When the Buck Stops With You

Crystal G. Herman offers advice on how to most effectively deal with student concerns as a midlevel faculty administrator.

October 2, 2019
 
 

My transition from faculty member to associate dean came with myriad of surprises. Some of those changes were practices that I felt prepared to handle and that I easily adapted to without the need for a great deal of specified training. But I could certainly have benefited from formal training in the art of dealing with student issues.

The positions of associate dean, dean and department chair arrive with the often unadvertised job of hands-on contact with a wide variety of student concerns and issues. Those concerns tend to go beyond the typical student advising issues that individual faculty members handle. As an associate dean, I know that if a student issue has made its way to my office, then it is ostensibly due to something that either was not -- or, in many cases, could not be -- dealt with at another level.

Such issues are often nuanced, subjective and contentious. Often, more than one solution is acceptable, and the task requires you to make an intuitive decision. Many fellow midlevel administrators have cited this requirement as their least favorite part of the job, if not the main reason for leaving and returning to a faculty position.

During my time as a faculty administrator, I have learned a lot about the art of dealing with student concerns and would like to share those lessons with others to help make their jobs a little easier.

No. 1: Lean on your team. Whether you've been in your position for a decade or were just appointed yesterday, it is always a good idea to reach out and learn more about what your fellow faculty and staff members do. The university is full of people and resources that can help you navigate just about any issue. Don’t be shy. When dealing with tough or unusual situations, you’ll discover that most of the time, “There’s an office for that!”

Some of the closest and most valuable resources available to you are your peers. In the first few weeks after I was appointed, I sat in on at least a dozen student meetings that a predecessor, as well as fellow associate deans in the college, conducted. Those colleagues were all kind and supportive, and each one had a distinct style of handling these meetings. I learned so much from them, and I still ask them for help when I run into something new or am in need of a second opinion.

Staff members are other sources of support and can help you navigate a wide range of issues. Campuses today offer experts and resources in academic advising, financial aid, psychology, health, childcare, food and lodging, and tutoring services, to name a few. Learn who is available at your institution and keep their phone numbers at your desk. If possible, get to know the staff members who work with such programs so it is easier to ask them for help when you need it. You can also ask them to send you a stack of fliers so that you can hand them out to students if you need to make a referral.

No. 2: Remember it’s a stressful experience for the student. Depending on your responsibilities as an administrator and the way your college is structured, you may have to deal with a wide range of student challenges. Academic probation and suspension, graduation issues, requests for additional credit hours, conflicts with faculty members, and grade disputes are all common reasons that students may request to meet with an associate dean.

Regardless of the reason for the meeting, you should keep in mind that a meeting in the dean’s office is not a regular occurrence for the student. This is a stressful situation for them. Every student responds to such stress in a different way. Some become shy and scared, many cry, and others become angry and combative.

A good example of this type of student reaction came from my first year on the job. When I first started seeing students on academic probation, I had a student in my office who was visibly angry and had shut down before our conversation even began. My colleagues had met with this student several times, but he’d shown little signs of progress. He did not want to talk and asked me to just sign whatever papers I needed to sign and let him get on with his day.

I told him I wanted to find a way to help him pass his classes and graduate. I explained that this meeting was not about anyone being in trouble -- it was about figuring out what was standing in his way and fixing the issue. At this point, the student retorted that he had recently been discharged from the military and had PTSD, “So fix that!” I thanked him for sharing with me.

I then explained that if he had a formal diagnosis, he would likely qualify for accommodations. That could help him get the leeway he needed if he had a relapse midsemester and was having trouble meeting some of his deadlines. I talked to him about the Center for Accommodations and Student Support Services and gave him the contact information he needed to get started.

At that point, his demeanor changed -- he opened up and we had a long talk about how Veterans Affairs was so backed up that he was having trouble getting in to see his doctor more than once every one or two months. I told him that if he was having a rough time and couldn’t get an appointment with his regular provider, he could always go to the counseling center; it was free for students, after all. I also told him that if he was willing to let me walk him over, he would be seen even faster. So after signing the papers I needed to sign, I walked him to the counseling center.

About a year later, I ran into him in the hallway. He came up to me, gave me a hug, thanked me and told me that he was doing much better and getting ready to graduate.

Besides angry students, many students are scared to visit the dean’s office because they perceive the meeting to be about punishment rather than finding a way to help. In their mind, it is no different than being sent to the principal. There are also students who are sad and overwhelmed because they are dealing with a breakup, their parents’ divorce or the death of a loved one. Take the time to listen. Be prepared. Be the calm, cool, grounding force in the room. While you may eventually become accustomed to these meetings, remember that it is the first time that the student has been to the dean’s office.

No. 3: Find common ground. More than likely, the student has ended up in your office because they have been told no by someone else. That may make the student feel ashamed or even as if the college is against them. Try to relieve this tension and create a solution-focused meeting. Start by establishing common ground by stating a simple goal that you share. Mine is almost always that we both want to see the student graduate successfully.

As an administrator, you are in a position to help the student by offering advice on ways to improve their study habits, navigate tenuous situations between them and the faculty with grace and maturity, learn new time-management skills, or deal with personal life issues that may have blocked their path. Most students know what they need to do, but they’ve never taken the time to ask themselves the right questions. None of these are things that you can or should do for the student but rather that you can mentor them through. And so a little Socratic method goes a long way.

Last year I had a student show up to one of these meetings with his mother. With the help of the office staff, I explained the FERPA rules to her and had her wait in the lobby while the student and I met. At first, the student thought I was going to just tell him what to do and fix his problems for him, but I chose to try a different tactic. Instead, I asked him questions: “Which classes are you having the most trouble in?” “Why are those classes giving you trouble?” “When do you typically work on your homework?” “What is it that you want to get out of college?”

The student came up with the answers. Eventually he decided that if he got along with some professors better than others, he should simply enroll in sections of his core classes that were taught by the professors whom he clicked with, that he needed to schedule a regular time to work on his homework and that he should sign up for some groups on the campus so he could make friends and feel like he fit in. The student did not need me to fix his problems for him, and he did not need his parents to fix them, either. What he needed was to be shown that he was intelligent enough and capable enough to take control of his own education. By encouraging the student to examine his own perceptions, he was able to strategize and get the most out of college.

No. 4: Learn the system. Often the students that make their way to my office lack the guidance, support or experience needed to successfully navigate college life. That occurs for a variety of reasons, and you should listen to these challenges and respond accordingly. If you know the system, the rules and the offices that can help such students, you can be a major force of positive change in their lives.

Often, you have a way to fix the situation; it just may not be the solution that the student had in mind. The student may not know about being able to test out of certain classes or who can help them fill out a FAFSA. They’re unaware of part-of-term options for core requirements, grade replacement policies or available waivers and substitutions. These are all things that you can talk them through. Learning the system can take some time, but remember that you have a team of peers and staff members whom you can ask until the process becomes more familiar to you.

No. 5: Identify patterns of recurring problems. Most student issues that make it to midlevel administrators are subjective and distinct. But if you are in the position long enough, you may start to see issues that arise with surprising frequency. That is often a sign that something could be improved on a systematic level. If you find yourself referring students to a specific resource frequently, and the students typically respond by stating that they never knew the resource existed, maybe you should find a way to better disseminate the information to incoming freshmen. If there’s no resource to refer the student to, it may be time to create a new campus office.

Alternatively, if you find yourself constantly signing waivers and substitutions for the same type of situation, it may be time to update the rules. One recurrent problem I found early on was that students would quickly lose the brochures and fliers that I handed out to them, or they would realize that they ought to have called a certain office but forgot the information. Students were much better, however, at keeping track of the formal paperwork from our meeting. To make sure students had all the information I'd provided them with when they needed it, I rewrote the forms and included all of the contact information for specific offices on the campus and marked the ones that I'd advised them to call.

Dealing with student concerns can certainly be one of the most difficult parts of the job for many midlevel administrators. Nevertheless, it’s a crucial part of supporting students in their journey for the attainment of knowledge and the degree to prove it. And once mastered, dealing with student concerns can eventually become the most rewarding part of administration.

Bio

Crystal G. Herman is the associate dean for curriculum in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso. She also serves as the associate professor of theatrical costume design for the Theater and Dance Department.

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