By Erin O’Sullivan

Earlier this month, nearly 50 Chief Staff Officers and volunteer leaders from 26 higher education associations gathered in Minneapolis, MN for the Council of Higher Education Management Associations’ (CHEMA) bi-annual meeting. NIRSA has had a presence at these meetings for over a decade, and this year was no exception as Executive Director Pam Watts and President Designee Bill Crockett proudly represented our members and the collegiate recreation profession.

“It was eye opening and refreshing,” Bill remarked. “The conversation was elevated at such a strategic level, and it was impactful to see all these spheres of influences come together over such commonality.”

Our members strive to be cross-campus collaborators—our association does the same

Though the idea of an association of associations might sound a little funny at first glance, CHEMA’s function is clear. As a voluntary assembly of management-oriented higher education associations throughout the US and Canada, it forms a peer group through which members can share information, compare experiences, and work collectively on projects of shared interest. This allows CHEMA members to maximize their resources and create substantial benefits for the institutions and professions they represent; through this relationship-based platform, collaborations are born and facilitated.

NIRSA’s presence in CHEMA is an excellent opportunity to assert the strength of the collegiate recreation profession, and, as both Pam and Bill can attest, that message is well received. NIRSA garners a lot of respect among its CHEMA peers. Campus rec professionals are recognized as exceling in engaging students, running facilities, facilitating experiential learning, and collaborating across campus.

Gathering with associational peers to share feedback and work collectively on the pressing issues in higher ed pushes members of our profession to continue striving to be stronger, more strategic thinkers and doers—all of which helps us implement our core strategic values, building healthy people and healthy communities worldwide.

NIRSA’s Pam Watts is currently serving as Chair of the CHEMA Steering Committee

That it’s important for NIRSA to have a seat at the table during these discussions of higher education issues can hardly be overstated—and, yet, there was a time not so long ago that campus recreation professionals had to fight to have their voice heard.

It is a testament to how much has changed that the Executive Director of NIRSA serves as the head of CHEMA. This past December, Pam Watts was named Chair of the CHEMA Steering Committee. The Steering Committee consists of seven heads of member organizations, each of whom serve for two years. The Chair is chosen by the Committee and presented to an assembly of the associations’ chief officers; her appointment must be unanimously agreed upon by her peers.

As Chair, Pam sets agendas for monthly Steering Committee meetings, facilitates those conference calls, and helps plan and guide the bi-annual meetings. This work is all done in addition to her NIRSA work. This, she says, is a great reminder of the realities those donating their time to a cause must work through daily as well as the incredible strength of volunteer leadership, which is, of course, the very force that powers our association.

Speaking of inclusion: interviewing Dr. Beverly Tatum

As part of Pam’s work as Chair she helps facilitate the content for the bi-annual meetings, with the goal of providing resources around timely and significant topics facing higher education. According to Pam, “the role of associations is to keep the profession’s competencies elevated and evolving so they’re set to meet the changing needs of college students.” Equity, diversity, and inclusion—one of NIRSA’s strategic values—is an ongoing, relevant value topic among these organizations. Over the past three years, CHEMA has chosen to focus its attention and resources in this area—and this meeting was no exception.

Pam had the honor of interviewing Dr. Beverly Tatum, respected race-relations scholar, author (her best-selling Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race is about to be re-released and updated for its 20-year anniversary), and former President of Spelman College (noted for her decision to cut athletics and use its funding for holistic campus health initiatives). In the interview, Dr. Tatum emphasized the ‘ABCs of inclusive leadership’, which highlighted affirming one’s own identity, building community, and cultivating leadership.

Dr. Tatum spoke to the power of asking ‘who is not represented’ in every situation—and its impact on both professional and student development. She noted that our brains have a natural tendency to organize information in ‘us vs them’ categories; however, there is also a natural inclination to follow the leader—if that leader draws ‘us vs them’ circles more inclusively, we can all move that way.

The interview, like the Spring Meeting itself, was well received and motivational for associational leaders. It spoke to the values that transcend CHEMA organizations and encouraged leaders in their journey to help build tomorrow’s world leaders.

For his part, Bill is clear to give credit for this success back to CHEMA’s Chair. “Myself, the NIRSA Board, and our association should be extremely proud of Pam for her role as Chair and for developing the content and structure of that meeting. She’s represented NIRSA well and continues to position us for success.”

And, for her part, Pam says her efforts simply come from living the NIRSA values and, like Beverly Tatum encouraged, using her sphere of influence to better the world around her. As Dr. Tatum reminded the gathered leaders, we all need leadership to help move issues forward and anchor core values so that, slowly but surely, new norms can be built within our institutions of higher education.