John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Avoiding the Faculty is Not the Way to Go

John N. Gardner

In my work I get the privilege and the opportunity to visit many campuses and this includes the opportunity to hear all kinds of perspectives on the challenges we face to increase student success—all a part of the so-called “completion agenda.”

There is no doubt that the pressure to increase college completion rates is firmly implanted in the thinking and planning of many senior leaders in all but the elite sector where those rates are already very, very high. There is also no doubt in my mind that the awareness of this focus on the completion agenda only goes so far down the chain. Certainly it reaches many staff—both academic and student affairs administrators—both mid and junior level. I also know that it has not reached the consciousness level of many of my colleagues on the faculty. There are many reasons for this, one of them being that their academic leadership chain has not brought this agenda forcefully enough to their attention.

But I think another reason that the faculty is not fully aboard is because keeping them out of the loop has been intentional. There are all kinds of reasons for this.

One of them is the pejorative views of the faculty. In my travels I often hear faculty bashing. Usually this is from colleagues in Student Affairs who feel that their sincere efforts to collaborate with faculty have been rebuffed. I hear them argue that faculty don’t really understand or care for students, which when I hear this I write off as absolute nonsense. But it has become part of the socialization process for new members of the student affairs profession, at worst, the notion that the faculty is the enemy.

And academic administrators have their own problems with the faculty. I have seen for many years that when the academic administrators decide to get really focused on the problem of increasing retention they are often inclined to avoid including the faculty in the effort. Why would we want to avoid the type of professional educator who has the most contact with students, particularly in the archetypal institution these days, one with no residence halls, all commuting students, and many non-traditional students who are not going to get involved in “student activities” with professional staff?

Some possible explanations: we avoid the faculty because some of them still have tenure. And they can’t be ordered around. And they ask tough questions. Long live academic freedom and critical thinking. And they are sometimes suspicious of the best laid plans of administrators. And working with them is not expeditious. They don’t get right on it. They don’t have that same sense of urgency. And, above all other concerns:  they can vote no confidence. And there is nothing many academic administrators fear more than offending the faculty. After all, if you want to go up the ladder in your career track, and you have a history of offending “the faculty” this is not a way to get good references when you want to leave one institution and move up in another. So there are lots of unfortunate reasons why the faculty have all too often been left out in the cold on retention initiatives.

I have the opportunity at professional meetings where there are “vendors” who are selling free enterprise solutions to senior campus administrators, to observe the pitches from our partners in corporate America. And I am struck with how many of these pitches are not only not directed to the faculty, but intentionally directed to other types of educators who will be on the front lines of the retention wars and who will be influencing the decisions to spend vast sums of institutional treasure on retention solutions.

And I keep asking myself how are we really going to improve academic success of students without a much more intentional engagement of the faculty? I want someone to explain to me how this is ever going to work. I understand why campus resource allocators are avoiding engaging the faculty. And I see that the success rates are pretty much stuck on flat. But what is it going to take for us to really engage the faculty?

I can’t answer that for the academy. But I can answer it for my own work. That will be my emphasis—a focus on what faculty do, and that, yes, in collaboration with academic and student affairs administrators. When I last looked it was still the faculty providing the instruction for which we award academic, degree applicable credit. And there are still more faculty than any other type of higher education professional. Maybe we ought to rethink this unfortunate exclusion. I think it is a form of discrimination. And like all forms of discrimination, it is invidious, and harmful to society.

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