Dr. Adam Cebulski, Chief of Staff and Assistant Vice President, reflects on his career journey in higher education.
What made you pursue the work you currently do, and was that always the plan?
I always thought I wanted to be in higher education, but it was always going to be on the faculty side. As an undergraduate student studying psychology, I was intent on pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology to become a tenured faculty member. Much of that had to do with being a first-generation college student and not knowing anyone with a terminal degree. It was something to obtain that I could be proud of and know I had worked for. My undergraduate career was life-changing due to some serious health issues, and I got to know the university President and senior leaders in student affairs very well. They convinced me to think about a career in student affairs. When it came time to review my doctoral graduate school offers, I decided to try out the administrative side of higher education. Ultimately, this led to a career in higher education – both on campuses and adjacent as I worked in consulting and educational technology. I don’t have a linear journey, but I think that’s helped me become a better campus-based professional. Instead of the traditional path of working on a few campuses during my career, I have worked with over 250 on all kinds of projects with a variety of impacts. It has helped me know exactly what kind of institutions I enjoy, what challenges make me thrive, and how to better support my staff and, ultimately our students. Folks can learn a bit more about my journey on a podcast I did for NASPA.
In what ways does your role look similar or different to its historical roots? In other words, how has your role on college campuses evolved over time?
Interestingly enough, my kind of position is relatively new to higher education. I have two sides to my portfolio – the student engagement and success side (AVP) and the Chief of Staff (CoS) side. The AVP or engagement side is a relatively new way of splitting out what was traditionally part of a Dean of Students (DoS) portfolio. Many DoS portfolios now focus more on student well-being and support (like ours). Higher ed and corporate have adopted the Chief of Staff component from politics and the military. According to the Harvard Business Review, “The most sophisticated chiefs of staff also assist leaders in thinking through and setting policies—and making sure they are implemented. They anticipate problems and are especially sensitive to issues that require diplomacy. They function as extra eyes and ears by pointing out political potholes their bosses may not recognize (especially if they are new to the company). Importantly, a CoS acts with the implicit imprimatur of the leader—something that calls for humility, maturity, and situational sensitivity.” In many cases, it involves working on special and strategic projects, looking holistically at the organization, and creating intentional external partnerships. You become a master strategist and learn both breadth and depth as it relates to the functions of a university. I love the foundation it has given me, and I don’t believe I would be successful at it had I not had my non-linear carer journey.
What are the most important competencies someone needs to develop to be successful in your role?
A good chief of staff needs to be a good observer, inquisitive, and think strategically. In many cases, Chiefs of Staff operate small shops but have large impacts because they oversee strategic plans, critical priorities, or change management initiatives. You can’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty so you can understand the cause and effect of decision-making. It goes without saying you have to have a mastery of project management and organization. You also have to put your ego aside because it is not typically the work in the spotlight, but it feels good to know you had a hand in the organization’s success – even if most people don’t know how you contributed. Sometimes you are ghostwriting for others or acting on behalf of a leader – you have to be comfortable understanding how the people you support think, so you can make their lives easier.
Do you have any final thoughts for someone considering your role in the future?
Don’t be afraid to take risks. Whether trying out a new opportunity or taking on a project that seems a bit out of the left field. All these will expose you to new ideas, people, and experiences – ultimately making you a better professional. Think creatively about your job and educational choices. There are tons of non-higher ed pathways that can help you be a good chief of staff within a higher education context. Look at pursuing learning and organizational change programs or IO psychology. Think about business-oriented pathways. Just make sure where you land aligns with your own personal mission and the impact you hope to have on students; even if may be indirect.
Dr. Cebulski serves in a joint role as the Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Success and the Chief of Staff for the Division of Student Affairs. Dr. Adam R. Cebulski provides leadership for the Student Engagement and Success portfolio within Student Affairs which includes Student Center and Activities, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Social Change and Intercultural Engagement, the Women and LGBT Center, Office of the Student Experience (Leadership, Orientation, Parent Programs, specialty populations). Separately, as the Chief of Staff for the division, he also oversees Student AffairsAdministration (assessment, strategic initiatives, marketing, technology, staff development, etc). He also works on special projects for the Vice President and manages the execution of the divisional strategic plan.
He holds his Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership from Southern Methodist University, his M.S.Ed. degree in Higher Education Administration and Policy from Northwestern University and a B.S. degree in Psychology from Loyola University Chicago. His background combines higher education, corporate consulting, and innovation technology. He has focused on strategic planning and assessment, and he has helped many universities and non-profit organizations implement structural and procedural changes to improve operations. His professional expertise also includes process improvement, program evaluation, student retention initiatives, marketing, admissions and recruitment, and technology integration. Prior to SMU he spent almost ten years as an independent consultant for higher education institutions as the Director for Research and Strategic Initiatives for an educational technology company. Previously, he held positions within student and academic affairs at Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern University. Throughout his experience, he has worked with over 200 colleges and universities on student-centered initiatives large and small.
Dr. Cebulski also teaches graduate courses in higher education masters and doctoral programs. His course offerings have included classes related to leadership development, strategic planning and assessment, gamification in education, among others. His research projects include using gamification principles and human motivation patterns to increase student engagement and success, development of intentional student experiences, the intersection of identity salience of underrepresented students and leadership development, in-group bias against positive attributes, and the impacts and integration of technology on higher education.
Additionally, Dr. Cebulski engages in a variety of educational and industry professional associations. Most recently he has been active in conference presentations and publications with NASPA as well as serving as an AVP Cohort Facilitator. He also sits on the review board for the Journal for Student Affairs Inquiry.