Northwestern’s Role in the Birth of Student Affairs

Over 30 departments form the Division of Student Affairs at Northwestern. Numerous organizations provide professional development opportunities for Student Affairs staff across the country. Northwestern University played a formative role in the birth of the Student Affairs profession and its professional organizations. University leaders contributed to both the initial professional gatherings and later served in leadership roles in the evolving professional associations.

Beginnings: The Deans of Women

The collective professional work that evolved into Student Affairs began with meetings of early Deans of Women, closely tied to Northwestern.

Jane Bancroft Robinson, Dean of Northwestern’s Woman’s College (1877-1885), founded the Chicago branch of the Association for Collegiate Alumnae (ACA) in 1883. The ACA later became the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

Northwestern and the University of Chicago hosted the first organized meeting of the Deans of Women of the Middle West in 1903. The conference, organized by Northwestern’s Dean of Women Martha Foote Crow (1900-1905) and UChicago’s Marion Talbot, is remembered as “the birth of the profession of Student Affairs.”

The ACA and the Conference of the Deans of Women began meeting together in 1910. The connections to Northwestern continue ­– at the time, Northwestern’s Dean of Women Mary Ross Potter (1905-1924) was a leader in the ACA. In 1922, Potter was elected president of the National Association of Dean of Women (NADW). Two other Northwestern alumni attended the Conferences of the Dean of Women – Fanny Cook Gates and Mable Keyes Babcock.

These meetings also mark a significant entry point for women in the higher education profession. Carolyn Terry Bashaw, an editor of Women in Higher Education explained, this “core of dedicated deans of women began the difficult task of transforming a non-standardized job into a legitimate profession.”

Specialization in Student Affairs

Northwestern alumnus Walter Dill Scott applied his military experience and psychology expertise to improve the efficiency of assignments through specializing personnel. In 1920, Scott became president of Northwestern.

In addition to many expansions and improvements, Scott established a Personnel Office, which was later modeled at other universities. Scott led the office to integrate more university functions, a process leading to a division more similar to the present-day Division of Student Affairs.

Evolving Organizations

Meanwhile, the Conference of the Deans of Women joined the newly formed National Association of Deans of Women in 1921. Northwestern Deans have continued to demonstrate leadership in student affairs organizations.

Patricia Thrash, Northwestern’s Dean of Women (1960-1969) and Associate Dean of Students (1969-1972), later served as the President of the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors (NAWDAC).

James (Jimmy) Armstrong, Northwestern’s first Dean of Men (1923-1936), also led the National Association of Deans and Advisers of Men (NADAM) as president from 1929-1930.

In 1951, NADAM became the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA). Today, NASPA stands for Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education.

Margaret J. Barr, Vice President for Student Affairs from 1992-2000, was the president of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) from 1983-1984, an organization that is now College Student Educators International.

Current Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin served as 2011-2012 NASPA president.

More about the rich history of student affairs at Northwestern is forthcoming in a document authored by Mary Desler and Patricia Telles-Irvin which will be available to staff in the Division by fall 2017.