Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Student voice

A longtime correspondent writes:
The department where I work has great respect for the idea of making sure students  give input into our decision making and agenda-setting. We have multiple students on every major departmental committee (hiring, degree program, and the like), where they actually have a voice and a vote. Students in the department also have their own student group, who sometimes advocates for program and policy changes. There are also student representatives who attend our faculty meetings, which gives them insights into the larger contexts that shape how we make decisions and has the added benefit of keeping faculty a little more civil in our discussions. I am concerned, though, that our new Dean has also created a student advisory committee for the School that is meeting monthly with him. No other program directors or department chairs are invited to this meeting. I am finding that now, instead of going through the program committees, the students are taking everything straight to the Dean. Worse yet, the Dean wants to then become involved in every issue or make changes based on little (student-supplied) information. What can we do to address these concerns? Is this kind of Dean's student advisory committee standard practice everywhere?  

While I have not used a Dean's advisory committee comprised solely of students in any of my positions, I am familiar with the approach. The idea, as you note, is to give students a way to provide feedback to the administration. Of course, it sounds like there are already structures in place that allow students to provide feedback and input on lower levels, so this is likely not the sole reason for the committee.

I am against the creation of these kinds of committees if they are really just pro forma, with their sole purpose to appear to give students a voice.  If you are asking students to spend their time in these meetings, they should really serve a purpose for the department and the students. I am also against these kinds of student advisory committees that are little more than places to complain about faculty or narc on staff to the senior management. Of course, some of that is sure to occur whenever there are program committees, but there should be a clear, defined purpose for these advisory committees. 

I wonder if your Dean is struggling with feeling disconnected from students. This sense of isolation from students (and faculty) can be a problem for many in administrative positions, especially when they first take on a new role. One of the problems in a bureaucracy is that those who are higher up the ladder become very removed from the people they serve. I find that the only students I usually encounter are the ones in trouble, which gives me a very skewed perspective on the current student body. So, I understand the desire to be more connected to students and hear their concerns and challenges.

If I were to create such a committee, I would want to be certain that it didn't overlap with or undermine the work of other departmental committees. I can't imagine a need for the Dean to meet with students every month; that just seems excessive. (And I can't imagine that any Dean needs to add more committee meetings!) Meeting once or twice a semester to explore student challenges or concerns would be more than enough to give your Dean some insights into the students in your college.

It sounds like the Program Directors or Department Chairs will need to explain their concerns to the Dean, ask him to cut back on meeting frequency, and simply pass along any issues identified by students to the right person. Of course, if the Dean is encroaching on the purview of these other administrators, the issue is larger than the existence of a student committee.

Worldly readers, what experience do you have with these kinds of student advisory committees? What makes them most successful?

Dean Dad as channeled by Lesboprof


  1. HAHAHAHAH!! That's pretty fucken goode, except you forgot that abolishing tenure would totally solve the problem.

  2. Not bad! Needs more parentheses, though...