Having worked in housing and in the university setting for several years, I really felt that I had a good handle on university administration. I could not have been more mistaken. In my time as Director, I have learned that the process is much more intricate and complicated than I could have realized.
If you who are just starting out in a CHO position, or are interested in such a position in the future, check out the top ten lessons that I have learned as a Chief Housing Officer.
Lesson 1. Everything will begin slowly –
When you begin in your position, if you are like me, you will have all kinds of ideas, probably valid ones, about how to change the current operation to make it more efficient, user-friendly, etc. Do not expect this to happen overnight. Take the time first to get to know your staff and build trust. You will need them for any change that you might want to make.
Lesson 2. You must accept compromise.
While this is true in any position, it will especially be true as a Director. While you may feel that your ideas are the best or more important, forcing your agenda may hurt you in the long run. Your level of effectiveness will depend on your relationships, and if in the course of implementing an idea, you alienate a colleague, you may find that it disables you in the long run.
Lesson 3. Be at peace with discord.
While you want to maintain those relationships, sometimes you will have no choice but make an unpopular decision. Do not automatically assume that because you are in the minority that you have made the wrong decision. Remember, you have a wider perspective on your operation than anyone else, and there may be pertinent information that you cannot share with residents, staff members, etc. Explain your decision with stakeholders, and provide as much information as is appropriate.
Lesson 4. Communication is absolutely essential.
While it seems almost cliché, it is true. At the very least, your staff should find out from you directly about a decision you have made that affects them, not from another staff member, or, heaven forbid, the campus newspaper. At best, you should involve your staff in the decision-making process. Once again, this may take time, but you will find that it is time well-spent. It only takes one uninformed staff member to make a staff feel as if you are not concerned with their welfare or input, even if the lack of communication was simply an oversight.
Lesson 5. You cannot do everything yourself.
Fight the temptation to do all the work yourself, even when others may not do it “your way” or even as well as you. If you find yourself typing letters, putting up mail, or dealing with petty roommate disputes, you are not using your time wisely. The success of your entire department is impacted by the wise use of your time.
Lesson 6. Your relationships with students will change.
Do not think that you can have the same relationships with students that you had as an RA, Hall Director, or Assistant Director. Any casual conversation with students or staff may be cannon fodder for the student newspaper, and, rest assured, you will be misquoted. While you can still have positive relationships with students, any time you spend with students or student staff may be perceived as “favoritism” even when none exists.
Lesson 7. You must find a way to communicate effectively with parents.
You may see parents as a nuisance or distraction to your mission. Drop that idea. With this generation, parents are going to be involved in their child’s college experience, one way or another. Given FERPA and other privacy laws, not to mention the general idea that students should be responsible for themselves, there is much that you cannot share directly with parents, so anything you say will go through the very biased and unreliable filter of their child first. Rest assured, he/she will not give them factual information, but will slant it or fabricate it based on whatever they may want from you or their parents at the time. Parents will naturally swoop in and rush to the aid of their child.
You must learn to listen intently, double-check to make sure that you have all of the facts straight in the particular case, apologize when appropriate (and when inappropriate) and give the parent all of the information you can while explaining why you cannot give them the information they want. Help parents to understand what you do as a department; that you are there to assist students. Also, be proactive. Set up a parents’ newsletter that profiles you and your staff, lets them know what programming you have going on, etc. Some universities even have a parents’ organization to help them get involved. This can help build a relationship, so that the first time they speak with you or your staff is not when a problem arises.
Also, keep in mind that parents may not want to speak with your Hall Directors, Assistant Directors, etc. They may want to speak to you. As much as is possible and wise, do not deny them this privilege, even when you do not want to speak with them. Speaking with you will help them feel that they have dealt with someone who can really make a difference, even if you are simply going to relay the information to your staff when you conclude your conversation with them.
Lesson 8. The custodial and maintenance staff should be your best friends.
Whether you supervise them or not, your custodial and maintenance staff can make or break you as a department. When tours or donors come to visit, everything must be clean and look nice. Often, students form an opinion on your university within the first few minutes of a site visit. Also, custodians and maintenance workers can be another set of eyes for you in the buildings, letting you know any damage they see. They also will often have a good relationship with students and can give you a feel of the morale of students at any given time. Make sure you take the time to recognize this group’s hard work, as they are often overlooked.
Lesson 9. Any mistake is your mistake.
Even if you had no control over a situation with one of your staff members that has gone sour, it will reflect poorly on you. When parents, students, other departments, etc. contact you about a bad situation with a staff member, take the blame. Do not point back at that staff member. In private, speak with the staff member and try to rectify the situation, but know that you will bear the responsibility for anything that your staff does. On the bright side, any success is also your success as well. In this case, however, make sure that those who did the work get the credit.
Lesson 10. You must learn to be a diplomat.
You will take abuse – from parents, students, other departments, staff members. They may not understand why you do the things that you do. If you remove a student, you may be accused of being aloof. If you do not remove a student, you may be accused of being weak on discipline issues. Keep in mind that most of those around you may not see everything that you see. Do your best not to take these accusations personally.
I hope you will find these lessons useful! While it may make the task seem daunting, do not be afraid to take the chance. Consider this job a challenge. A challenge to do something positive. A challenge to do your best to create and maintain a department that at its heart does everything possible to assist students in getting an education and growing as people, a noble cause indeed.
Submitted by Casey Case, Director of Residence Life, Cameron University