While words like “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” are most often associated with the business world, they have also found their place nestled in Suite 200 of Atherton Union.
That is the office occupied by the Office of Student Affairs and its newly appointed Vice President Frank Ross III.
Since joining Butler less than a year ago, Ross has diligently researched the University’s culture, digging deep into student life at Butler in what he calls “a listening tour” of students, faculty, and staff.
“I’ve been a Vice President at two previous institutions, but I’d be naïve to think because I’ve done this job before, I have all the answers,” he said. “This is a great area of opportunity to expand on my background of integrative learning. Student Affairs exists to support a university’s core mission of academics. I believe we can achieve that in innovative, collaborative partnerships throughout campus.”
Indeed, Butler’s Office of Student Affairs is defined on the Butler website as, “Striving to integrate educational experiences into a campus setting with opportunities, challenges, and services that promote a student’s development as a total person. Whether it’s helping you find your place, get involved, or feel your best, our staff is happy to enrich your Butler experience beyond the classroom.”
To Ross, those collaborations are all about approaching the whole student and every student.
“We talk about a transformative experience, and I want to make sure we are including all students in that experience,” he said, pointing to conversations as diverse as “Tell me about the day of a typical first-year dance major?” to “How are commuter students making connections on campus?” “It’s all about understanding the culture as a whole at Butler,” Ross said.
While Ross may be a long way from rural Southern Indiana where he was raised, those lessons of “scrappiness” — as he calls it — are evident. He’s not afraid to walk a different path, literally, admitting his comfortable office isn’t his favorite place to get things done.
“I don’t feel particularly productive holed up in here,” he said motioning to the tree-lined sidewalk outside his window. “I have office hours in other buildings so
“If we aren’t willing to articulate our own failures and how we can do better next time, how can we expect students to do the same? You can’t take students somewhere you can’t take yourself.”
I can get to better know students and faculty. I find having walking meetings is a great way to break down barriers and allow people to think openly.”
If Ross has an entrepreneurial calling card per se, it’s his dedication to encouraging a free flow of ideas. He identifies with the importance of failure in innovation and believes its integral to the mission of his office to embrace it as well. He recounts a “get to know you” exercise he conducted with Student Affairs leaders early in his days at Butler that sounds like a page out of the Fast Company playbook.
“I asked them to answer three questions: 1) What did you do well last year? 2) Tell me something from your personal life you’re proud of, and 3) What was something you didn’t do well last year that you would call a failure? Failure is an important part of learning, as it is an important part of entrepreneurship,” he said. “If we aren’t willing to articulate our own failures and how we can do better next time, how can we expect students to do the same? You can’t take students somewhere you can’t take yourself.”
Ross believes it’s the responsibility of a Student Affairs professional to nurture the willingness to try resilience in the face of failure within a safe and encouraging environment. “Our profession is grounded in theory—we know when to push and when to pull. We want students to learn from their experiences,” he said.
While he harkens to the roots of his profession being traced all the way to 1636 at the founding of Harvard, he points to the incredible possibilities in the future, particularly as it pertains to the digital space. “Social media has provided a great way to enhance access to students and a way for them to reach out to us,” he said. “Parents are able to engage with us via Twitter or Facebook Messenger. There’s no longer that 8-to- 5 limitation of office hours. Our students’ schedules are different. Responsiveness to students means reaching them where they are … and a great use of technology.”
As Ross learns more about the inner workings of Butler’s culture, he will be instituting new programs and practices based on his findings as well as past experiences. He has been active in numerous leadership roles with NASPA, the leading association for the Student Affairs profession, including serving on its Board of Directors. That involvement has given him a front seat to innovative practices at institutions of higher education throughout the country.
“What’s important to me as a professional is a commitment to emerging best practices. It’s not always about reinventing the wheel,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be universities just like Butler—there are both large research institutions and community colleges that are doing some great things in Student Affairs.”
What’s the entrepreneurial bottom line on innovation for Ross? “Innovation and creativity should be at the heart of what we do in Student Affairs. It isn’t just trying new things. You have to stop saying “no” and instead, give your team the space and encouragement to share their good ideas.”