At the liberal arts college where I used to work, we did some of our most interesting teaching in the context of academic advising. Each faculty member had five to six nonmajor advisees and a dozen upper-level major advisees. Advising meant having a lot of conversations, ostensibly about credits, requirements and majors. Yet those conversations also became the foundation for teaching students how to build a relationship with an adult who was not a parent, boss or guidance counselor.
We faculty advisers offered ourselves as mentors to nonmajors, and by spring of sophomore year, were helping students find new mentors who matched their intellectual ambitions. We supported young people as they struggled to survive the routine traumas of the first 24 months at college: discovering that other students were as, or more, capable than they were; coping with a sudden illness; managing heavy reading burdens; and dealing with divorcing parents, class anxiety or coming out -- to name a few. Those conversations helped to solve problems, but they also encouraged students to reconnect with their own resilience and self-confidence -- essential qualities that college can quickly whittle away.
I thought about this last week as I read about Nayla Kidd, the 19-year-old Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science undergraduate who went underground -- prompting fears that she was in danger and a police search for her -- rather than finish her sophomore year. A formerly good student whose mother is a research scientist, Nayla attributed her need to disappear to the “high pressure and unreasonable expectations” of a selective science program. But she also told a reporter from The New York Post, “School just wasn’t interesting to me anymore because I didn’t have any close connections to my teachers.”
Although it caused her mother a great deal of worry and pain, Kidd then demonstrated the kind of pluck that a faculty adviser could do a lot with. She turned the act of dropping out into a carefully planned, and successful, adventure in taking back her life. She raised a stash of money by working hard and selling personal belongings. She found a place to live in New York. She went off the grid, closing out her regular phone and her Facebook, and refusing to take calls on the new number she had given to friends.
Could Nayla Kidd have used that initiative to make a connection with a teacher? It’s hard to say. Because faculty members do less advising than they ever have, the mentoring relationship that might have kept Kidd at Columbia may be less likely to occur now than it ever has been.
The urban university where I work now, which has made the shift to centralized advising, is typical of that. Although students may have a faculty adviser and even a peer adviser, the ordinary meetings that became the foundation of student-faculty relationships -- preregistration, making an academic plan, adding and dropping classes, solving institutional problems -- are now usually handled by administrators who specialize in advising.
This is true at the vast majority of schools -- even at Columbia, which has a far higher proportion of full-time faculty than my own university -- and it has consequences for students in crisis over an academic career that has gone off the rails. A 2011 survey by the National Academic Advising Association revealed that 22 percent of colleges and universities use full-time professional advisers exclusively, 18 percent use full-time faculty advisers exclusively and everyone else uses a mix. Whatever the approach, according to a 2014 article in The New York Times that cited the survey, “rarely do faculty advise in the first two critical years of college when students are more likely to transfer or drop out.”
That means that, during those years, students at a whopping 82 percent of colleges and universities may have, as their most structured adult contact, someone who is not an intellectual mentor or role model. These students will need to come to campus with the self-confidence and skills to reach out and establish relationships with faculty members -- whether their own teachers, or those they hope to learn from in a major, on their own. At large, multicampus universities like Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, students might not even create a relationship with a single professional adviser. The business of advising can be accomplished by dropping in or making an appointment at an advising center on any of the four campuses, through careful use of the advising website, or through online chat.
I don’t know what opportunities Columbia offered Kidd; they also have an advising center that handles routine institutional tasks. And I do know that faculty members don’t always do a terrific job as advisers, are sometimes frustratingly unavailable and can be ill informed about things outside their department.
I am also not implying that professional advisers are not good at what they do, or that faculty, peer and professional advisers do not function as the wraparound service teams that many university websites claim they do. “Think about your academic adviser as a partner as you go about developing your network of success,” a short video on the New York University advising website proposes.
The mission of advising offices, as their websites will tell you, is not relationship building: it is “student success.” This concept includes steering students away from courses of study where they have struggled in the past and toward majors in which good grades and on-time graduation are more likely. It includes making sure students have the right credits in the right departments to graduate in a major and a minor or two, can be sent on to postgraduate education, and can identify internships that, in turn, will lead to employment.
These are not small things. However, professional advising websites also imply that academic problems, which must bring in a healthy number of clients, are linked to failures of character. Columbia’s advising office lists six attributes that a student needs to bring to the advising “partnership.” They include active engagement with the adviser, being “forthcoming about perceived obstacles to success” and looking for information on their own. The Office of Academic Services at Rutgers instructs a student that he or she must “accept responsibility for making your own plans and decisions” and “become an educated consumer.” At Liberty University, “Professional advising exists to help students build ownership and critical thinking skills as they work to achieve their spiritual, academic and professional goals.” The University of Pennsylvania devotes a whole page of its advising website to student responsibility, a virtue that includes the making and keeping of appointments (something that demoralized students are even less good at than their peers, in my experience), being “active and informed participants,” and “learn[ing] to take responsibility.” Rutgers advises students that one key to making good use of an adviser is to “be on time.”
It’s hard not to see the heavy hand of the market in this language. Every personal quality I have listed above is a useful character trait and a foundation for success in any moneymaking endeavor, including being a college professor. But they are qualities students develop at college and should not be prerequisites for accessing higher education or for making a successful mentoring relationship with an adult. They smack of the ideology of individualism that has transformed economic, social and political citizenship since 1980: if you can’t stand on your own two feet and make good decisions, we can’t help you. Yet students often end up in academic trouble because they haven’t made good decisions, a skill generally cultivated as a mature person.
One great obstacle to students’ overcoming the various forms of failure they will encounter in their first two years at college is the mistaken belief of many otherwise successful young people that they ought to be able to solve problems on their own, and certainly without bringing their teachers into it. One way to change this is to have students practice making relationships with faculty for no practical reason at all. As Harvard School of Education Professor Richard J. Light wrote in How to Make the Most of College (Harvard University Press, 2004), after having a general discussion with each of his first-year students, he would give each one a task: to have a conversation with one faculty member other than himself that semester. It is an “obvious idea,” Light writes, “that part of a great college education depends upon human relationships.” The attenuation of faculty advising eliminates a crucial opportunity for a student not only to practice these relationships but also to do so in ways that may be self-revealing and not entirely goal oriented.
As an experienced adviser, I can testify that it isn’t unusual, even at a small New England college that prides itself on advising, for students to disappear or for a graduating senior to not know more than one faculty member whom they feel comfortable asking for a recommendation. Nor is it unusual for a student to respond to profound unhappiness, and the isolation and fear often tangled up in that, by embracing solitude and self-reliance. I once had a student who went to bed about a week after arriving on campus, leaving her room only to eat and to visit with me, her adviser, every two weeks. She assured me her classes were all going well. Not one of her instructors let me, or her dean, know she had stopped attending.
It’s easy for faculty members to slam professional advisers, and I don’t mean to do that. I am pretty sure that many who work at colleges and universities where they partner with faculty members have a lot to say about how unavailable many of us are often are for the conversations that bright, capable students might require. Yet that relationship with a faculty adviser prior to establishing a major program may be the key to making college seem worthwhile to students like Nayla Kidd, who expect, and need, a conversation -- not a prepackaged path to success.
Claire Potter is professor of history and director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at the New School in New York City.
Yesterday I took my 17-year-old daughter out for dinner, and our conversation led to the young white man who attended Stanford University and who raped a woman in January 2015. His name is Brock Turner. As I will send my daughter off to college soon, I asked her how she felt about the fact that the judge sentenced this man, found guilty of sexual assault, to only six months of jail time. Her response: “Terrified.” How did I feel about her response? Terrified. Terrified that my daughter lives in fear of both her body being violated and of the legal system not valuing her life and pain.
Our dinner conversation focused on gender, class and race -- because, while perhaps not apparent to most white people, this case is also about race. I am proud to have a daughter with the ability to tease out all of these issues, mainly due to her public school experience in the city of Philadelphia.
First, my daughter and I talked about how women are not respected across the world and here in the United States. Women’s bodies are not considered their own, and women -- especially those of color -- are often under attack. Why do men feel that they can take from, use and abuse our bodies? Why did Brock Turner’s father, Dan Turner, refer to the crime perpetuated by his son as “20 minutes of action”? How is it that a man who rapes an unconscious woman only receives six months of jail time and three years of probation?
Unfortunately, my daughter knows the answers to these questions already: women are not valued. It’s clear to us that the judge in this case, Aaron Persky, valued the bodies and livelihoods of men over women, because he was more concerned with the “severe impact” of jail time on Turner’s life than he was about the lifelong damage the assault has done to the victim. All one needs to do is read the victim’s statement to the court and it is apparent that his violation of her body will have a lasting and life-altering impact.
Second, we talked about the class issues involved in this case. Brock Turner had the means to hire a high-powered attorney to represent him. Of course, he has this right. We wondered, however, what would have happened to him if he had not had the resources to represent himself in this way. What happens to those who must rely on legal aid, whether guilty or not? We were certain that he would have been given the full sentence, as any rapist should.
Third, we discussed the racial issues in the case. Given the racism permeating our country as well as college campuses right now (nothing new, just more vile), my daughter is astute enough to realize that it wasn’t only Turner’s gender and class that helped him to escape the jail time he deserved. It was his race -- his whiteness. If he had been an African-American or Latino man, given the entrenched racism in our criminal justice system, he would be in jail for at least a decade and, most likely, would have been presumed guilty long before the jury’s verdict. My daughter understands that the very same people who are hailing Turner as innocent, framed and too young to suffer through jail time would be calling him an “animal” and a “thug” and demanding justice for the victim had Turner been a man of color -- regardless of the jury’s decision.
But Turner is an upper-middle-class white man, and he is benefiting from all that middle-class and affluent white men benefit from on a daily basis. His father has apparently received the same advantages, as evidenced by his firm dismissal of his son’s sexual assault of a woman and reference to it as “20 minutes of action” in his letter to Judge Persky. Rather than acknowledge that his son is a rapist and needs rehabilitation, he puts the blame squarely on the drinking culture at colleges and universities. Instead of encouraging his son to speak out about the wrongs of raping a woman, he is urging Brock to talk to young people about alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity on college campuses. But sexually assaulting a woman is not sexual promiscuity; it is sexual assault.
The best way for men to understand that women have value, and that men do not have a right to women’s bodies, is for other men to stand up, speak out and take the lead in educating young men. Only then will we begin to create an atmosphere where young women like my daughter will not be terrified to go to college. We also need men, especially white men, to take a good long look at the systems that privilege them and oppress women -- whether higher education, the legal system, the news media, fraternal organizations or the family -- and work to change these systems.
Until men are willing to take on these systems that oppress women and to confront people in their lives who violate women, women will not be valued. So I ask the men who are reading this essay, are you ready to tell your own daughters that you don’t value them?
Marybeth Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.
A stint at a liberal arts college as the cure for economic hardship and social despair? As a way out of poverty and dead-end, low-wage employment?
That's hardly the conventional wisdom. Just ask around, and it’s easy to find someone who will tell you how useless it is to indulge yourself in the humanities or to become immersed in a broad selection of old-fashioned courses in the traditional arts and sciences, rather than going for marketable, albeit elusive, "skills." After all, as former Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said in a Milwaukee debate last fall, welders make more money than philosophers. (Not true, as it turns out.)
Yet a detour back to the liberal arts is the subversive suggestion tucked away in Sweat, a stinging postindustrial stage drama of economic injustice by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, which has played to mostly rave reviews in Oregon and Washington, DC, and will open next fall in New York. At a critical moment in the action, the 21-year-old black factory worker Chris, looking for a way to improve his lot in life, tells his foil and white friend Jason, during a scene in the bar where they hang out, that he is thinking of enrolling at Albright College, a small, private, nonprofit liberal arts institution in Reading, the small city in southeastern Pennsylvania where the play is set. This is, to put it mildly, a counterintuitive turn in the plot.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Nottage, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, to write one of her searing social dramas about America’s “de-industrial revolution.” She located Sweat in Reading (pronounced “redding”) because it was ranked as the country’s poorest city in 2012.
That distinction came as a shock to me. Having grown up 80 miles to the north near Wilkes-Barre, a town that since the late 1950s has seemed to define the term “depressed,” I always thought of Reading as a bit on the spiffy side. They made pretzels and steel there (a lot more exotic than Wilkes-Barre’s coal mines and shoe factories) and boasted one of the country's first outlet malls. The Cleveland Indians at one point actually moved a minor league baseball franchise from Wilkes-Barre to Reading, which seemed to be quite a statement. Besides, Reading was much closer to sophisticated Philadelphia, and its eponymous little railroad had a glamorous presence on the Monopoly board.
Indeed, as Nottage noted to me in a recent telephone conversation, there was a time, not so very long ago, when Reading and other old-line communities like it “had such an abundance of industrial jobs available that a person could practically stand on a street corner and get hired.”
In those days, she added, “a really good, solid factory job was a way to move up the ladder and get into the middle class. You could have a paid vacation every year, health insurance and a pension.” After 25 or 30 years, a worker in Reading could hope to earn $40,000 a year, support a family and have a good life.
But the evolution of the American economy has ravaged such places. New realities have wiped out old appearances and reputations. By the time Nottage, who is African-American, arrived in Reading to do research, she found severe economic deprivation and a host of social ills -- crime and violence, drugs, and a bitter racism that sets desperate people against each other and especially against immigrants.
Sweat takes place in 2000, when a plant in Reading begins to lay off its workers, presumably because the jobs are being moved to Mexico and elsewhere outside the U.S., and in 2008, by which time the dire consequences of economic decline can be more fully appreciated. The talk is tough, fear of the inevitable pathological and a secure future hard to imagine. Sweat is, in a sense, a morality play, in which an explanation lurks for the rise of both of this year’s most surprising political figures, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each with his distinct appeal to the dispossessed.
The protagonists, who include two mother-son pairs, one black and one white, have clearly placed far too much faith and confidence in their paternalistic employer. When things begin to unravel, they have no good place to turn. The bartender, their psychological and social adviser, permanently crippled as he is from his own accident at the plant, where he, too, used to work, could have told them this was coming -- but no one was listening.
So how is it that one of the victims, even before everything begins to fall apart at the plant, looks to a liberal arts college for salvation?
Chris, says Nottage, his creator, “is a kid who was always aspirational. But it was drilled into his head as he was growing up that he could make much more money in the factory” than he ever would with a college degree. Clearly, when he got out of high school, “a skilled-labor person was in greater demand than someone with a B.A.”
What Chris has realized by the time he makes his seemingly random remark about going to study at Albright, Nottage says, is “how taxing, physically and emotionally, his factory job was. It took him a long time to come around to a new idea” -- that he could go to college after all and perhaps train to be a teacher -- “and he met great resistance in his peer group and his family.”
For his part, Lex O. McMillan III, now completing his 11th year as president of Albright College, finds this anomalous twist in the plot of Sweat totally logical. As he notes, Albright, once a more elite institution, has become a very diverse place. Today a majority of its students are members of minority groups, and about half of the student body is eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to the economically disadvantaged. Surprisingly enough, the average family income of students at Albright and other similarly situated private colleges in the region is lower than of those at Penn State, the flagship state institution in Pennsylvania and one of the largest public universities in the United States.
But as the action unfolds in Sweat, Chris never makes it to Albright. His job disappears before he can come up with a plan, and in a cruel twist, his own mother, cynically drawn from the factory floor into management with a mandate to help downsize the workforce, seems to be partially responsible.
Nottage defends her somewhat surprising choice of Albright, rather than the more predictable option of a community college, as the place her fictional hero thinks of attending. “In Chris’s community,” she says, “it would not necessarily be identified as a ‘liberal arts college,’ but it might be seen as a place where someone with his background and experience could aspire to succeed.” She was particularly drawn to Albright’s website, which, among other things, features a college-completion program geared for adults returning to school.
Then there is the fact that she herself is the product of a liberal arts curriculum at Brown University, “which allowed me to have as broad an education as I could imagine.” Originally pegged as a math and science scholar, Nottage entered Brown from New York as a pre-med student, but found that “no part of me had any interest in being a doctor” -- so she escaped to the humanities.
McMillan has not yet seen Sweat performed, but he and his colleagues have greatly enjoyed the unexpected attention it has focused on Albright.
Has the case been made widely and convincingly enough that a traditional college education has a role to play in solving America’s plight? “The B.A. is a path to economic advancement,” McMillan says, mounting his newly polished soapbox. “It is the most practical education you can get, and it will be useful all your life.”
Nottage agrees. “Some students,” she acknowledges, “cannot be served fully by a liberal arts institution.” But a liberal education, she believes, “makes a whole vocabulary available to another group of people.”
Sanford J. Ungar, president emeritus of Goucher College, is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University and a Lumina Foundation Fellow. He teaches Free Speech at Harvard University and Georgetown.
Many brilliant products of research end up feared and rejected by the mainstream society. Technologies such as vaccinations, genetics in agriculture or animal models in medicine can save lives, feed the world and preserve the planet but are distrusted by the majority of nonacademic Americans. How should science regain the trust of consumers? Probably not by doing more research. Instead, scientists are increasingly urged to come out from their academic ivory tower and become better communicators.
But is it fair to expect that scientists will do much of this communicating? Few hard-core researchers are gifted communicators. The minds that discover new drugs or new particles do so with an enormous amount of focus, and it may be counterproductive to demand from them additional, completely different types of creativity.
Instead, the academic leadership and administration of higher education institutions need to embrace science communication as a key pillar of their existence and enter the world of media. Most of society -- political candidates and parties, the corporate sector, nonprofits, even religions -- now engage in aggressive and technologically innovative campaigns in the struggle for influence. But not universities. Instead, scientific and educational institutions still appear reluctant to harness their accumulated intellectual, literary and technological capacity.
Yet there are enormous benefits to be reaped, financial as well as political, if higher education manages to enter mass media. For the national academy, communicating the importance of science is no longer a noble pursuit but a matter of survival. Here I offer for debate a few strategies for how science communication can be functionally institutionalized. Academic leadership should:
Measure and reward the impact of individual faculty members’ outreach. Not every scientist needs to know how to use Twitter. But for those who do choose to distribute their knowledge by means less obtuse than research articles, a system should be in place that objectively assesses their efforts and rewards demonstrable outcomes. Such rewards are commonplace for exceptional research, teaching or extension. That they do not exist for science communication is not by design, but out of inertia. Current tenure metrics still value a cryptic research publication that is never cited more than a blog post that influences thousands. Furthermore, measuring the impact of science communication would be easy and possibly more reliable than standard metrics of teaching, such as student evaluations, as usage analytic methods are readily available.
Revamp communications offices. At most American colleges and universities, offices in charge of science communication ether do not exist or are underfunded and resemble something between a sign shop and a branding police. In the world where what matters most is one’s prominence in the media and on the internet, this is an anachronism. Colleges and universities should take note of successful industries and invest heavily in high-quality science promotion teams. Such offices will always need to keep adapting to societal and technological change, and thus will only retain meaning if staffing is flexible -- and always open to new generations that are ahead of, not behind, new trends.
Some colleges and universities are moving forward and even establishing joint science news outlets (such as Futurity). That is a great start, but the vast majority of science news on the web is still by independent bloggers.
Get serious with local and national media for self-promotion. Many American colleges and universities, and most of the large land-grant institutions, reside in relatively small communities. Local radio stations and TV channels are a logical venue for promoting the importance of science to the community. Yet which research departments truly dedicate strategic effort to collaboration with local news media? In Gainesville, Fla., the crime scene dominates local news, with often little or no mention of the mega-funded and mega-productive research enterprise of the University of Florida that resides here. That is a wasted opportunity for developing a positive image of the institution in the lives and minds of the community, as well as for recruitment of supporters.
It is easy to blame the news media for not supporting science reporters any longer. But media-savvy institutions do not sit and wait to be noticed. They flood the market with interesting stuff, form long-term relationships with the news media and cultivate their audiences.
Reinvent extension. The three traditional pillars of all land-grant universities in America are research, teaching and extension. In a nutshell, extension is a network of university employees who mostly live among farmers and other industry folks and who can translate the fruits of recent research to their constituency. Over the last 100 years, this model helped propel America’s countryside into the most productive agriculture region in the world.
Now, in the 21st century, the vast majority of people live not on farms but in cities, and the extension empire is sometimes struggling to remain relevant. Land-grant universities would benefit themselves and the nation if they turned the extension model toward urban audiences. Those audiences are increasingly moving the American economy and are also more and more prone to be swayed by anti-science ideologies.
The main strength of extension has always lain in the army of motivated agents accustomed to working with lay populations. Thousands of agents are trained in core competencies such as electronic communication, program development and youth education. This organization is as close as it gets to being capable of carrying out the much-needed science communications revolution. All it needs is a new focus on plugged-in city dwellers. Some land grants are already exploring this path: check out the Western Center for Metropolitan Extension and Research.
Establish courses on activism and how to influence the media, combined with STEM course work. Whether academic circles approve of it or not, one sting video can thwart a thousand research papers. By producing alumni with practical skills in activism as well as empirical thinking, colleges and universities would secure their place in this increasingly vital aspect of contemporary history. Most important, by also requiring science-based courses, the educational system can exert a degree of control over the choice of worthy causes. Even a few instances of young people loudly demonstrating for better vaccinations would make a huge difference in the public perception of such matters.
Collectively demand that government agencies increase funding for science communication. Scientists are smart people and would invent amazing ways to communicate their results, but only if it becomes the currency of the trade. It is currently not. The National Science Foundation supports research participation for various student groups, but that is quite different from the need to break into online chat rooms where millions of adult Americans form their opinions. NSF also requires an explicit “broader impacts” statement with every grant application, but there is minimal enforcement and no monitoring of impact. This is not the robust incentive that is needed to communicate with masses.
Some of these suggestions may be uncomfortable for many in academe. Some raise ethical questions about the impartiality of education. That is the point. Anti-science groups and lobbying firms that already dominate the virtual marketplace of ideas are not going to wait for ethical guidance.
Jiri Hulcr is an associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida.