It is historically interesting that colleges and universities have not always defined themselves as being in the service of students. It has been said that the 19th century was the age of the presidents, with universities serving themselves, a goal that was defined from the top down. That gave way to the egalitarian 20th century, the age of the faculty, a spectacular century during which the curriculum, the pedagogy and the knowledge was defined and translat- ed by the professoriate. What is increasingly clear is that the 21st century will be the century of students, where students will be active participants in the learning and research mis- sions of our institutions and help define, discover, and translate knowledge. Why is this so? I believe it is for two very good reasons:

  • First, that’s the way it should be: students are our future; they need and deserve our utmost attention.

  • Second, if we don’t serve students, we will not survive: they are our prime inputs and, ultimately, the arbiters of our learning efforts.

If we, as individual institutions, don’t serve students well, they will find institutions that do. This being the case, it changes considerably the role and importance of student services. You still have to do your traditional functions, and I realize and appreciate the degree to which you are leaders in remaking your institutions’ business processes, innovat- ing and implementing new technologies and developing public private partnerships that help in the financing and operation of your facilities and services. You are also work- ing to demonstrate the value and efficiency of what you do, a pressing challenge for academic programs as well.

But student services professionals are not now an admin- istrative support service that exists only to prop up the ”œreal work” of the academic faculty. Student services providers are the people of first contact, the people who facilitate and inspire an enormous amount of what is now essential to col- lege and university learning. Indeed, you are the force that allows us all ”” students and institutions ”” to be creative, innovative and imaginary in what we think and what we do.

Imaginary in what we think and what we do. When I was four years old, I had an imaginary friend. His name was Bort. He lived in the gate- house that stood on the bridge that spanned the river running through my town. Every time my parents, sister and brothers and I crossed the bridge, I insisted on slowing down the car toΒ let Bort in, talking to him all the time, catching up on the latest events in his life, and strengthening our friendship. Bort permitted me to go places that I had never been before…learn things that I wanted to learn…experience a friendship that would shape many of my future relationships.

In many ways, student services people are the Borts in the lives of thousands and thousands of students ”” the imaginary friend that allows them to imagine the opportunities that exist in their learning environ- ments, that allows them to experience the exciting athletic, social and cultural events. Through your initiatives, students are empowered to imagine how their lives will be different, how they will define their worlds and how their understanding of themselves and oth- ers is expanding.

But it does not stop there. As an imaginary friend you exert your wiz- ardry on your institutions. You force us to imagine how we are influenced by students, how our curriculums will respond to their learning needs and how we can provide an optimal educa- tional experience for all of our students.Β 

So what does that learning environ- ment look like as we contemplate the future? I believe that if we are to serve students ”” and society ”” we have to imagine three kinds of learning.

  • We have to promote learning for its own sake. We have to revive in every student the sense of curiosi- ty and wonder with which we were all born. Remember when every part of life looked like a question and your mother or your father or your first teacher seemed to know every answer? Life is still like that, at least to the degree that it remains a long series of unan- swered questions. We cannot, in a modern context, imagine a gradu- ate that is a finished product, a fully educated individual. Rather, we must inculcate in all graduates the capacity to keep learning, to learn more, to learn better and to learn for as long as they live.Β 

  • We must promote learning that builds specific competencies. It is appropriate to value and nurture open-mindedness, but no one wants to look into the eyes of their surgeon and see someone who has only a well-developed sense of wonder about the human body. From health care to engineering, in the pure sciences or the human sciences, we must promote learn- ing that effectively disseminates and expands the scope of human knowledge.

  • We must promote learning that leads to a sense of community engagement, that builds in each stu- dent a sense of responsibility to the social and environmental world. We must serve students in a way that helps them contribute to a civil soci- ety, one that creates competent and productive graduates who are also dedicated global citizens.

If you look at these three broad categories of learning and sort through who is responsible for which, I think you come to two conclusions.

First, it is not easy to separate or discriminate among the tasks. If we are to remake our institutions to serve stu- dents, we must rethink our boundaries, our policies and the walls that have existed between services and faculties.

The second conclusion that I draw from sorting through our learning types is this: Only one of these three goals can be achieved solely in the classroom. Our faculty members can teach competency in a specific aca- demic field. They can also play an essential role in continuing to build ”” or helping to revive ”” a yen for knowl- edge, an appetite for lifelong learning.

But the lessons of citizenship, the lessons of engagement, the lessons of cultural understanding and environ- mental sensitivity ”” the lessons of life ”” all these must be learned between class- es, and not necessarily in the library or the lab. These lessons must be learned in residence, in clubs, in counselling, in career and health services, in aboriginal student services, in intramural athletics, in student government and in community service. This is the major catego- ry of learning in which student services have always provided and must continue to provide the lead.

If some of you now have it on the tips of your tongues to ask, ”œLead where?” I have eight general challenges, eight areas in which I believe there is much opportunity to serve your institutions and your stu- dents, eight areas to inject your imagi- nation and creativity to become the imaginary friend that inspires creative programs and action.

First and foremost, it must be a constant goal to get students involved beyond themselves, beyond the nar- row world of friends they already know and a specialty in which they may already be immersed.

This is perhaps a little easier when students come from afar; they often move into residence and are thrust into a new community, meeting stu- dents from other walks of life and with other interests. It might be a bit hard- er when dealing with students who are already established in the community, who are continuing the same carpool arrangements they had in high school, maintaining the same friendships, pur- suing the same goals. They park in the same parking lot and go to the same classes and, in the worst case, they go home with nothing more to think about than the day’s lesson. These are students we must reach.

The second goal ”” and they are not in hierarchical order ”” is to ensure access and promote diversity. This is a constant and evolving challenge. Every time we think we’re getting a handle on it, we face a new wrinkle, but we are making headway. The most obvious access question of the last half-century was answered when we began to make room for women, and not just in nursing, education and fine arts. Of course, once we achieved a critical mass of women on campus, we found that the toughest challenges had only just begun: It’s one thing to accommodate a group; it’s another to make the members of that group feel welcome, to give them the support they need to reach their potential.

This, now, is an area of great prom- ise. We have learned many lessons that will create a supportive and invit- ing environment for those with physi- cal or learning disabilities, visible or sexual orientation minorities, interna- tional and aboriginal students and those with economic or language dis- advantages. And the more successful we are in broadening the characteris- tics and attributes of our student pop- ulation, the better the experience we will offer to all.

Goal number three, and this is somewhat related to number two, is advancing internationalization. Just as students benefit from exposure to a full range of people from their own community, they learn from exposure to the wider world. In a shrinking global community, the people best able to work with their international neighbours will be those who bring the best understanding and the most sensitivity to cultural differences.

Goal number four is the develop- ment of skills for career self- management. Much has been said in the last quarter-century about the death of the ”œjob for life.” The pace of change in the modern world is such that most people now go from one career to another almost every decade. Our career counselling services can no longer be aimed at finding a nice fit for a 22- or 23-year-old student who needs to make only one major career decision. We must give each student the tools to continually reassess their priorities, their strengths and their weaknesses.

Goal number five can be wrapped up in the seductively simple-sounding word ”œsustainability.” It is, of course, not simple in the least. The world pop- ulation is currently growing by almost 80 million people per year, roughly the population of Germany. Our ability to consume resources has never been greater and our appetite seems always on the rise.

How can we sustain this? How can we protect an environment that we are overwhelming with popula- tion and development? How can we sustain our Canadian environmental heritage? We can’t answer those ques- tions, but we can insist that students think about them.

Goal number six is service learn- ing. It is a way to ensure that your institutions are engaged and appre- ciated at the community level and it’s the most effective way for students to learn the joys of responsible citizenship.

Goal seven: student leadership development. As the teachers and helpers among us all know, the only thing more gratifying than receiving help when you need it is giving help when it is most appreciated. Finally, and I approach this eighth goal with some trepidation, we must facilitate spiri- tual development. Despite our reli- gious foundations, universities and colleges have become ”” unremitting- ly and correctly ”” secular. It is decid- edly not our function to proselytize, to tell students what to believe. But in a world awash in moral and ethical dilemmas, we must ensure that stu- dents do not confuse secularism with immorality ”” we must make a place for spirituality.

Perhaps more important, in a world where it is inevitable and essen- tial that people debate issues like abor- tion or the actions of Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East, we must ensure that there is a place for faith on our campuses. We must provide a venue that is inclusive and safe, an atmos- phere in which people can, unapolo- getically, express their beliefs without fear of reprisal.

How then do we address all these goals? How do you work your magic? The long awaited release of yet another Harry Potter can teach us about wizardry from this remarkable 11-year-old boy? Harry, in all of his adventures, depends upon his wand to effect his magic ”” the tool that, when used properly, changes the environment for others, creates opportunities and confronts adversi- ty. I tend to believe that we all need our wands ”” the instruments, tech- niques and approaches ”” to effect the necessary changes in our learning environment.

What are the components of such a wand? Harry clearly defines his wand: ”œEvery wand has a core of a powerful magical substance. We use unicorn hairs, phoenix tail feathers, and the heartstrings of dragons.”

So, for what it is worth, here are my ideas about the unicorn hairs, phoenix tail feathers and heartstrings of dragons that comprise an effective student services wand. First, every wand needs respectful partner- ships between student affairs professionals and the leaders of our academic units. As a university presi- dent, I understand that’s my challenge as well as yours, but I encourage all of us ”” deans, heads, faculty members and student service professionals ”” to work together to effect change in our learning environments.

Second, every wand needs strate- gic connections to our communities to ensure we are offering students the right career options, the exciting co-op and internship experiences and the service learning opportuni- ties. By working with our external communities, we will succeed in connecting our students to the regions we serve.

Third, every wand requires global reach, from the most simple exchange programs to the most complex joint ventures.

Finally, if your wands are to really work, they must include the most important magical ingredient, which is students. We must understand, value and promote students in all the magic we do and in all aspects of our imagi- native wizardry.


This article was adapted from an address the author gave in June to the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.

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