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April 23, 2013

Chain of Command Matters

Chain of Command Matters

Written By: Roger Thompson, IVMF Senior Fellow

Having spent nearly two years visiting colleges and universities with my colleague, Alexis Hart, while investigating campus practices for veterans, I have seen a wide range of creative, thoughtful and engaging ways to create more military and veteran friendly institutions. Often, this has taken the form of an initiative to found and fund a Veterans Resource Center (VRCs). These centers often aim to be a kind of one-stop-shop for veterans, providing under one roof the resources veterans need to make the transition from service to higher education.

The impetus and execution of many of these centers is admirable, and the folks who staff them are unfailing dedicated, energetic and driven individuals.  Time and again, I’ve seen directors of VRCs who spend much of their own free time trying to make their centers work, become better and become a hub for veteran activity on campus.

At the same time, my colleague and I have noticed that with rare exception, VRCs report up a chain of command that, while on the surface seems to make sense, may in fact ultimately undermine the overall purpose of VRCs—aiding veteran transitions.  Nearly all of the VRCs we visited report in the student affairs chain of command. Within a university, this is the chain that often houses various student groups, social clubs, fraternities and sororities, intramural clubs and various outreach groups.  Such a chain seems a reasonable location for veterans as it strikes at the social and community aspects of college life, which is usually the heart of student affairs.

If, however, the ultimate goal of facilitating veteran transition is academic achievement and securing an education for veterans and their families, student affairs is likely the wrong chain for a VRC.  Instead, academic affairs may provide the best chain for creating veteran success at college.

Academic affairs in a college and university is typically focused on ensuring student success in the classroom.  Faculty typically are directly involved in academic affairs committees, and they often run academic affairs offices. They oversee student achievement, resources for academic improvement (honors programs, tutoring, instructional technology, etc.) and scholarships.  They help provide students with paths to academic success, steering them toward new and challenging majors, developing innovative degrees and courses of study (that many veterans may not even know exist,) and providing meaningful advising that can help student veterans reimagine themselves as students and as part of new learning communities.

In short, situating a VRC under academic affairs communicates to both faculty and students that the primary goal of bringing veterans to a campus is ensuring they receive a quality education. Perhaps, more importantly, it communicates to institutional hierarchies that the VRC is focused on education and is accordingly worthy of ongoing and sustained financial support.  Student affairs is important to student life, but it is also often the target of budget cuts—the proverbial low-hanging fruit—the glitzy “extras” that colleges can tout to lure students. A VRC, however, is not an “extra.”  For those institutions providing a commitment to student veterans, it is a necessity, and as one focused on academic success, it should report to the academic officials of the institution. Doing so ensures not only a clear focus for the VRC, but visibility and security in the academic curriculum.

Dr. Roger Thompson, an IVMF Senior Fellow, is a professor of English and fine arts at the Virginia Military Institute, is a respected teacher and scholar, accomplished public speaker and award-winning writer. He is co-author of Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline of Iraq, written with the IVMF’s Shannon P. Meehan.

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