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.
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