Leading Together: The Responsibility Initiative
One of the benefits I value most in serving on the Board of Directors is the opportunity to work with the Student Leadership Team. Its members change every year, but each team shares certain characteristics. This is a group of passionate, engaged, talented, and inspiring individuals who represent not only students, but all of NIRSA. Their perspectives on the future of our Association are very enlightening and the care they have for NIRSA is genuine.
With that involvement over the past several years has come a consistent theme in our conversations. These discussions have focused on the concerns of personal behavior and conduct at NIRSA events, especially at our Annual Conference. The vast majority of conduct and behavior at NIRSA events are of high standards and very much consistent with the NIRSA Code of Ethics, our commitment to professionalism, and positive role modeling. However, there is significant evidence that there is a condition within NIRSA, and perhaps within other organizations that serve higher education, that needs to be addressed. Subsequently, these concerns have been shared with a variety of our members, including the NIRSA Board of Directors and others in NIRSA leadership positions. In almost all cases, this information was a new awareness.
So what has moved me to the point that I find it necessary to write this article?
- Stories shared by students about inappropriate interactions they
observed. These interactions were not limited to any particular group,
but applied equally to professionals and to students.
- The behavior of professionals serves as a role model for
students and young professionals, who look towards the more seasoned
individuals to determine what is acceptable. As one student leader
explained: “This is a behavior which I am learning and [unless I
consciously choose otherwise] will repeat when I become a young
professional, influencing the behavior of the next generation of
students. It seems we have a responsibility to break that cycle and set
a better standard of acceptable behavior.”
- The SLT shared that there are students who have the perception
that the Annual Conference is analogous to a “Spring Break.” Now, in
your mind's eye you may have a variety of images and thoughts about that
statement, but I would venture to guess that most of them are not very
The anecdotal stories, while not of an overwhelming frequency, are nevertheless significant enough to have confirmed for me that this is an alarming concern for all of us. Supporting the success of students in higher education, what might we as an Association do to counter any perception that NIRSA is disinterested in positive role modeling for students?
In spring 2007 I formed the Responsibility Initiative Work Team, chaired by Linda Clauss, former National Student Representative, to address this issue. The Student Leadership Team and the Board of Directors, partnering with the Work Team, have come together to initiate what we are calling Leading Together. This effort is to bring increased awareness to our Association and to educate the membership around the issues of professionalism, responsible decision-making, and the impact our behavior has on others.
The following are efforts currently being undertaken, much of which you will see at the Annual Conference in Austin:
- The SLT will be sending to all directors of NIRSA Institutional Members a letter requesting that the directors sign a pledge to discuss with their professional and student staff the issue of behavior and responsibility.
- The curriculum in the Student Development Preconference Workshop will address this issue.
- All attendees of the 2008 Annual Conference will be asked to sign the Responsibility Pledge banner that addresses the commitment to professionalism. Those signing the banner will receive a blue ribbon to wear on their Conference name tag. It is hoped that all attendees will sign this banner. The banner will be located first at Conference Registration, then at the NIRSA Booth in the Exhibit Hall, and will also travel to the Student Business Meeting.
- As President, I will present this initiative at the Opening General Session, provide time at the Annual Business Meeting to discuss, and report at the Honor Award Banquet how successful we have been in engaging the membership.
- The Regional Business Meeting agenda will include this issue as an item for discussion.
- The Student Business Meeting agenda will include this issue as an item for discussion.
- The SLT will have a poster presentation on professionalism.
- The post-conference evaluation will include questions that will assist us in determining how successful our efforts were.
We hope that the act of signing the banner and wearing the ribbon will generate discussion among attendees and will also serve as a reminder of the role we play in representing ourselves, our institutions, NIRSA, and the important relationships that we form with students and professionals. I appreciate the response I received this year at various NIRSA meetings when I shared my experiences and concerns on this issue.
There is no doubt that addressing the issues of behavior, conduct, and expectations is difficult. But how will we ever make a difference if we shy away from those discussions that are at times uncomfortable? How can we bring awareness to a topic if we keep silent? Or only discuss with our inner circle of colleagues and friends because that is the safe place to be? I know there is risk in bringing this issue to the forefront at the Annual Conference, but there is a much greater threat to the future of our Association and our rightful place as leaders within the greater higher education community if we don’t.
I look forward to seeing all of you in Austin.
Take care and be well, TK