Where the Students Aren't

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

The dean’s office. The provost’s office. The president’s office.

September 26, 2010

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

The dean’s office. The provost’s office. The president’s office.

I have found that one of the most difficult aspects of academic administration is the lack of meaningful, day-to-day contact with students. Sure, you see students – at commencement, banquets, receptions, and every other meet-and-greet event that you are expected to attend. You meet with students who are lodging formal complaints about their programs, professors, and fellow students. And you see students who are in trouble and need your help: those who have been caught cheating, who have threatened professors or have been threatened by other students.

However, unless you are teaching in addition to your 60+hour administrative position, you rarely see students in the teaching/learning nexus – what I consider to be the core mission of higher education. A good friend of mine who is a provost at a large public college makes it a practice to meet with students on a regular basis, a habit I have long admired. Too often we feel that our work as deans is to empower and motivate our faculty to do the good work in the classroom. I feel it is equally important for administrators to maintain regular contact with students. They are more than half of the classroom equation and they are often the gauge of what is working and not working at your institution.

When I implement new policies or overhaul programs for improved student outcomes, I hope that I am making changes that help hundreds if not thousands of students. When I meet with students and talk to them about these changes, I develop a necessary feedback loop that lets me know if I need to tweak a policy or scrap it altogether.

When Meg and I developed an academic pathways program for international graduate students, I insisted that we include a course that taught students to write a 20-page research paper. Many of the students had completed theses in their home countries and had written 75+ page papers in their native languages. This requirement was met with amazing resistance – not so much from the students as from the ESL teachers. I later learned that most of our ESL teachers had been trained to teach advanced ESL students to write a 5-paragraph essay. The gap between the 20-page paper and the 5-paragraph essay seemed insurmountable.

The solution was not to eliminate the requirement but to bring ESL teachers and PhD students from the English department together to create and teach the course. When we were in the middle of coming to this solution, by chance, a group of graduating students contacted me. They were finishing up their graduate degrees and wanted to interview me about the pathways program. I took this opportunity to use them as an impromptu focus group. After they had asked most of their questions and as we were wrapping up, I looked at the three young women from China and asked them about the research papers they had had to write in their pathways program: had the class been valuable? Had it been worth it?

They laughed and told me that at the time, they had hated it. They had been terrified to write 20-page papers in English. Once they were in their respective graduate programs, they realized that they had accomplished what had seemed insurmountable and when they received their first 15-page paper assignments, they knew they could do it. In the end, they said, this had been the best class in their program.

Just a few of the reasons why it pays to check in with students, face-to-face:

  1. The rewards of meeting with students – this is the enjoyable part of higher education - it reminds us of why we are here and why we continue to work the crazy hours and put up with the meetings.
  2. Feedback loops, first-hand knowledge – you can see problems brewing before they hit your office as a formal complaint or hit the student newspapers.
  3. Context - when complaints do come your way, you have context, you know what engaged students at your institution look like. Too often senior leaders jump on student complaints, attack faculty members, and play the hero role for the student. The complaining student that makes it to your office may not be representative of the majority of the students on campus and without the context of day-to-day interactions with students, you are left unaware.

If you are an administrator, try to make your office a place where the students are.

Mary Churchill is the Executive Director of University of Venus.


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