Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations


Managing Student Death at Small College Campuses: Experiences of Senior Student Affairs Administrators

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

Maureen Wilson (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Madeline Duntley (Other)

Third Advisor

Ellen Broido (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Michael Coomes (Committee Member)


With an increase in focus on critical incident management in higher education in recent years, a better understanding of the experiences of senior student affairs administrators who have the duty to respond to incidents and care for students and families is important. In particular, the response of these administrators to student death can have powerful positive or negative ramifications, depending upon the effectiveness and professionalism of their actions. By considering a phenomenon that senior administrators experience at small college campuses and learning how others deal with these events, professionals can consider different insights that will help them to be successful and effective, if and when they are faced with these responsibilities. Through a naturalistic inquiry involving interviews with five senior student affairs administrators, this study illuminates how they planned for, responded to, and managed student death at their small college campuses. The study also explored how they navigated the emotions involved, and what they found to be meaningful from what they learned as a result of their experiences. Guiding with compassion is a key factor in the effective management of critical incidents involving college student death. Administrators should approach death incidents by being inclusive of the community and allowing for the different and unique aspects that comprise each situation. Student death can take an emotional toll on a small campus community and the responders, but the priority for responders is to ensure that necessary tasks are completed. Proactive and ongoing training and preparation of staff, faculty, and students may help to foster a more seamless institutional response and better overall management of the incident.