The first student looked at me with tears in his eyes, silent for a moment, and then said, “I have to call my parents.” The next tried to argue with me, then begged, pleaded, and finally resigned himself to the news. A third student meekly accepted my words, and the fourth didn’t come to the meeting at all, perhaps predicting that it would be about something she did not want to hear.
Often when we think about the end of an academic term, we have images of students getting diplomas, achieving their dreams, and joyfully celebrating their success. We rarely talk about the students who are not successful. These students start down an academic path with the same hopes and dreams as the other students, and for various reasons, they do not complete their programs successfully. Perhaps they are homesick, unprepared, having too much fun with their friends or have a family emergency. Maybe they are not ready or the program is a not a good fit.
Meeting with students who are unsuccessful draws on a skill set that may not be immediately associated with an administrative role. Administrators are thought of as bureaucratic, political, and as manager types. I have found that compassion is equally important. Too often, administrators become caught up in the fine art of box-checking and in making sure the correct forms are filed with SEVIS or the department of employment. They forget that students are human, have hopes and dreams, and have often made great sacrifices of time and money.
Compassion is required when you need to tell a 19- year-old student from China that he has been denied admission to the university that he has worked for a year to enter. Compassion is necessary when a student cannot get funding for a program that she has her heart set on attending.
In managing the end of the term processes, I always make sure to work with advisors to develop alternatives for students. Some students are very close to their goals and for others, goals are often unrealistic and perhaps unachievable. It is important for advisors to be equipped to deal with these different scenarios and to work with students to manage their expectations and disappointment.
On the evenings before I know that I have to meet with students to give them bad news, I go to bed with a feeling of dread, but always attend the meetings with a positive yet firm attitude. I know that I am telling students news that will change their lives and I know that I need to be prepared to help them to deal with the bad news and to offer them alternative paths.
I am taking a stand for compassion, a necessary but often unacknowledged quality of a higher ed administrator. Include it in your interview questions; make it a part of evaluation and promotion decisions. Let’s be more open about talking about dealing with failure, an unfortunate but inevitable part of the higher education enterprise.