Crossing the Divide

Faculty and staff members can often regard one another with indifference, suspicion or even hostility, but at Georgetown University, the two groups are actively collaborating to improve student well-being, writes David Ebenbach.

December 14, 2017

A line runs down the center of most colleges and universities today. On one side is the faculty, and on the other is the staff -- each with different responsibilities, different experiences, different schedules and perhaps even different understandings of how the institution works. As a result of all those divides, the two groups may regard each other with feelings ranging anywhere from indifference to suspicion or even, in extreme cases, hostility.

In the words of Inside Higher Ed blogger Dean Dad, “If I’m focusing on how best to teach my class in two hours, I’m not thinking much about how the financial aid department works, and vice versa. Over time, it’s easy to see folks in the other roles [as] basically ancillary.”

And yet, different though faculty and staff responsibilities may be, the end goals are often similar. As Cumberland County College President Yves Salomon-Fernandez reminds us, “With so much discourse on the faculty and administration divide, it’s easy for us to forget that many of us are drawn to higher education for the same reason.” That reason, for Salomon-Fernandez, is our students. And what this means is that a shared interest in our students represents an opportunity to bring faculty and staff members together.

Unfortunately, in many cases, this concern for student success has actually reinforced the lines of division; faculty members have been assigned responsibility solely for intellectual development, and staff members have been assigned responsibility for social, personal, emotional and even perhaps ethical development -- in other words, everything else. But that is not a necessary or inevitable division of labor. And it’s probably not a wise division of it, since people themselves are not divisible; students bring their full selves with them wherever they go on a campus. Their academic work therefore informs their personhood and vice versa. If we want to take this multidimensionality into account in our classrooms, both faculty and staff members have the ability to contribute to the conversation -- an expanded and integrated conversation that encompasses student well-being.

With that in mind, a group of Georgetown University faculty and student affairs staff came together more than a decade ago to design a curricular experiment. The goal was to broaden the circle of people who were deeply engaged with the whole student. With the hope of infusing a focus on well-being throughout the undergraduate curriculum, they and the university’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship launched the Engelhard Project, named for donor Sally Engelhard Pingree. Faculty members, who joined from a range of disciplines (a range that has only increased with time), signed on to find ways that their course material could foster a fuller engagement with students and help alleviate some of the challenges students face both in and outside the classroom. For staff, this partnership was an opportunity to enter the classroom and interact with a broader range of students, including well- and high-performing students, not just those who had actively sought out their services. This interaction was fruitful for the staff and for students who could now attach a name and face to student support services, knocking down barriers for further follow-up when they or a friend might be in need.

In one such faculty-staff partnership, biology professor Heidi Elmendorf and Phil Meilman, the director of our counseling and psychiatric services, have been collaborating for 10 years on exploring issues of mental health and mental illness in the Foundations in Biology course Elmendorf teaches each fall. Together, they create a space where students can be open about their vulnerabilities in the context of the academic enterprise of the course. Elmendorf speaks about her own struggles with depression and asks students to discuss their research interests around mental-health issues -- which students often reveal are, in fact, personal interests. Meilman broadens the class’s perspective and lowers the stigma around mental illness by sharing data on Georgetown students’ mental health more generally.

The effects of infusing well-being into this introductory biology course have been transformative for all involved. “Being part of the Engelhard Project irrevocably, perhaps irretrievably, changes faculty,” Elmendorf says. “I never shared [my mental health history] with anybody before the Engelhard Project. Now I share it with 240 students every fall.”

Meilman adds, “And from my end, it’s rewarding to get out of the office and into the classroom. I get to see students in a different way than in the consulting room -- not centered on their difficulties but instead engaging their best academic selves.” Teaching assistants for the course cite the Engelhard Project as one of the top reasons why they want to return to the course to work with students.

We see these positive experiences in course after course. “The best part about Engelhard,” says sociology professor Sarah Stiles, “is getting to know colleagues and talking about these personal, sensitive and pedagogical issues.”

Meanwhile, John Wright, assistant director for diversity initiatives in our counseling and psychiatric services, credits the project for giving him a greater voice: “I can’t tell you how much it’s increased my professional confidence to be able to walk into a setting that typically is seen as being off-limits for staff and then to share knowledge that I’ve accumulated for the past 15 years as a mental health professional and to be received in a positive light.”

Joan Riley, faculty in human science and nursing and one of the project’s founders, says that the Engelhard Project “reminds us that promoting the formation and flourishing of our students is a responsibility that we all share, and offers a concrete, practical way for us to demonstrate our commitment to care of the whole student.”

When faculty and staff members grow, students do, too. “The Engelhard component to this class,” expressed one student, “gave me needed space to reflect on my own well-being that I otherwise would not have had.”

Another student told us, “You’re not just getting an academic experience, but you’re also getting a holistic experience.”

The relationships built in these collaborations often extend beyond the course at hand. In part this happens because many faculty members teach Engelhard courses semester after semester, so they have the chance to work with one or more staff members multiple times. It’s also due to the community of practice gatherings Engelhard hosts regularly throughout each semester. Those gatherings, often held in the living room of a faculty host, bring faculty and staff members together in an informal, conversational setting where they can discuss topics such as helping new students adjust to college and preparing seniors for the world beyond graduation, as well as grapple with issues like classroom trigger warnings. In this way, the Engelhard Project creates an active and ongoing community where faculty and staff members get to know one another and learn from one another across lines that might otherwise separate them.

The Engelhard experiment has demonstrated that the typical college is rife with the potential for cross-campus collaboration, if we create structures that let such connections thrive. The faculty-staff divide is by no means inevitable -- not only because we largely care about the same things, but also because we need each other as partners when we turn to our most important work: our students.


Working across the faculty-staff divide himself, David Ebenbach is a project manager at Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, and a professor of the practice at Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization.


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