Decisions Matter: Using a Decision-Making Framework with Contemporary Student Affairs Case Studies

Seasoned professionals may have the gut instinct to make a split-second response when necessary, but that instinct took years to develop.


Racial or homophobic graffiti suddenly sprouts up all over campus. A student’s remarks suggest the possibility of self-harm. Tornado warnings interrupt a critical meeting. A student asks to be separated from her roommate, who has Asperger’s syndrome. You learn that a star student whom you are trying to place in an internship is an undocumented immigrant.

How do you decide how to respond? Seasoned professionals may have the gut instinct to make a split-second response when necessary, but that instinct took years to develop. Although college staff fresh out of graduate school have been well trained in theories of educational leadership, most have relatively little training in how to make real-world decisions on the job.

Participants in a National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) regional summit in 2009 discussed the need for graduate programs to teach more about translating theory into practice. They noted that case studies are a common teaching tool in other graduate professional schools such as law, business and medicine.

They sent out a call to student affairs professionals for case studies drawn from recent experience. The result is Decisions Matter: Using a Decision-Making Framework with Contemporary Student Affairs Case Studies, edited by Annemarie Vaccaro, Brian McCoy, Delight Champagne and Michael Siegel (NASPA 2013).

Targeted to entry-level student affairs staff and the students and faculty of graduate programs that train them, the book provides a framework for making decisions in higher education. It then offers some 30 case studies with questions to guide readers through the decision-making process. The goal is not to reach one right answer, but to model ways to think about the problem.

Decision-making process

The editors outline a sequence of four phases for making an effective decision. Each phase includes specific tasks plus key questions and considerations.

1. Define the problem. This is less obvious than one might suppose. When a student leader at a religious college uses his campus Twitter account to lambaste the school for its strict stance on alcohol, what is the core problem? The misuse of college resources, irresponsible student leadership, the promotion of under-age drinking or the tension between free speech and the school’s right to protect itself?

Assessing the problem includes determining its urgency (how quickly do you have to decide?), the people it affects and the level of threat involved.

It includes knowing your role and authority on the issue and whom you need to consult or inform. What data do you need to gather? Another task in this phase is to define the short-run and long-run outcomes you hope to achieve.

2. Scan the options. The first task is to identify the options. How have similar situations been handled in the past? What guidelines or protocols are in place? Your school may have clear guidelines for tornado warnings or roommate change requests, or you may need to make a judgment call.

In the second task, weigh the pros and cons. For each option, ask what barriers might keep you from moving forward and what constituencies might be negatively affected. Think about the human and financial resources required. Determine which option is most likely to bring the desired outcomes.

3. Implement the solution. Move forward with the selected option. A specific plan of action includes tasks, time frame and who will carry them out. You may need to reappraise the action plan along the way in response to unforeseen issues, unintended consequences or even a redefinition of the problem.

4. Assess the impact. Evaluation goes beyond determining whether your response achieved the desired outcomes. Did it have any unintended consequences, positive or negative? Does the college need to create any new policies or protocols to prevent similar situations in the future? What have you learned about yourself based on your mistakes or successes? What might you do differently next time?

Competencies and context

In 2010, ACPA and NASPA jointly defined a list of ten professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners such as advising, diversity, ethics, policy and student development. All student affairs personnel need competence in all ten areas.

Each case study ends with a section linking the situation to various competencies. In the Twitter example, interactions between staff and the offending student might fall under advising and student development. Legal differences between free speech rights at public and private colleges are matters of policy and governance.

In addition, each case study draws attention to context: professional, campus and external. Ethical standards and all that theory you learned in class are parts of the professional context. Campus context includes institutional size, type and culture. External context includes the politics and culture of the town, state and region.

Racial and homophobic graffiti are unacceptable anywhere; but a proudly progressive college might respond differently than a small church school in a conservative community. Immigration issues vary with state law as well as the ethnic makeup of the surrounding community.

By guiding readers through these questions, the case studies help students develop habits of thought for how to make decisions in the real world. It is not enough to learn a solution for each scenario; new situations arise each day and every context is different. The goal is to learn a process for making effective decisions.

While a book is no substitute for experience, it sets a comprehensive framework for making any decision.

Using this framework can help the new practitioner survive in the short run and make the most of each new experience. Over years of intentional decision-making she will develop the gut instinct of the seasoned professional.

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, June). Moveable Type: Learning How to Decide. Women in Higher Education, 22(6), 14.

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