Category Archives: Higher Education

The faces behind the numbers

Assessment…culture of evidence…outcomes…data-driven…accountability…. By whatever name it’s called, I am an advocate for using numbers as evidence of the impact of the work of student affairs.

There are times, however, when an anecdote or story is exactly what is needed to help others understand what we do in student affairs. An anecdote or story is also what student affairs sometimes need to let us know that what we’re doing does, indeed, make a difference.

On opening day of the spring semester before students returned, the Montgomery College community held its convocation for faculty, staff, and administrators. The president spoke courageously and eloquently, as always, and each of us who is a senior vice president had an opportunity to report on the work of our areas of responsibility:

  • I’m amazed at the activity and many accomplishments in academic affairs that included the acquisition of grant funding and other numbers;
  • Administration and finance is doing a great job with the budget despite fiscal constraints faced by most institutions of higher education and this report was about the numbers;
  • The office of advancement had nothing but good news and the report was composed of many numbers.

When it was my turn to give an update on the work of student services, I could have talked about the numbers of students who had enrolled, highlighting the work of admissions and the access team; the number of students receiving financial aid; the number of students seen by advisers; the number of students who received disability support services, and more.

Instead, I decided to talk about a student I had gotten to know. So with that student’s collaboration on what I could share, I told his story. At a time when community colleges are focusing particularly on the enrollment, retention, and success of African American and Latino/Hispanic males, this story was about an African American male.

hurdlers on trackI showed a visual of young athletes running and jumping hurdles in a competition and then I began the story:

Imagine that one of these talented students is James who is typical of many of our students who despite their gifts and talents have many hurdles to clear before they reach the finish line. For the sake of these students and their peers, we all should be grateful that there is a Montgomery College with talented and dedicated faculty, staff, and administrators such as you.

James graduated from a high school here in Montgomery County and began his college career at Bowie State University. He was at the University but not really engaged because he went home every weekend.

At the end of his first year, he found out that there was not enough money for him to re-enroll for the second year. This fact was a disappointment, but he was not passionate about college and really didn’t have any direction.

Because he is a talented person, he was able to easily get a job with the Park Service. After some time in this job, he became bored because he was not using many of his numerous skills. While he was working at the Park Service, some of his friends from high school talked about their ambitious plans, and he began to feel as if he was being left behind.

Bored and discouraged, he began to spend his money on drugs and quickly became addicted. This was a really low point in his life where it seemed that everything he touched, rather than turning to gold, became ashes and worthless. One day he had a really bad car accident. One so serious and catastrophic that he should not have been able to survive, but he did. During his time of recuperation, he began to reflect on his life and realized that he was throwing it away. He was grateful to be alive and wanted to change the trajectory of his life.

When he thought about what he might do, it was as if everything he could imagine himself doing was a closed door, and when he opened the door, the message was always “a college education is the gateway to success.” So as soon as he was well enough, he quit his job and applied to Montgomery College—the College in his community. He was feeling great with these decisions, and he said that there was fire in his belly to make something of his life.

After being admitted to the College, he applied for financial aid and discovered that he was ineligible for aid because he had worked at what he called “that dead-end job” the previous year. He felt as if the door of opportunity had been slammed in his face; he felt rejected and discouraged.

Someone in the Financial Aid Office told him that he might be able to get a job on campus as a student assistant (student assistants are paid from the College’s operating budget) and walked him through the process. He had skills and was readily hired to work in one of the offices at the College. Working at the College gave him more time on campus, and he felt as if he was finally connected to a community. He felt he belonged.

He sought counseling and advising. Working with a counselor, he was able to regain confidence in his abilities. He began to think about his purpose in life and wanted to chart a path to some concrete goals.

Working with an adviser, he was able to develop an educational plan that outlined what courses he needed to take in what sequence in order to reach his academic goals. Doors were opening again, one right after another.

After a year and a half, he was able to qualify for financial aid. The collaboration between financial aid, counseling, and advising provided the kind of assurance and monitoring that James needed to know that he was on the right track and that people cared about whether or not he succeeded.

The next Student Service James took advantage of was Career Services. Here he explored his options related to his interests and what he wanted to accomplish. Encouraged by his family, he was able to begin to dream big and see himself in a career beyond college.

James says that he is grateful to Montgomery College for being a major part of his life during a critical period. He hates to leave the College because of all the support he received and because of the fine faculty and staff he encountered. He knows that he has a solid foundation to be successful at the University of Maryland Baltimore County where he has been accepted. He completed his Associates Degree in December 2014 and will begin his studies in psychology in just a few weeks.

Montgomery College has great resources and an outstanding educational program. Collaboration up and down and across the College in a seamless manner is what contributes most to the success of students like James.

Out for constituent review shortly is a draft of the Student Success Policy. The Policy formalizes the College’s commitment to student success and the procedures outline clear and concrete ways that the College will implement key conditions that will have a high impact on student success.

Many of our students will not have the motivation that James had, so some of these key conditions for student success are mandated, such as advising for the creation of educational plans, assessment for appropriate course placement, and accessible and informative orientations. Our virtual orientation will be available for students who are unable to make a scheduled face-to-face orientation because we believe that orientation provides a vital bridge for students to transition into College.

As students return and as new students arrive, let’s keep James and his fellow students in mind that might have many hurdles to clear before they reach their goals.

A number of faculty, staff, and administrators told me after the convocation that they also had “James” stories, and they were glad to hear one of them shared.

The Dream…moving forward but not yet realized

When I read Katherine Mangan’s January 19, 2015 article in The Chronicle titled “Scholars and Activists Speak Out About Why ‘Black Life Matters,” more than what the faculty said, I was impressed because the young people appeared to be African American and faculty.

This combination is still rare even today so many years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was clear that three out of four of the speakers/activists spotlighted had a faculty appointment. There was a professor, two assistant professors, and I want to believe that the director of higher education research and initiatives at Penn’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education also had a faculty appointment.

I am hopeful that young African Americans are choosing higher education as the place to use their talents and that universities and colleges are realizing their value.

I know that there should be many more worthy African Americans in highly valued faculty positions, and it would be nice if there were more professors than there are.

Acknowledging these realities, perhaps we are reaching a point where universities won’t have to steal star African American academics from their peers because there are too few available.

Perhaps we are reaching a point where one does not have to be “the only” African American in a department in order to be valued for what one can contribute. And perhaps on this day when we reflect on what MLK Day means to us, we can look at the parts of the dream that are being realized.

The young professors in the Mangan article are just beginning their climb up the academic ladder, and they may experience some challenges along the way. My hope is that they and others like them will not be discouraged to the point where they will leave higher education.

They have a foothold and others who follow them and those who have been on the margins of higher education will need to follow the path that these fine young academics are charting.

We are moving forward, but we’re not there yet given that I was still struck by the fact that these young African Americans are on the faculty in higher education.

Bridges – literal and otherwise – for student success

I had an opportunity to welcome new faculty today and I told them that giving the obligatory “Welcome” before the main event was one of my designated roles in life it seems.

I guess it was because I could not sing solo and I didn’t have other discernible talents that I was always selected to give the “Welcome Address” when visiting choirs and other groups came to our church. I made the welcome something special. I made banners that said “WELCOME” with glitter and hung the banners across the pulpit, and I put a lot of thought and practice into what I planned to say. The visitors seemed to appreciate the effort.

When I welcomed new faculty at Montgomery College recently, I did not hang a banner, but I did ask something of them. I told them about when I first worked at a community college as a counseling faculty member. There was a bridge or walk across from the Student Services building and the building where classes were taught. Back then when faculty smoked cigarettes, some of them would take a smoke break on the bridge; others would come out between classes to grab a few rays. I made a habit of walking across the bridge to go from one building to the next just so I could run into academic faculty.

It was on that bridge between buildings that academic or classroom faculty and I discussed students who were obviously talented and bright, but their writing seemed to tell another story. Particularly disturbing was their inability to spell. We did research and discovered that there was something called dyslexia. This discovery led to a collaboration to get support for students who had learning  disabilities.

It was on this bridge that academic faculty talked with counseling faculty about the veterans who could benefit from having someone to talk with, but who were reluctant to come to the Counseling Office. This led to the creation of a peer counseling program where some of the peer counselors were veterans. They were able to have the initial conversations with veterans and get to a point in their relationship where they could refer the veterans to the professional counselors.

A lot of work was done on that bridge between buildings for Student Services and Academic Affairs, and a lot of friendships were forged.

I asked the new faculty to see it as their responsibility to build a bridge between academic faculty and counseling faculty in Student Services in order to reduce barriers to student success.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

For me, the downside of finally getting enough time to sleep is dreaming. My dreams are more like the early MTV videos that I used to describe as nightmares. They are not usually the kind of nightmares where I’m being chased, but they are the kinds of images and scenes that I’m happy to awake from and realize that waking life is much better than these MTV video-like nightmares.

When I remember my dreams, I attempt to relate them to something in my life that I’ve repressed. Sometimes I can make the connection and other times I can’t. One dream recently that involved my blood dripping from my finger was easy to figure out. On that same night I dreamed about Maya Angelou who passed earlier this year. I had not heard her name mentioned or seen a photo recently, so why did I dream about Maya Angelou?

I dreamed that a companion and I wanted to learn about a new group doing some good work. A meeting was being held in an auditorium of some kind, and Miss Angelou was on stage behind a podium directing the activities. My companion was making noise and acting like an idiot and I didn’t want to be associated with him, especially in the presence of Miss Angelou, someone to whom I’ve looked for inspiration for many years.

In the dream, I moved from the rear of the auditorium in order to get closer to the stage to have a better chance of hearing what Miss Angelou was saying. When I found a seat down front, I realized that the other people in the auditorium were all part of Miss Angelou’s entourage or they were all connected in some way because they understood the rules, especially where particular people were supposed to sit. They seemed to be wearing white robes with gold trim and they seemed really self-absorbed and arrogant.

At some point, I realized that Miss Angelou and her crew were chastising me for not knowing where I was supposed to sit. In fact, according to Miss Angelou, I didn’t understand how the system worked and there were questions about whether I should be there at all.

I was embarrassed, shocked, hurt, and completely disillusioned because Miss Angelou was one of my inspirational heroes. As I was being criticized for not knowing the rules, I was thinking that though I might not be important among this particular group, I deserve to be treated with respect. I told Miss Angelou that I had considered writing my Masters final paper on her and her work, and that I was now glad that my adviser talked me out of it. I’m sure that this revelation had no impact on her, but I felt better being able to say it.

In this dream, I was similar to new students who come to find out what the college or university is all about. They think that they want to be part of this college-educated club. What they discover is that there are many rules, regulations, policies, procedures, and cultural norms that make them look foolish and feel out of place. Some of these challenges can be overcome with ingenuity and intuitiveness. Others can be learned over time. But when they bump into challenges that they cannot figure out, sometimes those who can and should help them treat them disrespectfully. They think students don’t hear the sarcasm in their tone or the look of exasperation on their faces, but students do see this and they feel disrespected. A college or university that fosters an environment that disrespects students is not a dream realized; it is a nightmare for students.

Reflections on Cool Passion: Challenging Higher Education

NASPA’s latest book Cool Passion: Challenging Higher Education by Arthur Chickering will be available to the public in mid-March.

I just finished reading every line of this extraordinary work. I was hooked by the title even before I began to read. The opening paragraph of the preface is sheer poetry!

Chickering gives us an incredible gift as he shares his personal experiences, values, and beliefs, as well as his professional reflections. It is fitting that he shares a holistic perspective that is in line with his foundational philosophy of student affairs and the premise of promoting learning that lasts.

There is so much in this book that will appeal to a diversity of people who are at different stages of their life and to those who are working with students who are finding their way. For example, the Wesleyan University story will resonate with those who are having a rough beginning. To me, it speaks to having someone believe in you and the power of will. This part of the book says a lot about the influence of every educator on campus, including the deans in the admissions office.

Chickering’s candidness about developing self-esteem as a result of small acknowledgements and recognitions is so important to hear because of late the so-called “self-esteem movement” has put a negative connotation on any efforts to address self-esteem issues with students and colleagues.

As I read about the evolution of Chickering’s thinking about what variables had an impact on students’ learning, I realized that all of the insights that theorists and I have had about teaching and learning were already there in the Goddard educational philosophy. Chickering’s work continues to demonstrate how those insights can be put into action.

I take heart in the fact that though Chickering was never a student affairs professional, in his daily work, his insights have served the profession well. I was never a “student affairs professional” in the strict sense of the term, and I hope my insights have been beneficial to the profession.

The professional reflections Chickering and his colleagues share make this book required reading for graduate programs throughout higher education. What an incredible gift Art Chickering has given to higher education and all educators!

Modern-day Bias: Overcoming the “Where” Barrier

It’s funny how the mind works. Or, perhaps I should say, how my mind works…

In The New York Times last Sunday, Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed piece seemed to be just the validation that student affairs staff need. It offered outside confirmation about the importance of skills that are not generally acquired in the classroom but in the work and interactions students have outside of class, usually through service and their involvement in the areas within the bailiwick of student affairs.

Rather than focus on these main points of the article, however, I keyed in on this sentence: “Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so many nontraditional ways today, hiring officers have to be alive to everyone—besides name-brand colleges.”

This statement stood out for me because I am so disappointed in search firms and colleagues who overlook good people when hiring and good ideas when planning if the candidates or ideas don’t have the imprimatur of a “name-brand” college. Some potentially outstanding candidates are not given a second look if their resume or vita does not indicate that they have been connected in some way to a brand-name college or university. In the past month, I have talked with colleagues at three universities who could not accept innovative ideas because they did not consider the institutions where the ideas originated as their peer or aspirational institutions.

Just as I naively thought when I entered college that the professors and staff would be broad and open-minded and would not judge students by the color of their skin, I was hopeful that in today’s environment of innovation and leveling of playing fields that faculty, staff, and administrators would not judge people and ideas on their lack of connection to elite institutions.

I am not under the illusion that this attitude will change even though the experts at Google and Friedman assert that “The world only cares about – and pays off on – what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).”

I am hopeful that those who make decisions for hiring and planning in higher education will sooner than later adopt the attitude that we don’t care where you learned it.

Take a breath and keep doing your good work…

Take a breath and do not feel defensive. When the reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education called to get my thoughts on the conclusions drawn from the Delta Cost Project’s report on the higher education workforce, I took a breath and did not become defensive. The conclusion of the report is that the big increase in the higher education workforce is attributable in large part to what is labeled “Student Services.” The question is whether the expenses are justifiable or unnecessary bloat.

I told the reporter that if one looked at the numbers under the classifications “Professionals” and “Student Services” and compared the numbers to full-time faculty, one would get the sense that more resources were going toward student services professional staff than to faculty. However, there is a problem with labeling what are student services.

The Lumina-funded study we did at NASPA a couple of years ago about resources expended on student services was a clear demonstration that what is described as student services is all over the place, depending on the college or university. Further, if one reads what is labeled as student services in the Delta Cost study, it’s obvious that student services cannot be aggregated and referenced as one would the classification of “faculty.” The bottom line, though, according to the study, is that “hiring practices favor non-instructional professional positions.”

I assured the reporter that one would be hard-pressed to find a college or university president who would choose to fund student services if there were a choice between the academic program and student services. Upon investigation, one will likely find that increases in student services are related to governmental regulations and avoiding the risks of liability.

The general conclusion from this study adds kindling to the smoldering between academic and student affairs, and I encourage student affairs professionals to not be defensive but to do the job you were hired to do. There is too much work to be done to spend energy justifying your existence or explaining the reality of your work to those who have already prejudged.