Faculty Teach (and Learn) Prevention

Staff who educate on health issues from alcohol abuse to sexual assault want help from the people students really look to learn from: faculty.

November 21, 2012

There's research. There's teaching. There's grading. There's lecturing.

And for some, there's "prevention educating."

Most campus prevention efforts -- on sexual assault, alcohol and drug use, hazing and what have you -- are facilitated by student affairs or college health centers, and directed exclusively at students. But as an increasing number of prevention experts push for more comprehensive approaches, some campuses are turning to a traditionally underused group: faculty.

Bringing faculty into the conversation was a major topic of discussion last month at the annual conference of SCOPE: School and College Organization of Prevention Educators, said Michelle N. Issadore, the group's executive director.

"I think a lot of people are at a loss of where to begin," Issadore said, calling working with faculty the daunting "holy grail" for staff and administrators because of the gravitas they hold with students. "It reinforces the notion that prevention is important."

Not only does involving faculty make them more aware of student issues and better-equipped to identify at-risk individuals, experts say, it often inspires them to get more involved in campus prevention and even makes them more attuned to similar substance abuse or harassment problems that might be going on between professors or other campus employees.

"They're two sides of the same coin," Issadore said. "It's eye-opening for faculty."

One of the major issues with the prevention field is not one that's unique in higher education: it operates in silos. But that compartmentalization often means messages that should really be directed toward all students are only given to certain populations: fraternity and sorority members hear about hazing, dorm residents are told not to do drugs, and first-year students get the one-shot don't-binge-drink lecture at orientation.

"It never gets quite to the core because they rarely involve faculty unless it's a major issue where it's sort of shaken the core of the institution, and then all of a sudden the barriers break down and then you get faculty, staff and students all on the same page," said Daniel C. Swinton, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. "What we tend to prevent is negative publicity from negative incidents, instead of preventing from the front end."

But the hope is that when something bad does happen, something better comes from it -- and the colleges involving everyone in the response are doing it right, Swinton said.

Take the University of Montana, which reacted in part to allegations of multiple sexual assaults on campus -- and a systemic problem in how the institution dealt with them -- by bringing faculty and administrators together to create an online tutorial. All students are now required to view a series of slides and then complete a short quiz on things like the definition of rape and what constitutes consent.

And at Yale University, which in June resolved a complaint with the U.S. Education Department in which more than a dozen students alleged that the institution allowed a sexually hostile environment to flourish, looked to faculty in its response as well, having a professor chair a new universitywide committee on sexual misconduct and gathering feedback from students (one of whom is a member of the committee).

And at other colleges, the faculty members themselves take the initiative -- with a little encouragement from wellness staff.

The "Don't Cancel That Class" program, through which faculty who either know in advance or find out at the last minute that they can't make a class they're scheduled to teach, can call for a staff member or peer educator to come in and give a prevention lecture instead.

At the University of Missouri at Columbia, Wellness Resource Center Director Kim Dude fills that role, and she's found that far more often than not faculty have her simply as a guest lecturer, not a last-minute replacement (though that still happens a handful of times each year). And those present for the lecture usually ask Dude to come back each semester, she said, and come out with a better understanding of warning signs of at-risk students (missing deadlines, a drop in attendance or grades, etc.).

Faculty usually have students write a reflection paper, or plug in a few questions from the presentation on the next quiz, to make sure students are paying attention. Dude presents in classes covering subjects from health sciences to journalism to geology, for a total of 50 or so lectures a year reaching a broad swath of students.

"[Faculty] really do have an immense amount of power, and I try to help them better understand that so they can be part of the solution," Dude said. "The reason I really like it is because I am in no way preaching to the choir when I go in there. Those students did not go in there to hear me, but they might very well be the students that most need to hear me."

Illinois State University also has staff guest lecture for faculty and supplies data for professors who want to do their own lectures on health issues. But it also involves faculty in a variety of other ways: on its university wellness council, on its alcohol task force, in data dissemination that professors are then encouraged to discuss with their students, and in prevention efforts with registered student organizations.

As a result, faculty often reach out to wellness staff proactively, looking for data or advice on social norms that they then pass on in their classes, said Nikki Brauer, director of health promotion and wellness at Illinois State.

"We've seen a shift in how open our campus faculty and administrators have been in having the conversation about alcohol," Brauer said. "This is a win for us."

A now-defunct (or, rather, shifted in focus) initiative at Northeastern Illinois University dating back to the 1980s actually taught faculty how to weave prevention themes into their own courses, in the sciences and liberal arts. Once resources started dwindling, though, the Network for Dissemination of Curriculum Infusion (NDCI) zeroed in on education professors in the Chicago area, helping them train future teachers to do this in K-12 schools.

So, for example, an algebra teacher might incorporate local crime data into class assignments. Or a social studies teacher could explore the role of bullying in international warfare, then bring it down to the community level.

"It makes the teachers much more aware of the types of things students are bringing in every day that sometimes impede their education if they're not addressed," said Bruce Joleaud, coordinator of the NDCI, adding that faculty really like the program as well. "It makes the teaching more relevant by teaching to significant problems that students are actually facing, that they're interested in learning about. It puts some flesh around the bones of whatever they're teaching, and students find this really interesting and engaging and it really enhances classroom learning."

While this movement to involve faculty is slow-going and, in many places, simply static (it helps to have buy-in from top-level administrators, Swinton said, because prevention educators often lack a strong voice on campus), there are clearly reasons to be encouraged.

"I think faculty can really make a lot of things happen a lot of times that others can't," Swinton said. If they say this is an important issue, he said, "I don't know many provosts and presidents that won't give that time and attention."


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