Sunday, November 6, 2016

On Being Student Centered--More than the Periodic Aspirational Message is Needed

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

X's mom died of heart disease when she was 16, her father is disabled, and she is his custodian. X cares for her sister's kids when she needs to make extra money to put food on the table. Z's mother died in a car accident when he was 12, with no life insurance, his sister is disabled and he is her care giver in their small apartment. This is all they can afford; to make ends meet and because of the medical equipment required for care, he sleeps on the couch......Today is a bad day; no transportation.  X is lucky.  She managed to borrow a car, no insurance though. X is picking up Z, her study buddy Z so they can both get to class. Without their mutual support, they would be unable to survive the stress of their personal and academic lives. Both X and Z look to their faculty for support but expect nothing from those who run the institution. If our administration had half of the chutzpah of these students...... I am lost here....
These are the circumstances of a significant enough portion of the students who seek the fulfillment of the hope that is at the very center of the promise of post secondary education in contemporary American colleges. How does an academic institution practice being the sort of student centered place that the typical institution trumpets  from the lofty speeches of its administrators to the pages of its social media products? The answer, increasingly is that they may not.

This post considers the problem of being student centered for the contemporary American university and the growing chasm that separates administrative formalism of the concept (through rules and aspirational sentiments) as against its functional realization.

As the diversity of our students grows, so does the nature and complexity of being student centered. When universities once dealt with a relatively homogeneous student body--in terms of race, class, religion, social status, values, and outlook--being student centered was relatively straight forward. One encouraged (or socialized) one's faculty to be more responsive to student needs, more available, and more directed to those issues that students found important, all within the general framework of faculty supremacy in determining the form and direction of education.

But the last generation has seen the growing diversity of a student body that more and more mirrors the diversity of the general population. For most administrations--like those of the governments that managed the parameters of university approaches, and the news media that formed the general framework for considering the issue among the chattering (and thus influential) classes, the focus has been on the big three: race, sex, and religion. And yes, these are important in ways that remain beyond the conceptual grasp of those who see in these great political potential.

But diversity has produced something more than a site for the stylized contests for power over social, political, civil and cultural life in the United States (and the university). It has replicated all of the great difficulties of modern life within the variegated bodies of most universities. What does that mean? For most universities, it means dealing with poverty, divorce, children, a large range of physical and non-physical challenges, and the stress of reliance on those mechanisms for the conduct of everyday life: public transport, highways and street, and weather. The old focus on the relation between student and faculty--the easy way that universities could downstream its responsibility for student centered programs merely by commanding faculty to be more student centered--are over. Institutional responses are now necessary to implement robust programs of student centered education. But this fundamental change is sometimes lost in large contemporary academic institutions. Sometimes it seems that the only ones who sometimes fail to realize the change are the administrators who are increasingly remote and removed from the everyday lives of their students and who have lost the means to retain a lively and immediate connection with students (and the conditions of their lives), faculty (who seek to respond within an institutional climate that increasingly strips them of authority to act without permission), and staff (who would be available to facilitate simple and effective programs. Many, long removed from the classroom, and increasingly seeking reality from the construction of data produced for them, no longer have the means for developing a string feeling for the realities of a changed student population. And that is a pity.

That state of things is a pity precisely because it means that the distance between the perceptions of realities that shape student centered responses, and the premises that night guide administrative approaches, appear to be getting larger. While universities continue to say that they are increasingly student centered, they (1) have no idea what that means anymore usually basing their statements on ideals and solutions not a generation out of date; and (2) they have failed to realize the potential of student centered policies that are consistent with and responsive to the realities of their actual student populations. Pressing faculty to be more responsive when students issues point in other directions is a fairly thankless task. More than that, it produces the sort of alienation that critically affects performance in class and eventually retention. If for no other reason, administrators fearful of the effects of their lack of attention to effective student centered policies on the production of data that would not be well received by their administrative superiors or governmental agencies, might do well to revisit their approach.

But beyond that, it is ethically dubious to sit within the well ventilated walls of large offices and do little when the students who are the responsibility of the university cannot appropriately engage in their programs of study. One is not speaking here of the need for great--and expensive--projects of social reconstruction. That is laughable and pretentious--and the usual diversionary tactic by those who would avoid even the smallest ethical responsibility for their students. Instead one speaks to a combination of small and responsive acts that might help in small but critical ways, students to be able to devote themselves to their studies. That is what being student centered should be about. Constant small and attentive steps to alleviate difficulties whenever possible. Not expensive, just responsive. Nothing says "I care about you and your education" more than simple actions that make good on that sentiment.

What do I mean? Let me give you an example. Consider an urban university with a campus that has the highest diversity rating from minority to financial aid, to amounts of financial aid per student, among regional peers. Assume a student population of several thousand, mostly from the urban core of all races, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic status, marital status, sexual preferences, gender identity, physical and non-physical challenges, working and veteran status, child dependents, care for aged relatives and the like. For years they have been working with among the lowest paid faculty, the lowest student to faculty ratio, the least new buildings (mid 1970s the most recent), adjuncts sharing 30 or more per office....on and on.... among their local peers. These faculty have been the drivers of student centered programs through their class and after class activities. BUt there is little they can do with respect to the life circumstances of their students beyond their role as teachers and mentors. But the university produces graduates who do go on to successful lives--assuming they can finish their studies. This is the face of the students around which "centering" programs must be created.

When the regional public transportation system goes on strike half of their student population, most maintenance staff and some faculty are affected. Although it is bus and subway and not regional rail line - strikers block the trains system as well (rightly so from their perspective), and students, faculty and staff, many with union members as relatives or members of unions themselves, are put in difficult situations to cross the lines. What does this have to do with student centered approaches? Traditionally the answer would be--nothing. The personal lives of university students were at best a second order concern. But the expectation was that students were to get their own lives in order and that the interaction between university and student was to be focused on the faculty-student interaction. Beyond that, the provisions of amusements on campus, food, and basic services that the "market" or the state appeared to demand were all there was to student centering on campus.

Yet a sensitivity to the new realities of the lives of students ought to lead to another direction, one in which the focus of student centering shifts from the student faculty interaction to the university-student interaction. There are two approaches that suggest student centering success and failure.

Failure: Faculty beg administrators to use the university student-staff-faculty directory to determine where residential "hot spots" are and to send buses and vans to pick people up. The response from administration personnel is that this would be a waste of time and money. The result: students are stressed, angry, their performance is affected, and the issue of retention becomes more real because they could not get to school on time and the university appeared indifferent. Faculty were delayed and staff were docked pay for being late or failing to show up. At the same time, the administration, with a tone deafness that by this point might be viewed as ironic, commenced its fund raising campaign aimed at students.

Success: Neighboring community colleges, and universities within and beyond their peer group (1) collaborated to develop a joint approach and to defray costs; (2) implemented the approach to ensure that their students, staff and faculty had a way of coming and going from the collaborating institutions; and (3) implemented this approach respectful of the labor issues involved in the transit strike.
What are some of the lessons that might be extracted form this hypothetical?

1. Student centering has moved beyond the relationship between faculty and student. While that remains a critical aspect, the changes in the composition of student populations, combined with general social and economic changes, has now made it evident that the university-student relationship ought to itself be understood in terms of maximizing the student centering mission of a university. Administrators now have an important role to play in the student centering objectives of the university. To fail in that duty ought to have consequences.

2. Administrators ought to cultivate greater sensitivity and empathy for their student populations. It is neither the 1980s anymore, nor are students identical to administrator's relatives, friends or a yo8unger version of administrators as he or she might have experienced now historical conditions an increasingly long time ago. The cultivation of blindness to this need, and the reluctance to exercise the skill of empathy, substantially inhibits administrator performance. The reliance on data that is on its own sometimes unconscious way, the assumptions implicit in administrative attitudes toward "reality" ought to be no excuse for failures to recognize and move to operationalize more student centered administrative programs.

3. The essence of administrative student centering is not bureaucratic, nor does it require the invocation of processes of socialization. Instead, it is grounded on responsiveness to need, on efforts ease the burdens on students that may arise as they seek to work toward their degrees. The essence of student centering as an administrative obligation is highly contextual. It is dependent on the specific conditions of the working lives of its students. And that changes from institution to institution, and over time. But it is also fluid. In the hypothetical above, for example, administrative student centering required only the effort at collaboration to provide transportation for the duration of a labor dispute. Other might require more effort--for example when dealing with aged parents or infants, or school age children of students. But none of these involve the creation of either large bureaucracies or programs that a bureaucrat can point to as a mark of "leadership." For that reason perhaps, because it is hard work, it tends to produce lots of temporary responses, and its object is merely to ensure retention and student success, that administrators are likely to see no incentive in erecting student centering programs. That is a tragedy.

4. For a university committed to administrative student centering, it will be necessary not merely to develop policy beyond the usual aspirational "copy" found all over university social media outlets. It will require a vigorous project of assessment grounded in part on student centering. That, in turn, will require the development of appropriate mechanics for monitoring, reporting and assessment. But until the university commits itself to these tasks it is likely little will get done--except the production of additional aspirational messaging.

5. Student centering at the administrative level requires the cultivation of collaboration--with students, staff and faculty. Faculty and staff provide useful inputs on the state of students and their lived realities. Students are also critical to that process. Developing an effective means to acquire information is essential. But it is here that mistakes are usually made. Administrators tend to develop information gathering systems that tell them what they want to hear (at least in the sense of directing information harvesting to their sense of what programs they mean to embrace). It is the rare administrator that develop information systems that tell them what they need to hear, and even rarer for the administrator to take that seriously.

6. Lastly, the fundamental mission of the university ought not to be forgotten in the implementation of student centering administrative efforts. That mission includes both the retention of students and the obligation to ensure that students work toward their degrees as expeditiously as possible. But these mission objectives ought to be understood not as an invitation to produce uniform programs grounded in a premise of student uniformity under uniform conditions of study. The reverse premises are likely more realistic. Students can no longer be abstracted and essentialized into model students on which programs may be implemented. The essential objective of administrative student centering ought to be --rather than individual expressions of aggregated abstract premises. As universities move in that direction they will make great progress in their engagement with student centering.

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