A call to eliminate Offices of Student Life and invest directly in students’ lives

I argue in recent essays that the currently unbridged and apparently unbridgeable gulf between college students’ academic--including classroom--lives, and the anachronistically- termed “extracurricular life”--once actually called the “extra-curriculum” as opposed to the curriculum--is almost as difficult to talk about as to take reconstructive measures. Critics who ignorantly see Student Affairs or Student Life programs as a “shadow curriculum” competing with “THE Faculty” exacerbate the sense of conflict. As usual, the ever-rising tuition-paying students suffer.

Over time, this opposition is embedded into the structures and functions of almost all institutions of higher education, regardless of how contradictory it is, and how negatively it functions.

Student Life without student lives

To emphasize and document these points, I focus on the Office of Student Life at The Ohio State University. It is unique only in its extremes. With 10 Associate Vice Presidents and more than 30 “centers”—and counting, it is radically disconnected from the mega-university’s more than 65,000 students and almost all other parts of this cavern without bridges. In many ways, it functions as anti-student and also a profit-center. In 18 years, I have learned that empty sloganeering, irresponsibility, inability to communicate, and dishonesty unite the uncoordinated parts of which there is no whole.

As I explore at greater length elsewhere, there are many ways to close the self- and student-destructive gaps that permeate contemporary universities. I discuss administrative, “budget model,” and academic--especially general education and returning tenure-track teaching faculty to student advising after first year--dimensions. Here I critically examine one particular out-sized, undefined, disorganized, overstaffed, and wasteful operation.

Part and parcel with other central elements of arguably the largest most disconnected, disorganized, and least student-focused university in the US, Student Life’s organizational structure defies description or explanation. It is headed by a Vice President who randomly signs communications Dr. ___, first or full name, or “Doc,” that is, when she responds at all. She seems to have an identity as well as a writing problem. She sits above 10 Associate Vice Presidents and a swollen “leadership team.”

The “leadership team”—like the football coaches—begins with the Associate VPs: Health and Well-Being; Dean of Students/Student Engagement and Support; Human Resources Business Partner; Belonging and Inclusion; the Residential Experience; Academic Partnership and Career Success; Student Life; Senior Director of Development; and Chief of Staff; Administration and Finance. Few have job descriptions or statements of purpose or agendas.

Like the even larger Office of Academic Affairs or Provost’s Office, it is an incomplete university within a university: disconnected, undisciplined, and undefined. The sheer duplication and lack of communication defy description and imagination. The university budget reports do not include Office, departmental, or leaders’ budgets or salaries. The financial loss to the educational “mission” is incalculable.

OSU leads the Big Ten and perhaps the US in its ratio of administrators to faculty, and in the differentials between administrators’ salaries to faculty. These unconscionably gaps increase year after year.

The Associate VPs are only part of the overflowing cast of characters who do little for the life of tuition-playing students. They are joined by a Leadership Council: directors of Dining Services, Student Philanthropy, BuckID, Student Health Insurance, Willie J. Young Jr. Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement (OCCSE), Marketing Operations, Student Activities and Orientation, Operations, STEP Program, Facility Planning and Design, Student Health Services, Housing, Communication and Media Relations, Buckeye Leadership Fellows Program, Facility Services, Technology Services, Recreational Sports, Parent and Family Relations, Student Wellness Center, Sorority and Fraternity Life, Conference and Business Development, Student Advocacy Center, Ohio Union Operations and Events, Energy Management and Sustainability, Risk and Emergency Management, Counselling and Consultation Service, Student Conduct, Residence Life, Career Services and Employer Relations, Disability Services, and Student Life Multicultural Center.

Revealingly, Parent and Family Relations is joined with “Greek Life.” Together they promote intergenerational drunkenness and middle-age aggression toward sober senior citizen homeowners in the University District. There is no word about sobriety, safely, or rampant rape in fraternities—or dormitories—on any Student Life website. Nor about students’ responsibilities or their rights specifically or generally.

Student rights, free speech, activism, and civic participation are conspicuously absent from the overflowing alphabet soup of VPs, directors, managers, divisions, departments, and centers that do not spell out OH-IO, let alone B-u-c-k-e-y-e-s.

There is also a Director, Center for the Study of Student Life, apparently unknowledgeable about the Office of Student Life, let alone the lives of actual students. What, indeed, do they study?

This roster stretches beyond the breaking point. The size, duplication and waste, inability to manage, and lack of coordination and communication are unbelievable, expensive, and unacceptable.

Of course, there is neither an organizational chart with job descriptions, nor coherent initiatives and evaluations of vice president, associate and assistant vice presidents, directors, and managers. Their titles constitute a glossary of empty slogans. Disorganization, dysfunction, and disconnection within the Office itself and with the rest of OSU reign, especially with its academic “mission.” Together, they barely fit into the basketball arena.

It is costly and wasteful. It has little to do with the daily or longer-term lives of students on- or especially off-campus. That large area, students themselves testify, cries out for support and constructive social and intellectual action. This includes basic safety; information on relevant laws, responsibilities, and student tenants’ rights.

The latter has been promised for at least 18 years—as recently as last winter--but never provided. No reasons are given. Honesty and consistency are not on the roster of Student Life commitments. Perhaps the large landlords who donate to OSU while they cheat their 20-24 year tenants object too strongly. We know that they will not cooperate in City of Columbus-Student’s weak efforts to promote landlords’ lawful behavior. OSU’s Legal Office also obstructs cooperation. But perhaps Student Life’s focus is not student lives.

Housing student lives

Unreported, on-campus second-year student flee their dormitories from the required (for revenue reasons) two years in the dorms. For some, it is the too old, decaying towers near the medical center that should never been built in the way that were constructed. They should have been destroyed years ago.

For others, it is the extent of unacknowledged but well-known exposures of nudity, sexual assaults, and rapes throughout the coed dorms. Floor and corridor counselors are now juniors and seniors, barely older than their charges. For most of the history of on-campus residential housing, this function was fulfilled by graduate students—more mature, experienced, and actually paid. That, however, does not fit OSU’s “business model” of slashing costs at the least of profits and students’ well-being. Student lives do not fit the accounting sheets.

For all groups, it is also the fallacious narrowly pre-professional “themes” on a handful of dormitory corridors. In no way do they correspond to successful, popular theme houses across the US but not at OSU.

Off-campus students demand responsible and knowledgeable Student Life and OSU commitment to their housing and well-being. On the one hand, the most-often reported and sued large landlord NorthSteppe Realty is featured on the OSU website as OSU Student Housing. It is not; it is a private corporation. But its owner has donated at least $5 million to the university (which is not his alma mater).

Similarly, three other large landlords—OSUapartments, OSUlive, and OSUproperties—use “OSU” without formal permission. Along with the university itself, they knowingly mislead students and their families.

On the other hand, Student Life is silent about this. More glaringly, they do not warn students about the fairly well-known by informal means records of many landlords, led by NorthSteppe, HomeTeam, and OSUlive who cheat, lie, and steal from their tenants with impunity. Nor do they maintain their rental properties to City code standards.

Student Life is well aware of this. Students, underfunded and understaffed OSU Student Legal Services, neighbors, and attorneys regularly remind them. But they there is no action, not even a modest note of warning. Apparently, too much money is at stake. Too bad for the 10s of 1000s of students. They only pay for the Student Life salaries with their ever-rising tuition dollars, the highest in-state rates in the Big Ten (now 16).

OSU does conduct a weak annual survey of student renters. Student Life does not publicize it widely. Several years ago, at the recommendation of the most responsible landlords, they experimented with a stronger survey. It disappeared without warning or explanation. Who prompted that action?

Disconnection vs. reconnection?

Glaringly absent from Student Life’s maze of structures and non-functions is the all-important nexus between academics and socialization for maturity and satisfying, engaged, and productive lives of learning and contributing responsibly now and later. That is a damning omission.

The students with whom I speak since 2004 want that. A very bright graduating senior with a triple major and training an impressive service dog memorably told me .“you know, we’re still young, and we need help.” That is a common sentiment that no one in Student Life hears or attempts a response.

Both on-campus and off-campus student life also cry out for reconnection with the academic dimensions from which they were divorced several decades ago, especially when faculty were completely removed from undergraduate student advising, instead of only first-year general education guidance. The Dean of Students has no interest in discussing this with faculty or graduates. With others, I have tried.

Today’s students are lost in a dark age of growing up, very likely the worst in history. Pushed to attend university, choose a major with little accurate information or advice, graduate as quickly as possible, and find a job with scant advice, they cannot grow up as the maturing young adults that they are. Students know this, but neither Student Life nor the larger university do. The President will not speak with students, or with faculty either.

The 18-24 year olds need—and long for—responsible and knowledgeable adult and peer supports, regular communication, and interactions. Despite this, Student Life only exacerbates disconnection. Off-campus Student Life focuses on sparsely-attended, grab-and-go free food trucks that arrive late and damage the property of University District churches that provide space free of charge.

Other ideas for off-campus student gatherings, a meeting of the many students with pandemic pups that could draw a larger crowd, for example, get no traction. Too much work, perhaps. Not a repetition of bygone now exaggerated days under the deceased Willie Young for whom Off-Campus Student Life has been renamed.

Rarely, Off-Campus Student Life staffers distribute--too late--out-of-date or erroneous information on Columbus Police recommendations for apartment security during vacation periods. They give away useless little noisemakers supposedly for self-protections, a form of OSU’s physical portable slogans like last year’s harmful few lamp posts. Once upon a time, they recruited “student ambassadors” to walk the University distributing information, speaking to fellow students, and picking up trash. Those days are gone.

In fact, when my wife and I purchased our now 107-year old house in the University District 18 years ago, OSU maintained a 24-hour “hotline” to report problems, had safety patrols, the UD was visited by the head of Off-Campus Student Life and the university president made visits to the area to toast fraternity “boys,” sit in living rooms, and have photo-ops. Those days are long gone. Nothing replaces them.

Silly slogans inadequately replace the smallest bit of responsibility and personal commitment. No one in any OSU office takes responsibility for “student lives.” In their place are slogans like the never defined or explicated “the exceptional student experience” and “home to more than 60,000 students from 110 countries” (a blatantly false statement) as the erroneous, inappropriate slogans placed without permission on private lawns in the University District shout out.  “What Would Brutus Say” (the sports teams’ cartoonish mascot) gets no answers to students’ questions, nor does listening to “Carmen, Ohio,” the university’s theme song. This is terrible marketing, not student services.

In late October, Off-Campus Life illegal placed a number of erroneous and infantilizing signs in public property throughout the University District. This is illegal. It also violated an agreement that Off-Campus’ manager made with me less than one year ago

No one knows what “student engagement,” “belonging and inclusion,” “student philanthropy,” “marketing operations,” “parents and family relations,” “conference and business development,” Center for the Study of Student Life, and so on do, if anything. These are lower than average 21st century university leadership by sloganeering.

Searching on websites only leads to more slogans accompanied by conspicuously empty spaces. Is this a welfare operation—“university socialism”--that would shock the right-wing Republican-dominated state legislature and Board of Trustees?

So too would the Marketing and Communications Department’s all but obscene “Buckeye Love” campaign, celebrated by the President. Student Life has little to do with the lives of 65,000 students who are in need of advice, guidance, protection, and instruction. Students repeatedly confirm that. Student Life is the last of the resources to which they turn.

Faculty and concerned off-campus neighbors typically with OSU connections make proposal after proposal for meaningful reforms. They range from OSU’s buying vacant houses and creating theme houses for undergraduates—from pre-professional to special interest, service, and social justice—so successful on many campuses, to four-year on-and off-campus blended formal and informal curricula that link general education to civics, civility, democratic participation, knowledge of the law and their own rights. The possible points of intersection with the formal curriculum are countless.

Student Life associate vice presidents nod their heads at our suggestions but never follow through. Pretending to seek advice from knowledgeable experienced professors, active and retired, who live in the University District among the students, Student Life leaders feint listening, nod, lie about agreed and expected actions, and then in conjunction with the central administration become totally silent with no explanation or common courtesy. Student Life is anti-faculty and neighbors’ lives as well as students’ lives.

It all shows on the ground. OSU has the greatest disconnection between separate non-faculty student academic advising and faculty of any major university. That plays daily in the life of students. I often speak to seniors who have never seen an advisor, let alone spoken with a professor outside of a classroom, if even that. They are too surprised that a retired professor and his retired OSU-employee spouse are interested in them as people, neighbors, and students, and their pandemic pups.

The Associate Vice President for “The Residential Experience” (experience, not life) is responsible for residence halls in which all undergraduates—supposedly-- are required to live for two years to swell OSU budgets, dining halls, and the majority of students who live off-campus. This is an impossible set of tasks for any one--or five--associate VPs. Many of his peers have no job description or discernible sphere of operations or responsibilities.

There are more large and small possible alternatives to develop than I can list here. The over-sized mega-university can live and play much smaller in everyday lives in numerous ways. To cite one small example that can multiply: my wife and I converse informally with many of our student neighbors on our daily walks.

They are surprised to learn that older homeowners, many affiliated with OSU, live in the University District. Neither Student Life nor their landlords tell them that they are renters in a historic, residentially-zoned district with laws, coding codes, and home-owning adult neighbors. Students are also surprised, and excited to learn that retired professors and staff members are interested in them as people and sympathetic with the problems of growing up and studying for uncertain futures.

When they learn further that as neighbors, we do not expect them to be silent especially on weekends but rather to be moderate and respectful of neighbors including fellow students, entire blocks change. We are now greeted by name when we walk down nearby blocks. Our circle grows weekly.

We have helped student neighbors solve plumbing, trash, and landlord problems. We do this as neighbors. We are not Student Life. We are on no one’s payroll.

We now take this a step farther. We have become close friends with a number of students, four 21-22 year-old seniors in particular. Each acquaintance is accidental. Knowing that they—with four different majors, none of them in my own specialty--would enjoy each other, we formed The Seniors, two of us in our early 70s, and four fourth year students.

I meet with each of them separately, learning from each other—after eight months I almost understand industrial systems engineering; respectfully discussing intellectual, social, and political issues—often lending them books; helping them write papers, letters, and resumes; and much more. We talk about their courses, majors, job possibilities. Official advising ranges from unknowledgeable to nonexistent. They get no help from OSU Student Life or their departments and colleges, they all affirm.

We meet as a group. We gathered several times to share Jeni’s ice cream and conversation, and for a spectacular potluck dinner. I held such events with my own students for almost 50 years. I now enjoy them without grade book or RateMyProfessor across disciplinary and all other lines.

OSU students and the University District could achieve so much more without its Office of Student Life. What if we invested their multi-million dollar budget and scores of administrators’ salaries directly in student lives? Think of that!

For my related essays, see “Ignore the books: there is no single Big Problem with higher education,” Times Higher Education, Apr. 2, 2022; “Universities are not giving students the classes or support they need,” Times Higher Education, May 17, 2022; “The Fallacies of ‘the Shadow Curriculum,’” Academe Blog, July 1, 2022; “How Young People Have Changed,” Letter to the Editor, Inside Higher Education, Aug. 4, 2022; “Recreating universities for the 21st century without repeating the errors and myths of the 20th century?” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 7, 2022; “The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 28, 2022; “The United States’ most disorganized university? Ohio State’s ‘5½ D’s’: Disorganization, dysfunction, disengagement, depression, dishonest, and undisciplined, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 31, 2022;

“Universities Must Help the New ‘Lost Generation,’” Academe Blog, Sept. 16, 2022; “Growing up was always hard to do. It’s getting harder, and universities are doing little to help,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Sept. 26, 2022; “Lessons from the 1960s: Paths to rediscovering universities,” Against the Current, forthcoming, 2022-2023;“Living in a University District: How universities and their cities fail both homeowners and student renters,” forthcoming; “From Multi-versity and Mega-versity, back to Uni-versity: The impossible dream of changing ‘incentive structures’ and ‘business models,’” forthcoming. All are or will be available on the publications’ websites.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.