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Student Affairs Leadership: Defining the Role Through an Ecological Framework

reviewed by Delores E. McNair & Linda Skrla - May 31, 2017

coverTitle: Student Affairs Leadership: Defining the Role Through an Ecological Framework
Author(s): Linda Kuk & James H. Banning
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1620363313, Pages: 216, Year: 2016
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In Student Affairs Leadership: Defining the Role Through an Ecological Framework, authors Linda Kuk and James H. Banning set out to advance readers’ understanding of leadership in higher education, specifically within the context of student affairs. Their goal is helping readers “gain insight into how leadership works in various contexts . . . [by focusing] on how positional leaders interact with their environment to engage in leadership” (p. 2). The ecological framework they use to discuss leadership is similar to systems thinking (Senge, 2006) and focuses on organizations as living systems (Wheatley, 2006). This offers opportunities for leaders to understand and appreciate rapidly changing organizations that are dynamic.

The book is divided into three parts beginning with an overview of the ecology of student affairs leadership. The first part provides a solid foundation for the discussions that follow in parts two and three. Although some readers might be tempted to skip Part One, its chapters offer both an overview of traditional leadership theories and a thorough discussion of the ecological model used in this text. In just 13 pages, Kuk and Banning take readers through a concise, yet substantial, discussion of evolving leadership theories. They include early theories and emerging theories that form the basis for their ecological model. The chapter concludes with a brief review of the literature related to leadership in student affairs. It succinctly identifies gaps in the research and the way the research presented in this volume fills in these missing areas.

Chapter Two offers a detailed review of the ecological model and how it is used in this study. Kuk and Banning assert that this perspective “not only helps frame the work of student affairs, but also can be useful when looking at specific functional units within student affairs” (p. 25, emphasis in original). Although their work is intended to examine student affairs leadership, their focus is on the senior student affairs officer (SSAO) role, the positional leader in student affairs divisions. As a result, due to its comprehensive overview of this role and the way the SSAO functions across multiple dimensions of the organizational environment, this book will be helpful to anyone who is currently in the SSAO position, people who professionally aspire to this role, or those who work with SSAOs. The study's participants are introduced to readers in Chapter Three and in greater detail in Chapter Thirteen, which includes the description of the research design and demographic information.

Part Two’s seven chapters on the environmental influences of leadership engagement carefully move readers through participants’ experiences in relation to six environments: cultural, social, physical, resource, ethical, and political or legal. At times, some of the information is repetitive. However, this allows each chapter to be read independently rather than requiring that readers move through them all at once. Throughout each of these chapters, Kuk and Banning provide insights into the experiences of the SSAOs and use their data to illustrate the ways that executive level administrators navigate a complex organizational environment. When necessary, they make distinctions for readers to demonstrate differences among organization types as well. For example, they note differences in the types of responsibilities of those SSAOs who work at research intensive universities, comprehensive or master's granting universities, liberal arts universities, or community colleges. These distinctions can be especially helpful to aspiring SSAOs who are interested in understanding the nuances of this type of role. For example, those SSAOs who are interested in a high level of contact with students may opt for liberal arts or community college environments. In contrast, those who prefer a more policy oriented position may choose the other types of universities.

Each chapter includes a summary of implications for student affairs leaders. These sections synthesize the findings presented in the chapter and often include the authors’ additional insights. It is not surprising that in the chapter on social environments, most of the SSAOs feel confident and competent. Many of them also express concerns about the required commitments outside of their normal work hours. These participants indicate that their commitments place “considerable strain” (p. 76) on them and their families. Kuk and Banning acknowledge that the engagement of SSAOs “with the social environment can both be their personal strength in terms of skill and knowledge and present some of the greatest challenges to them personally and at times professionally” (p. 76). These types of insights can be helpful to current SSAOs who already experience this type of challenge and to aspiring SSAOs who will want to prepare to meet these kinds of difficulties. When the participants in their study express a lack of clarity regarding the political and ethical environments they find themselves in, Kuk and Banning do not simply leave these areas unchallenged. Instead, they note the importance of acknowledging the political environment rather than shying away from it. Most participants describe this environment in negative terms, seemingly equating the political environment with something subversive rather than strategic. Similarly, participants also do not clearly articulate ethical standards. Most of them describe themselves and their colleagues as good people, but somewhat surprisingly do not refer to professional ethical standards. As a result, the chapter about the ethical environment is one of the shortest in the volume.

The final part of the book regarding the future of student affairs leadership offers a sense of the future of this area and its implications for aspiring SSAOs. It may not be surprising that Kuk and Banning suggest that the future will be filled with constant change. They encourage SSAOs to understand not just organizational change as a concept, but also change more broadly as a process. They explain that effective leadership will require “an understanding of how to ready an organization for change, developing strategies and sets of processes that enable change to occur, and having the ability to make the necessary adjustments across the organization that enable change to occur” (p. 129). They propose that SSAOs not look for immediate or transformational changes. Instead, they should create an organization that embraces continual change as part of its culture. In turn, they suggest that this requires a high degree of organizational flexibility and collaboration. Perhaps most importantly, it also needs an acknowledgment that change can be driven from different parts of the organization and not solely come from the top.

Recommendations for graduate professional preparation programs and professional development activities emerge from the research presented in this book. As faculty members who work in a professional preparation program, we find the text’s recommendations to be refreshing and forward thinking. Kuk and Banning challenge faculty members to move outside of traditional curricular offerings to include more flexibility and a focus on organizational issues, institution types (e.g., how SSAO roles, in particular, and student affairs, in general, differ by institution), and include more practice based curriculum. We concur that preparation programs rooted in past practices will not serve future student affairs professionals who are entering a dynamic environment. One essential take away from the volume is that graduate studies and professional development activities alone do not prepare one for the SSAO role. Participants in this study indicate that they had held various positions within student affairs prior to becoming SSAO. A terminal degree and these types of previous experiences are seen as essential elements for professional success.

Kuk and Banning’s Student Affairs Leadership would make an important companion text to any graduate professional preparation program and a variety of professional development experiences. Similarly, current SSAOs may want to read this volume to gain insights into their own experiences and to consider the ways they might share these ideas with colleagues and those who they mentor. The authors manage to find a balance by presenting a comprehensive research study with a practitioner based focus. They carefully outline the book overall, each section, and every chapter. Their writing is engaging and their conclusions are supported well by the data that they have gathered. We recommend this text for those who are interested in the profession of student affairs and those who would like to know more about the role of the SSAO in higher education.


Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of learning organizations. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 31, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21998, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:27:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Delores McNair
    University of the Pacific
    E-mail Author
    DELORES E. MCNAIR is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Leadership at the University of the Pacific and holds an Ed.D. from Oregon State. Prior to joining the faculty at Pacific in 2006, she spent her career in California community colleges. Using the leadership competencies developed by the American Association of Community Colleges, her research examines the ways the competencies influence the work of community college presidents. Her scholarship on this topic has been published in the Community College Review and The Community College Journal of Research and Practice, among other venues.
  • Linda Skrla
    University of the Pacific
    E-mail Author
    LINDA SKRLA is Professor and the Department Chair of the Educational Administration and Leadership Department at the University of the Pacific. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1997. She is a past Vice President of Division A (Leadership) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), former editor of Education Administration Quarterly, and author, co-author or co-editor of seven books. Her research focuses on educational equity issues in school leadership, including accountability policy, high success school districts, and women superintendents.
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