During the past few years, I’ve had the rare opportunity to participate in a kind of continuing “seminar” on politics and higher education. Former chairman of the University of Texas system, Board of Regents, Frank Erwin is the most controversial person I have ever known well—but no one, friend or foe—ever writes him off. He has spent an inordinate amount of time convincing a state legislature and the citizenry of a rather conservative state of the value of a higher education and why it should be supported philosophically and with tax dollars. To date, he has been successful. At any rate, during one of our “seminars,” I urged him to informally evaluate the management abilities of administrators and student leaders he worked with during his 12 years on the board.

Since I wasn’t taking notes (and I wish I had), I’ll paraphrase him with his permission. Among other things, he said something like: “Unfortunately, a whole bunch of people do not understand that knowledge and energy can become power, can change things. Too many do not understand the complexities of the system, of balancing constituencies; they can’t seem to know when to bend, when to hang tough. Some naively think truth, beauty, and other godlike virtues will prevail—without much effort on their part. Some seem to think that if something is right, it will automatically be done. They have little concept of reality. They view end results without thinking much about the processes required to make them possible.” In one of our conversations, I asked him to comment (from his vantage point) on the managerial abilities of those of us who serve as administrators in the area of student affairs. He commented: “In general, I fear too many have a rather adolescent view that it’s dirty to work with those they don’t like or agree with. Many hate to rock the boat and stand up for principles. They want somebody else to do that. Some will sell out. When a fight’s a-brewing, they’ll run like hell. They don’t understand that eventually, most of us have to become street-fighters.”

As I’ve pondered these comments, I’ve thought about those of us who work with college unions. Never have we needed more to be better politicians. Are there enough of us who can effectively pound home “the union story” time and time again? Are we able to become “street-fighters” for what we believe? I hope so.

Hypothesis 9: College unions will survive—and well.

While I have outlined concerns, and while the agenda is long, and while the times have tough, and may get tougher, I am optimistic. You may accuse me of ending on a contrived Pollyanna-like note. Believe that if you must. But my comments are honest ones and based on some very personal experiences spanning the past few months. Painfully, I analyzed college unions as I attempted to determine the course of my professional life. For the first time, I seriously considered the possibility of leaving the college union field for another area in higher education. That was a nitty-gritty test. Was I willing to stay with the college union, either with the Texas Union or with the Association, or did I want to abandon both for new ventures? I listed and re-listed strengths and weaknesses, the pluses and the minuses. I concluded: We are important. We are okay. We have accomplished much. I thought: We are not woe-mongers; we are not afraid to be self-critical. That pleases me. We are not cynical, complacent people. We take steps to solve problems, assemble and share information, move ahead. We are a positive people. I am far more uplifted that downcast.


PerryAt the time of this keynote address, Shirley Bird Perry was director of the Texas Union at the University of Texas–Austin, the institution where she worked for nearly 50 years. In 1972, Perry had been the first woman to hold the role of ACU-I president and following her keynote during the 1976 conference, she received the Butts-Whiting Award. From 1976–79, Perry was the Association’s first educational program coordinator.