I have had the pleasure to serve as the Dean of Students at King’s University College for the last three years. As an affiliate of Western University in London, Ontario, King’s is one of many affiliated or federated universities across Canada, many of which have had either historical or current connections with religious denominations (Trick, 2015).
With most of my career spent within a constituent university a.k.a. “the constituent campus” and colleges in Ontario, I have to admit as I transitioned to King’s, I was unsure of what to expect. After three years, I think I have gained enough experience, knowledge and expertise to outline the key benefits of working in this type of unique setting within Canada’s postsecondary sector. I have to admit, it still elicits some confusion even amongst my learned Student Affairs colleagues in Canada when I talk to them about my role. That being said, as I reflect on my time at King’s thus far, there are several key conclusions about the affiliated university environment that I would like to share:
Relationships Are A Key Ingredient
My institution has approximately 3500 full and part-time students, and that really puts us in sweet spot when it comes to developing solid and long-lasting connections with students. I am not saying that I know every student by name, but the smaller, more intimate environment provides opportunities to genuinely connect with students. Research tells us the sooner that students feel comfortable and connect to someone that matters to them on campus the higher likelihood they will persist (Lefever, 2012). For those, like myself, who have spent years in higher education the ability to build solid relationships, especially with those who may be viewed as on the margins or have barriers (students with disabilities, indigenous students, first-generation etc.) this is especially satisfying.
Playgrounds For Innovation
Bureaucracies exist everywhere, even on smaller campuses. However, in an affiliated or federated university college, innovation is everywhere too. While it might be byproduct of limited funds, I have found the opportunity and risk tolerance for trying new ideas especially welcome on campuses of smaller size. Whether it’s trying a new program to support student success, collaborating with community partners, or the establishment of new courses of study, I’ve found that affiliates have the ability to be more nimble to respond, pivot and correct quickly to make change. More importantly, students get to reap the rewards of these unique strengths.
Collaboration Is In The DNA
The beauty of a smaller environment like an affiliated or federated institution is that it breeds opportunities for collaboration. The very fact that you are in such close proximity to colleagues from academic departments, units and student government to work on initiatives such as experiential learning, mental health programming and academic skills initiatives helps to quickly scale activities on and off campus. Moreover, there are other great partners at the constituent university, or in the case of King’s, our affiliate partners at Brescia University College and Huron University College.
A Place Of Many Hats
As a senior administrator at an affiliated university college, my position requires me to wear many hats in my efforts to make the institution a valuable, vibrant, and diverse place of work and learning. When I took the position at King’s, some colleagues suggested that doing so might be a detriment to my career progression. Having now been on campus for three years, this could not be more further from the truth. A smaller environment allows me to balance the close connections with students that drive me as student affairs professional, while also giving me the ability to actually make decisions with my team that affect students quickly and directly.
Certainly, every day is not roses and sunshine. There are continual challenges that come with any senior administrative role in higher education in Canada. Responding quickly to student and parent concerns, finding the right balance to support student mental health, and continually innovating on programs that promote student engagement are just as present as they are at any other institution. However, the tight-knit environment, the collaborative culture and the new experiences that present themselves everyday are more than worth it.
Joe Henry is the Dean of Students at King’s University College at Western University in London, Ontario.
Lefever, R. (2012) "Exploring student understandings of belonging on campus", Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Vol. 4 Issue: 2, pp.126-141
Trick, D. (2015). Affiliated and Federated Universities as Sources of University Differentiation. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.