Things are only impossible until they’re not.
– Jean-Luc Picard
Volume 73 | Issue 2
March 2005

Getting to the Table: Strategically advancing your program

Charlie Potts

Lots of questions there; any answers? We had better know where the union stands politically, or we will lose ground. We had better know the level of support and recognition we have, or we risk losing opportunities to advance our mission. We had better be on a first-name basis with the president, or we are in no better strategic position than the obscure academic department with its faceless chairperson who doesn’t “get it” politically and then wonders why his or her program is not growing.

And that really is the point. Who other than us thinks that the union is an important program on campus? Who will go to bat for us in a time of shrinking resources and intense public scrutiny? And, if those people are out there—deans, vice presidents, executive officers—what will inspire them to come out and openly, or even discreetly, support the union and advocate for it?

Establishing our story

The problem for most of us is that our administrative rank as departmental directors does not put us at the executive decision-making table. In most cases, we are just one of a number of department leaders with distinct responsibilities for a particular area but no real reach into higher authority. That means that we have to work through other people, people of higher rank, to get certain things done. For those individuals to advocate for us, they have to know what we do, why we do it, what tools we need to do it, and then have an overriding confidence that, given those tools, we will be successful with our charge.

Bill Johnston, recently retired union director from Northwestern University, once said:

Every day your building, its services, and its programs tell a story about you. It says to the campus how much you care about the place and its people. It tells them how much they can count on you in a crisis. It tells them how much you will pay attention to the little things. And in the end, it tells them how much time, trust, and money they should invest in you. (personal communication, 1986)

What Johnston was talking about is that campus leaders, of whatever rank, are looking for people who can solve problems for them and make their lives a little easier. It also means people who make things better for the campus and after all isn’t that the essence of our real job descriptions?

There are two principles at work here. The first has to do with credibility. When people trust you and believe in your ability to get the job done, they will “ask you back.” That sounds a lot like relationship building; the more good experiences I have with you, the more I want to “hang with you.” If a senior administrator wants to hang with you, that means they believe in your ability to protect and advance the administrator’s own agenda. It also means that others do not disagree that you are worthy of being considered a playing partner in the overall institutional enterprise.

Winston Shindell, recently retired director of the Indiana Memorial Union and IU Auditorium at Indiana University, once counseled:

Get to know your president and make sure that he or she knows you and your operation. Give them the confidence that if they turn to you, you will deliver. Remember, they are looking for people who will make them look good and make the institution look good. A president can do you either a lot of good or a lot of harm. It’s a crucial relationship. (personal communication, 1985)

The second principle has to do with strategic positioning and political leverage. When people of high institutional rank—such as deans, vice presidents, presidents, and trustees—can trust our union programs and services based on a series of good experiences with them, then we have strategically positioned ourselves to deliver service and support to the institutional mission and, by definition, add value to the campus. Then when these same officials are looking for individuals or departments to address a particular issue or solve a problem, the call goes out to whoever can be most trusted and has the best capacity to help.

Of course, if a problem needs to be solved and you can do it, then that earns you, based on the strategic value of your position, the political leverage to call for the resources necessary to solve the problem. That could be money or people or time or equipment or a lot of different things. The bottom line is that if the union is positioned as a value-adder to the campus experience and institutional leaders see it that way, then there is a good chance that important and valuable resources needed to run and advance the union will follow.

Telling the story

Dan Adams is the director of Arizona Student Unions at the University of Arizona. He recently opened a new, $60 million building. How did that happen? Adams explained:

We persevered. We believed in what we were doing and told our story. We made a short little video and showed it to student groups and other campus groups repeatedly. We tried to tell everyone about the idea C9 But the president is the guy who really made it happen in the end. Without his support, we would have come up short C9 And did I mention the students? Their role was profound. They really believed and used their position as students wisely and effectively. Certainly it was a team effort and we all played a role because the university needed this. (personal communication, September 23, 2004)

Demonstrating regularly how the union serves the campus, creatively and persistently improving the operation, recruiting and retaining key campus allies, and motivating students to appreciate, support, and advocate for the union is the political foundation for substantiating and advancing the role of the union on campus. It is how the game is played. But do the rules of this game always stay the same? Jerry Mann, director of the union and student services at the University of California–Los Angeles, has a slightly different situation:

At UCLA, we report to the students’ association. Our relationship with the university is different than that at other institutions, as we tend to have quite a bit of autonomy. We used to operate with a great deal of independence, but in the last year or so, that has changed as we recognized the importance of working more closely with the Student Affairs and other university divisions. For us, independence generally brings the obligation to secure our own funding on most everything we do. So freedom comes with a price tag.

On the flipside, if we received money directly from the institution, and not just the students and our own retail and food service ventures, then we would definitely have more hoops to jump through. I’m not sure which the better model is. I know our students prize the autonomy they have and would resist efforts to lessen it. In the meantime we just continue to try to maintain a balance between complete autonomy and a working partnership with the university. (personal communication, September 27, 2004)

The political game, in this context, is not how much of your story you can tell, but how much you should tell. Are there pockets of money in your operation that you know about but do not talk about for fear that they will be “appropriated?” Are there market possibilities that you are exploring, but are not yet ready to reveal? In some cases, it can be better to keep a low profile than to talk indiscriminately about all aspects of the operation all the time. We must judge what stories to tell to our supervisors and senior leaders. We must lead upward as well. Too much information can sometimes be as defeating as too little.

Adapting the story

Imagine a common scenario in which the campus library wants to put in a coffee lounge. The issue here is competition. Will this other operation negatively impact the union’s traffic or revenue? There also is a larger issue. Do these so-called satellite activities create a greater sense of community in those locations, and if so, should the union support them even to its potential detriment? Rob Rouzer (2004), unions director at University of Illinois–Chicago, weighed in:

If the services are being established to make money, then you will always have the sort of response given by your VP of Finance. If the services are established to build a campus community, then you have a different proposition C9 As other units have become entrepreneurial or our campuses have grown to the point where our buildings may no longer be convenient for some portion of our campus, we are faced with potential competition. When we view ourselves and present ourselves as campus-wide community builders, our concern broadens beyond the confines of a single building. (A6 1)

If we are not supportive of campus developments that advance a sense of community, then we can come off as inauthentic. That does us no good politically, particularly when we may have no practical leverage to do anything about those other initiatives anyway. On the other hand, if we are not out there either creating new opportunities on our own or collaborating with others to generate new opportunities for students, faculty, and staff, then we are not doing our jobs either.

There is more to campus life than just the union facility or its programs. Community building, while our primary purpose, is not our exclusive domain. It all comes down to being at the decision-making table for campus planning. Rouzer (2004) continued:

If we take a master planning approach to analyzing the needs of the campus, we can either be proactive and take the initiative to develop satellite operations ourselves or we can partner with potential competitors to, hopefully, forestall detrimental competition. C9

These are very difficult issues and, as elaborate recreation centers and dining facilities are being built around our campuses, we need to be at the table to make it clear that we are not just managers of campus center buildings. Opportunities to build community happen all over campus, not just in our campus centers. If we define ourselves clearly (as community builders) on the campus, then we can build win-win situations out of potentially damaging competitive scenarios. (A6 2–3)

The kicker in so much of this, of course, is money. Most of these coffee shop ideas, for example, have a profit motive as well. So there is, in these cases, a money issue as well as a community building/social issue. That sounds like what we deal with in the union every day. That is the reason, if for none other, we should work to be at the decision-making table, or at least get our perspectives forwarded to those who will be at the table. We need to communicate.

Listening to our story

But who is really listening to our story? Or what are they listening for? In a time of budget constraints and concerns about student recruitment and retention, aren’t vice presidents, deans, and other executives preoccupied with financial and enrollment issues? Yes and no. Certainly, those so-called “big picture” items are crucial. However, at the same time, executives are looking for people and departments that can solve problems and add value to the institution. They are looking for leaders, for example, who can make both money and community.

But campus leaders are also looking for something else, something even more fundamental. They are looking for educational value; the union must create and provide educational value. It must truly complement the educational mission of the institution in its everyday deeds, not just in its “role of the union” plaque in the main vestibule.

John Moore was president of California State University–Stanislaus and Indiana State University during a 15-year period. He now consults with institutions on strategic planning and on the orientation of new presidents throughout the United States. About this topic, he said:

In this era of accountability and emphasis on growing enrollments, we have become obsessed with marketing. We’ve started to view our buildings as recruiting tools and are losing sight of our primary obligation to provide the best possible educational experience for our students. I’m looking for building designs and environments, both academic and auxiliary, that facilitate learning. I’m looking for buildings that can serve as both an educational venue and a site for community building. I’m looking for people who can view the campus holistically and understand where each facility fits in and what kind of value it can add to the campus. Everything has to have an educational purpose. (personal communication, November 4, 2004)

Cynthia Cherrey, vice president for student affairs at Tulane University, agreed that campus buildings, the union among them—just like the library, residence halls, or classroom buildings—must function both intellectually and socially (personal communication, November 3, 2004). That means that the union facilities, programs, and services, in particular, must embrace faculty and staff as well as students. “I’m looking for an integrated, seamless integration of all campus constituencies at the union,” Cherrey said (personal communication, November 3, 2004). “It has to function as a crossroads for the intellectual and social life of the campus. When that happens, when we move across what are traditional but really just arbitrary boundaries between different campus groups, we create a true center for campus community.”

But this kind of intellectual and social synergy is not limited to just happening at the union. In fact, on a “real” campus (however you define real), this synergy is happening everywhere. It is part of the culture. It is what makes any particular school energized, or as some would say, engaged. It is what we would all want to be. To this, Moore said:

The college and university rankings put out by the U.S. News and World Report, which we all read and then either agree with or disagree with depending upon our score, are based in a lot of ways on admissions standards. The harder it is to get in, the better the school must be. However, that does not speak to the benefits that other kinds of schools provide. I’m far more interested in a school’s NSSE score than I am their ranking. (personal communication, November 4, 2004)

The National Survey on Student Engagement (NSEE) seeks to measure levels of student engagement on campuses through a series of questions to students based on five benchmarks: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment. None of these benchmarks are outside of union and activities professionals’ domain.

Academic challenge has to do with intellectual standards whether in or out of class. Active and collaborative learning portrays students working together on a common project. Student-faculty interaction is really about personal connection between teacher or advisor and learner. Enriched educational experiences mean that the learning time was memorable and the lessons stuck. Establishing a supportive campus environment is really about community building. Each of these principles must be integral parts of our operating style. Otherwise, we fall short of complementing the educational mission.

Senior leaders are looking for unions to contribute to precisely these concepts. Carolyn Farley, union director at University of North Carolina–Wilmington, is developing a $29 million union. She has needed a lot of campus advocates for the project. Her take is: “We must understand campus-wide issues and where the union concept fits into the bigger picture. We get our ideas to the table by being inquisitive, persistent, and always prepared to supply needed information to the VPs or architects or whomever” (personal communication October 28, 2004).

The union must be viewed as a center for learning and community development. This is the new currency; without it we will not be paying our bills. And with debts like this, we will have few advocates.

Getting to the table

So let’s go back to our original questions. How do we advance our union? How do we get noticed by senior administrators? How do our concerns, issues, and dreams get to the institutional decision-making table?

  • First and foremost, we take care of our daily business. We must fulfill our responsibilities within the operation and do so with vigor. We cannot expect students to become engaged if we are not.
  • Second, we must think educationally. We are part of an educational institution and culture. We are about teaching and learning. Everything we do must reflect that central value. That means we are partners with faculty. We need them to help establish our campus credibility more than they need us.
  • Third, we must think holistically. We must think in terms of the entire department, division, university, or state system. We always will be part of a larger whole. Senior officials, living in the big picture, value staff who are able to appreciate the issues and nuances at that higher level and who at the same time integrate and apply their proposal into that larger scheme.
  • Fourth, we must always be about building community. If we say we are community builders, then we need to support the development of community wherever it appears on campus. That means that a coffee shop in the library has a community building value for those folks in the library and that is a plus for the campus. That means social spaces developed in a new residential complex is a plus for the campus. That means that all of the things that we say we want to accomplish in and through the union are just as valuable and important to advancing the educational mission of the institution when others do it as when we do it.
  • Finally, we have to care. What does that mean? Of course, we care. No, caring in this instance means being willing to take some risks or challenging the system or being patient to wait things out for the right political moment. It means doing what needs to be done to advance your cause, not just for your sake but also for what you believe to be the good of the school.

Tom Keys is the assistant vice president for student affairs and director of the union at Oklahoma State University. A few years back, he was able to secure a $10 million commitment from his institution’s general fund to locate a new student services building connected to the union. It has worked wonderfully for students and staff and has become a real value-adder to campus by bringing areas together effectively and synergistically. When asked how the project came together, Keys said:

It took us a while, several years, to find the right place to put this building. We looked at a lot of sites around campus and just weren’t satisfied. Finally, we took a look at the site next to the union. It seemed like the answer and then as a group (of senior decision-makers) we just all looked at each other and realized that this was the right thing to do. It was because we felt that as we considered the culture and legacy of our school, we knew that our greatest value was service to students. This project, therefore, lined up perfectly with our identity as an institution. (personal communication, October 28, 2004)

The bottom line? Senior administrators are looking for committed staff who are dedicated to the institution and are problem-solvers. When we take care of our business and add value to the campus learning environment, we get to the table either personally or through the extension of our ideas and credibility. It may take a while, but we will never get there unless we work at it. There is no back door to this room. You have to go through the front.

Not at the table yet? Get noticed.
Collaborate with academic and other departments to build your network. (Not just those at the director level; new professionals can do this.)

Be involved.
Don’t wait for your invitation to come in the mail; go to the party. That means seeking opportunities to join committees, attend events, and volunteer.

Ask for help.
Even if you do have friends in high places, they might not understand your specific need or realize that you’re struggling to get your point across. You have to ask for assistance.

Find out what they don’t understand and put it in their terms.
Be proactive; don’t just keep repeating the same message if it isn’t getting through. If no one knows what “community” means, give examples.

No whiners.
Don’t bemoan the fact that no one understands or that you’re not getting your way. Understand you have to give and take and stay positive even when it’s difficult.

You want data? I’ll show you data.
No there’s no grading system, but we can still quantify some numbers about our areas of responsibility (building traffic, peak hours, activity involvement, student employee GPAs).

Keep others in the loop.
Realize that your world is only a part of what your institution administration is concerned with, so don’t expect them to understand the obvious. You have to communicate regularly.

Tout your accomplishments.
When you do something exciting don’t be modest. It’s imperative to brag to create awareness.


Rouzer, R. (2004, October 6). Any input. [Msg 2]. Message posted to ACUI_NET@LISTSERV.INDIANA.EDU.