Student life

Essay on lack of understanding between academic and student affairs

I’m beginning to think academic affairs leaders are from Mars and student affairs leaders are from Venus. Imagine the following scenario:

A vice president for academic affairs and a vice president for student affairs arrive at the student union for lunch, each carrying a book camouflaged in brown paper. The two make small talk and greet students they know who are relaxing with their peers. Then the conversation takes a turn. The vice president for academic affairs opens his book to a page marked with a tape flag and comments, "Look at this. All that crap you have been talking about on student engagement? Here it says that not only does it not contribute positively to learning, it degrades learning!"

The vice president for student affairs, mildly taken aback, quickly recovers and, whipping out her brown paper-covered book says, "Yes, and did you notice that it’s the faculty whose low expectations and lack of rigor by not assigning enough reading and writing is the real problem?  That’s why our students are not learning as much as they should!"

A student nearby was listening to the exchange. The two vice presidents quickly turn and ask a nearby student listening to the exchange, “And what do you think?”

“Don’t you get it?” responds the student. “College is about more than just classroom assignments or activities outside of class.”

“Then, what do you think it’s about?” the academic VP inquires.

The student affairs VP, eagerly awaiting vindication, smiles at the student, only to hear the reply, “I don’t know. I’m just repeating what I heard in orientation.”

As you probably already guessed, the camouflaged book is Academically Adrift, and -- whether its research is on target or not -- it has focused attention on the incongruence of what we say we do and what we really do in colleges and universities. In theory, the “good” news is that everyone is to blame if students are not attaining a quality education, including students.

Let’s assume that students who enter college expect a return on their investment -- they want to get what they’ve been promised. What are the responsibilities of academic and student affairs to deliver on the promises? Certainly academic learning, career preparation, skill development, and the development of habits that lead to personal and social responsibility are all part of the mission of higher education. The burden of delivering on these promises falls on both the academic and student affairs sides of the equation.

Instead of pointing fingers and nodding in agreement with the parts of the book that seem to vindicate a particular point of view, the book’s message should serve as a wake-up call for all parties.  It’s time to move beyond talking, accept responsibility, and take action.

For those in student affairs, it’s time to stop saying that our programs complement the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom when at too many campuses student affairs has no relationship with the faculty and no idea about what the student’s experience is in the classroom.

A student affairs colleague at one university told me about a meeting with a group of residence hall directors and their supervisors that included much complaining about the lack of faculty appreciation. He asked the group if they knew the graduation requirements for their students. The response: silence – and then an embarrassed awareness of their lack of knowledge. He added that he’s also asked staff to indicate the amount of time in their weeklong training sessions for residential directors and residential advisers that is allocated to addressing the academic mission of the institutions. He reported, “I’ve yet to have a staff find more than an hour or two that does that.  We in student affairs are too often not really in touch with the primary mission of our institution — the earning of an academic degree.”

Student affairs professionals cannot complement what goes on in the classroom if they do not know what is being taught or what students are expected to learn.

At the same time, faculty members have vague and usually inaccurate ideas about the programs and activities in student affairs. They accept the stereotype and paint student affairs with the old brush of party people, babysitter, and balloon people. Commented a student affairs administrator who conducts a session each fall with faculty members about dealing with challenging students and creating connections and relationships to enhance learning, “The discussion always goes back to ‘How can I teach them?’ They truly don’t know and no one is answering these questions for them.  It’s an opportunity for us to help.”

Still another colleague shared that at her university, the debate over learning assessments has unfortunately stopped earnest efforts to actually measure learning. The time has come to stop permitting disdain for metrics. Faculty members who refuse to consider expanding learning outcomes beyond the discipline and assert that to address learning outcomes will diminish the objectives of teaching are doing a tremendous disservice to their students and the parents of those students, short- and long-term.

The truly good news is that there are some bright spots on the horizon. At the University of the Pacific, student affairs leaders are encouraged to teach academic courses, and most do – and not just in graduate programs in education. The retention task force at the University of Puget Sound includes student affairs professionals and faculty members, and the collaboration has reportedly increased appreciation on both sides. Student affairs now has a greater understanding of the impact of faculty on the lives of students, and faculty members are informed advocates for student affairs.

We can no longer afford to toss barbs at each other across a chasm. Faculty and student affairs need to reconnect the programs and activities outside the classroom to the intellectual and ethical purposes of higher education.

College is about more than just classroom assignments or activities outside of class, but we need to walk this talk with which we orient students when they enter college as hopeful learners.

Gwen Dungy is executive director of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Lawsuit over therapy dog raises questions about university housing

Smart Title: 

Colleges might have to be more careful in answering that question from now on, thanks to federal suit against university that denied student's request for a dog in her apartment.

Essay: Gillen on students' experiences in college

Today, I add another notch to my belt. The signs of aging are clearly beginning to show - in the past year or so, I’ve managed to hurt my shoulder throwing a tennis ball for the dog, pull something in my leg vacuuming, and injure my neck while sleeping. And to top it off, my body seems to insist on accumulating what appears to be spare material around my waist.

But my rapidly deteriorating body is not the only thing I’ve noticed. With each passing year, I lose a bit more perspective on what it was like on the other side of the student-faculty divide. So before it is lost forever, I thought I’d share some of the more illuminating differences in perspective between many students from younger generations and many from older ones. I certainly don’t claim to be able to speak for entire generations, but I do have reason to believe that these views are fairly widespread.

(1) Working your way through college means something different today.

Many older folks within academia are fond of telling stories about how they worked over the summers at low-paid jobs to fund their education. This is sometimes accompanied by lamenting the laziness of today’s students. Most of the younger generation find these stories interesting but irrelevant to our lives, much like stories of using slide rules to do math. What many in the older generations seem to be unaware of is that except for those students attending the very lowest-cost institutions, their experience is no longer applicable. Working at the minimum wage, a typical student at a four-year college could pay their total cost of attendance in 1976-1977 by working 23 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.

Thus, it was feasible to finance your education with a summer job and a little part-time work. By 2009-2010,however, a student would have had to work 58 hours a week. As a result, instead of attending college and working on the side, students are increasingly working full time and attending college part time.

(2) For many students, college is all about the job.

Any time someone makes the point that a certain college or even a college degree may not make sense monetarily, they are immediately hounded by a slew of individuals retorting that there is a lot more to a college education than getting a good-paying job. This is obviously true. I myself gained a much greater appreciation for literature thanks to some schedule-filling class where we read the Odyssey, something I probably never would have read otherwise. But this point is usually overblown. Back when tuition was a couple hundred dollars a semester, it didn’t much matter if it helped you get a better job. Now a degree comes with an average of $25,250 in student loan debt (for those that borrow), not counting what parents borrow. Students don’t take on that kind of financial burden to become a better human being – we do it to get a better job.

Moreover, college is not the only place where these non-vocational skills and attitudes can be acquired. Now that school is no longer getting in the way of my education, I’ve rekindled numerous interests and still learn new things (the first poem that I ever enjoyed I read for work).

(3) We’ve realized that higher education has higher priorities than the education of students.

As new college students, we completely bought into those orientation speeches about how dedicated faculty are going to mold us into tomorrow’s leaders. Within a year or two though, we’d had classes taught by TAs and adjuncts who are too busy to prepare for class or give us timely feedback, or tenured professors who are too lazy to update their lesson plans from before we were born (some of these are written on yellow paper -- not yellow legal pads, mind you, but paper that has yellowed from age). But the worst are the classes where the professor/adjunct/TA doesn’t even speak English. The first couple of times you encounter these issues, you assume that it is just some sort of fluke, soon to be fixed. But by the time you graduate, you have encountered these too often and have come to one of two conclusions: colleges are either nearly incompetent in making staffing decisions, or teaching is simply not a high priority for colleges.

(4) We are goal-oriented, meaning we’ll follow the path of least resistance.

From what I’ve been able to gather, many in the older generations went to college to explore (at least that’s what they tell us). Many in the younger generations go to college to achieve a goal. We are told that a college degree is virtually required for a middle-class life, so we go out and get a college degree. But since the goal is a degree rather than a journey, we follow the path of least resistance. We do this not because we are lazy (well, that too) but rather because it is what we’ve been trained to do. We’ll take easy courses and seek out easy professors  to ensure that our grades are high enough to reach the next level. This is problematic because we assume that the paths have been designed properly and therefore that we will be ready for life when we graduate. Too often, that is not the case (see point 3).

(5) College is not always worth it.

Most younger people know numerous people for whom college was not worth it. This colors our perception of the entire enterprise (and the advice we give to others). This is the difference that I think the older generations have the hardest time coming to terms with. When they went to school, as long as you didn’t drink yourself to death, it was almost guaranteed to have no long-term negative impact. That is no longer the case.

All the debt students acquire still needs to be paid back even if they drop or fail out. Even more disturbing, most of us know quite a few people who managed to graduate, but then couldn’t find a job, even before the recession. They generally find something eventually, but typically after a few years of aimlessness, and the job they finally get often does not require them to use their degree in any meaningful sense. These are smart, capable people. They would have achieved the same level of success regardless of whether they went to college or not, but all felt compelled to go, at great expense to themselves and taxpayers.

If you are older and disagreed with any of these five points, worry not. If my rapidly deteriorating body is any guide, I’ll be coming around to your views soon enough.

Andrew Gillen is an adjunct professor of economics in Washington, and research director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

Essay on why higher ed professionals should advise a student group

Owen Sutkowski explains why he thinks all higher ed professionals -- including faculty members -- should have this experience.

Founder of controversial college gossip site rebrands himself

Smart Title: 

The creator of JuicyCampus, a controversial anonymous gossip site, re-brands himself as an enemy of cyberbullying and a champion of "digital citizenship."

 

Experts analyze riot at Penn State

Smart Title: 

As the world looks at Penn State students, experts there and elsewhere question some of the media images -- and also see need to promote civility.

Essay: OCR Guidelines on Sexual Assault Hurt Colleges and Students

Dear Colleague,

Actually, let me rephrase that.  

Dear Attorneys Who Are Employed by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights,

There. That's better.  Because despite the fact that you addressed me as a "colleague" in the April 4, 2011 missive that has made my professional life so difficult, a document that has become familiar to me and my (actual) colleagues as the "Dear Colleague Letter,"  you are not my colleague. A colleague is someone I work with. You are a group of mostly nameless, faceless individuals who crafted a 19-page document that at best complicates my work, at worst undermines my judgment and my ability to make good decisions for my institution and my students.

Not that we haven't needed some guidance in this area.  Sexual assault is indeed a difficult and ubiquitous problem in our work. Drunk students are vulnerable to becoming victims. Drunk students are emboldened to become assailants. And I have a lot of drunk students. We all do. Despite our best efforts to provide alcohol-free activities, alcohol education and significant sanctions for alcohol-fueled behavioral problems, there is still no activity on our campuses that can compete with drinking for students' interest and affection. I work for a selective institution whose students are academically pretty strong. It's not as bad on my campus as it seems to be on others. But it's bad, and I have the incident reports to prove it.

A few years ago, the Center for Public Integrity published a report that excoriated that excoriated colleges and universities for their handling of sexual assault cases. It was an absolutely indicting report... unless the reader was, like I am, a student affairs professional who could easily imagine being the one publicly criticized in the report. Yes, I could imagine it. Not that I believed at that point (or since) that I had mismanaged a sexual assault case, but because the ones I had managed were enormously complex, full of truths, lies, reversals, angry parents, hungry lawyers and empowered supporters.  

In each of these, I did my best to navigate the extremely difficult landscape, managing to avoid a public airing of the case by an ill-informed media or a lawsuit brought by a student (victim or accused) who felt wronged in the process. This is not at all to say I'm incredibly skilled. Luck probably plays more a part in this than most of us feel comfortable admitting publicly. I happen to know some of the professionals the CPI report criticizes, and I doubt I am much more competent than any of them. I have just been fortunate not to have been the one in the proverbial hot seat, directing a process that is complicated and flawed, at the precise moment several factors merged to create a public relations and professional disaster.

Please don't interpret my comments to mean that I don't appreciate the Office for Civil Rights' efforts to try to assist me in doing my work. I'm always eager for new perspectives that increase my knowledge and strategies related to sexual misconduct response. In laying out some guidelines for how I should inform my students of our policies, ferry them through the process, and report the outcomes, you have given me and my (real) colleagues some consistent expectations that allow us to keep the issue of sexual misconduct in the forefront of our minds as we design our programs, interventions and support strategies.  

You have, though, gone too far. While the legal experts out there have been commenting on, criticizing and calling for revisions of the Dear Colleague Letter, I've been plugging away here on my campus, trying to do, at the most fundamental level, the work you purport to oversee.  

Let me say this respectfully and with as much clarity as I can: you do not know my work. You do not know what I face every day in responding to a student culture of alcohol-infused hook-ups, where regrettable sex is a daily occurrence. The law has defined sexual misconduct as any activity that takes place with a person who is incapacitated by alcohol or other drugs. That makes sense, until you have to determine what "incapacitation" entails. I'm not much of a drinker myself, but I know that a couple of drinks loosen my tongue enough to say things I might never say without the alcohol. Am I incapacitated? No. But my judgment is impaired.  

In some situations, the student who is the accuser is clearly incapacitated -- practically (or actually) unconscious. In most cases, though, it's the impairment of her judgment -- agreeing to have sex with someone who, the next morning, she will regret having had sex with -- that causes her friends and supporters and other campus employees to tell her she's been sexually assaulted and needs to file a complaint. This process then begins the long journey down the rabbit hole of OCR-specified response that never ends well.  

Let me repeat that, because it haunts me: these things never end well. All students are traumatized to some degree or another. Families are devastated. And the professionals who must coordinate this process are expected to operate with constraints on our judgment and strategies imposed by a group of people who don't understand what we deal with every day, led by someone who has, according to her online bio, never done a job like mine. Assistant Secretary for the Office of Civil Rights Russlynn Ali is an impressive woman, clearly dedicated to both the legal profession and to education. But nothing I have learned about her indicates that she has ever sat in a seat like mine or been in a position like mine, across from a college student who is reporting an alleged assault or a student who is hearing for the first time that he has been accused of one.  

It is unlikely that Ms. Ali has ever sat at desk like mine, on the phone with a parent who cannot believe I allowed his daughter to drink, much less allowed (or not allowed -- always a difficult point to discuss) a "boy" to do the things her account reports. Or a parent who wants to know why I have sent her son home without so much as a hearing, an action we call "interim removal," while we investigate these claims.  

"Because the alleged victim is afraid of seeing him, and the Office for Civil Rights has made it clear that our process must support the alleged victim in this way" is not an answer that satisfies an angry mother who believes that her son (1) has been unjustly accused, (2) has not been given a chance to defend himself (yet), and 3) may find his ability to succeed academically compromised by his absence from classes during this investigation.  Has Ms. Ali ever had a parent, in a rageful voice, point out the inequity of all of this? Because I've experienced that on several occasions as I have tried to do what OCR expects from a "victim-friendly" policy.  

What is my response to that parent? That we are told to lead with belief of the alleged victim over the alleged accuser? Unlike a lawyer (and I suspect this is the crux of our differences), I am responsible for the welfare of all of my students — equally and dispassionately. Though I am often appalled by their actions, my job entails doing more than judging them.  

My job is also to educate them. Yes, I can hear you now, as clearly as I can hear my more vociferous colleagues: sexual assault victims need to be supported and believed, and men need to be held accountable for their behavior. But you know what? I support my students every day. And I hold them accountable for their behavior. I determine how to do this based on more than two decades' worth of experience and interactions with them, and I tend to trust my judgment. I do not appreciate having my hands tied by the presumption of guilt the Dear Colleague Letter portrays.

Let me give you an example of a case I managed not long ago. I'll change a few of the facts, but not the ones that matter here. A woman, in speaking with her resident adviser, revealed that she had had sex with another student several days earlier. They had both been drinking. He invited her to his room and she went, enticed by the promise of more alcohol. Once there, he proceeded to kiss her, then do more, while she, according to her written report, "felt uncomfortable." Twice he stopped what he was doing and left her on the bed, once to turn on some music and once to get a condom. He also took a phone call in the middle of everything. She remained on his bed, thinking, "This is not really something that I want to do." She acquiesced to his request that she assume a certain position, that she do certain things to him. "But I really didn't want to." When he was done, he offered to walk her back to her dorm, and he did, saying goodnight to her and promising to see her the next morning at breakfast (which he did).  

A week after she filed her report with us, beginning the process of charging him with sexual assault (she was, after all, drunk, and never verbally consented to any of his requests), a friend of hers came to us with a very similar report. Almost identical, in fact. He offered to share alcohol he had in his room. He quickly became intimate. She felt uncomfortable. He spoke, made requests, moved across the room for a condom from his dresser. She never verbally consented. She acquiesced to his requests without comment. He walked her back to her room. They had a friendly conversation the next day, and the day after that, just as they had before the incident. Both women then e-mailed their professors requesting some leniency for their class work because they had been "sexually assaulted in a dorm and were working on bringing charges against another student."  

Two sexual assault charges against one student? Could I defend letting him remain on campus while we investigated this? My trusted (real) colleague said no -- that if that information got out to those on our campus who felt that we should have immediately removed him, the criticism would be sharp. Furthermore, my (real) colleague said, "If you don't, you are leaving yourself open to a clear violation of the spirit of the Dear Colleague Letter," which says that an institution must "take immediate action to eliminate the hostile environment… including taking interim steps before the final outcome of the investigation."    

"But these women are not saying they feel threatened by his presence on campus."

"What if a third comes forward, and you have to explain that you knew about these first two and didn't immediately send him home?"  

And so I did, and the case proceeded from there.    

Looking back, I wish I had been able to bring these students together, to talk about what had happened, given them each a chance to air their grievances, respond, learn from what had happened. I have done that countless times in my office — mediated and sorted through differences between students who have behaved badly toward each other. I think this male student might have learned a lot about how to treat women. And perhaps these women would have learned something about self-respect, agency, their own perception of the place of sex in a relationship.  

But the Dear Colleague Letter says clearly that "In cases involving allegations of sexual assault, mediation is not appropriate even on a voluntary basis." And my fear — yes, it's fear — of seeing my institution's name in Inside Higher Ed or The Chronicle of Higher Education as the subject of an investigation, or, even worse, having the "letter of agreement" OCR makes public displayed for all to read — makes me toe the line in a way I sometimes have trouble justifying to myself. I don't want my employer to be the next University of Notre Dame, College of Notre Dame, Yale, Eastern Michigan.  

It's not that I believe that we shouldn’t be held accountable, and yes, it's likely that these and other institutions should have done things differently. It's just that in my most honest moments, despite the efforts of my (real) colleagues here to craft the best possible approach, I doubt our policies and practices could hold up to the intense scrutiny of the team of lawyers OCR will send after us should a complaint arise. Surely, I reason, you will find something, somewhere, that we could have done better.  At that point, all the good we might have also done will be lost in the public critique you will offer and we, because we must, will accept without retort.

That should explain the fact that I am an anonymous author. For six months, my (real) colleagues, here and on other campuses, have been talking about the Dear Colleague Letter, about the problems it creates for us, about the apparent lack of understanding of student culture it demonstrates. But we never say these things too publicly. We worry about being branded "soft" on sexual assault by victims' rights groups and by the media, and we worry about attracting your attention. Our voice has been missing from this debate, just as it seems our input was missing from your letter.  

None of us want you knocking on our doors, Title IX complaint in hand, ready to put us under the microscope and force us to explain to you, a group of skilled attorneys, why we did what we did. And that's the difference between you and my real colleagues: I value their feedback and criticism. In fact, we welcome it from each other, as evidenced by the conversations we constantly have about the decisions we are facing and the improvements we are always trying to make. But we trust that each of us understands what we are up against. I'm not at all sure you do.
 

The author is a student affairs professional at an accredited institution.

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