Catie Robertson, JMU CARS Writing Assistant.

Madison Holzman, a doctoral student in the assessment and measurement program, recently interviewed Dr. Mark Warner. Dr. Warner has served as the Senior Vice President of Student Affairs at James Madison University (JMU) for 20 years, but his history with the school is much longer. In fact Dr. Warner attended JMU as an undergraduate and he never left. He began his employment as an RA at JMU and served in Residence Life for 6 years. He went on to serve in various administrative positions at JMU and become a professor. His career has culminated with overseeing Student Affairs, and he will be retiring later this year.

Such a long, storied career at JMU gave Dr. Warner a front seat to many of the institution’s changes. During his time with Student Affairs, the division has shifted its focus. Their original aim was to provide services to students. Over time, however, it has become more comprehensive in scope. The student affairs division has embraced assessment as a way of holding themselves accountable to student learning and developmental outcomes. Assessment also helps staff members develop professionally and add value to their work. This self-evaluation of services enables staff to provide more intentional programs and services to students.Dr. Warer

Dr. Warner acknowledged that at first, implementing assessment practice can feel like an add-on to one’s job. Assessment is hard work and its importance is lost if the purpose isn’t well understood. Dr. Warner recognized the need to change this mentality. He doesn’t want assessment to be considered an addition to student affairs work, but a necessary installation to it.

Shifting the focus from accountability to improvement can help this effort. Consciously considering the improvement value of assessment, rather than its accountability functions, makes reporting assessment results feel less tedious. Dr. Warner has seen many staff members observe the positive changes that come from assessment. These staff members are more excited and motivated to create change and they inspire their colleagues to follow suit. This enthusiasm creates a new kind of culture that Dr. Warner wants to cultivate. This cultural change helps staff members understand the rewards of assessment work. In his opinion, these rewards are bountiful and include a better student experience which leads to better student learning.

This connection between student experience and student learning is also present in Assessment 101. This weeklong workshop, conducted by the Center for Assessment and Research Studies, brings together Student Affairs professionals and Academic Affairs faculty with facilitators who are trained in assessment practices. The goal of 101 is to take its participants from “beginners” in assessment to “intermediates.”  Participants work together in groups and make connections with each other during the week. This cross-division collaboration helps members of each department understand the other department members and their jobs. Furthermore, it helps both Student Affairs staff and faculty to understand and contribute to students’ holistic development. Dr. Warner believes Assessment 101 is important for Student Affairs; there is even an assessment element in their strategic plan. He encourages “blurring the lines” between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs by collaborating to bring about beneficial results. “We have a lot that we can learn from faculty, and faculty have a lot that they can learn from us, and I think we can create something a whole lot stronger to foster learning than either of us can by ourselves,” said Dr. Warner.

When asked for any additional comments, Dr. Warner took time to highlight the Center for Assessment and Research Studies (CARS). He believes that CARS has helped facilitate the assessment needed for Student Affairs as well as the cross-divisional collaboration with Academic Affairs. Dr. Warner’s sentiments reflect his gratitude for this work, saying, “The partnership with CARS has been huge and instrumental and we have always felt like, not only the support but the challenge to be players, has been really . . . helpful for us.”

Despite his retirement, he can’t get enough of JMU. Looking to the future, Dr. Warner plans to continue teaching as a professor at JMU. The assessment-supported culture he has helped nourish in Student Affairs will continue to benefit students for years to come.

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