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Senior Administrator Priorities amid the Pandemic and National Polarization

A survey of senior campus administrators provides timely insights into their priorities and concerns for the current academic year

October 1, 2021

The murder of George Floyd by a police officer, national protests for racial justice, an embattled presidential election, the violent insurrection at the US Capitol, and thousands of lives lost to a virulent virus. Over the past year and a half, students and campus communities have experienced severe and traumatic events that have shifted the priorities of college and university leaders.

In spring 2021, researchers at American University and AAC&U surveyed 140 senior campus administrators, primarily presidents and vice presidents. The survey results provide timely insights into their priorities and concerns for the current academic year in the wake of unprecedented national and global events. Respondents said their biggest priority is to provide more resources and support for students.

Student Support, Resources, and Affordability Are among the Biggest Challenges

  • The survey asked administrators to rank three broad challenges—student protests or other forms of collective action, student resource challenges and college affordability, and student support needs.
  • Senior administrators at private institutions ranked student support needs as their highest priority (51 percent), followed by student resource challenges and college affordability (46 percent).
  • At public institutions, their priorities were flipped, with 48 percent ranking student resource challenges and college affordability highest, followed by student support needs (43 percent).

Administrators Consider a Variety of Approaches to Improve Student Services

  • Senior administrators indicated that they were considering several ways to improve the delivery of student services at their institution (see figure below).
  • Nearly all administrators said that they were considering a greater focus on student persistence and retention (93 percent) or an expansion of data analytics to improve student success (91 percent).
  • More than three-quarters were also considering more coordination among different specialists (86 percent), increasing staff training to develop a more supportive and empathetic campus culture (84 percent), or offering more technology-assisted services (77 percent).

Administrators Less Concerned about Campus Conflicts or Protests

  • Senior administrators at both public and private institutions ranked student protests and other forms of collective actions as the lowest of the three priority areas.
  • Despite nationwide protests for racial justice, a bitterly contested presidential election, an unprecedented global health crisis, and the attack on the US Capitol, a majority of the senior academic leaders who were surveyed (59 percent) believed that conflicts between students of different ideological groups are either “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to occur.
  • Just over 1 percent believed such confrontations to be “very likely,” and fewer than 1 percent were “very concerned” about potential confrontations on campus between student protesters and counter-protesters.
  • A fifth (20 percent) of senior administrators reported that their campus is currently without formal policies for managing protests or other forms of collective action, while another 4 percent did not know if their campus has these policies.
  • Nearly half (44 percent) reported their institution does not have policies in place for managing confrontations involving protesters and counter-protesters, while 13 percent were unsure if such policies exist on their campus.
  • Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of senior administrators reported that public safety officers at their institutions have had “robust” training in handling face-to-face confrontations between groups on campus. Even fewer (16 percent) reported that student affairs personnel have had this training.
  • Senior administrators indicated that the three issues most likely to cause conflict or protests on campus include race (54 percent), hate speech (36 percent), and public safety or policing (31 percent).