Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ask the Administrator: House Calls

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

I am an adjunct instructor in the General Education department of
Proprietary Art School in Large City. Recently, our
management has gotten very uptight about student attrition rates,
almost certainly because if students start disappearing the bottom
line of the school will be adversely affected. The department head
(probably responding to pressure from above) now requires that all
faculty members contact poorly-performing or non-attending students at
home, hopefully inducing them to start coming to class again and to
try doing the work. We have to turn in weekly reports showing that we
have done this.

I am fearful that I could be walking into a legal minefield if I
complied with this. This school has a rather draconian
non-fraternization policy, and a few years ago a high corporate
executive actually came by and told us that we shouldn't talk to a
student out of class time for any reason whatsoever--even to the
extent if we happen to get on the same public transportation in which
a student was riding, we had to immediately get off. This is
certainly melodramatically excessive, but I am concerned that if I
called 19-year old Hottie at home to ask why she hasn't been coming to
my class I could be faced with an irate father or a jealous boyfriend
demanding my head on a platter, lest they sue the school into

There are also privacy issues to be considered--If a family member
answers the phone and asks why I want to talk to 19-year old Hottie, I
have to be careful that I don't mention anything about her academic

Am I worried too much, or is there a real danger of stepping on a landmine here?

This brings back memories.

At Proprietary U, preventing or reducing student attrition was an obsession. (You're right about the reasons – a returning student is, among other things, a repeat customer.) “Intrusive advisement” was the favored approach. Students who didn't show up were to be called, cajoled, nagged, or whatever it took to get them back. The idea was to hector them into discovering why they wanted to go to college.

It rarely worked.

I never liked the approach, and very carefully positioned myself to avoid actually having to do it. Still, at one point PU actually had an office with three people and a director (I know, directors are people too...) devoted entirely to mailing attendance notices, calling vanished students, etc. I used to hang out with one of the people who worked there. She reported that fewer than half of the student phone numbers in the system were actually connected to anything. Whether the numbers were straight-up false, or the students just weren't that stable, was a matter of some speculation. Email addresses were even worse. A surprising percentage of them were obscene (“hotslut69@...”), and almost none of them produced responses of any kind. We used to joke that letters from PU were delivered by Pony Express.

The faculty, for their part, were supposed to keep rigorous track of student attendance, and 'reach out' to students whose attendance was spotty. The academic in me always considered that a form of pandering, and assumed that rewarding indifference would produce more of it. Still, it was the order of the day.

Intrusive advisement and FERPA stand in some tension with each other. As I understand FERPA, you can't leave messages on voicemail saying “we're noticed you haven't been to school in a week,” since you can't be certain who's listening to the voicemail. That said, experience tells me that if you don't leave messages, you might as well not call.

Intrusive advisement and your overly-paranoid 'non-fraternization' policy are in even worse conflict. I've never been one to go out drinking with students, but I'd say 'hi' if I ran into them in public.

I'm thinking it might be worthwhile to address these conflicts – carefully, of course – with the management at your college. What would they have you do when you get a voicemail, or when you reach a student and the student gives you waaaay too much information, or when you get the student's parent or spouse? I'm guessing that the 'non-fraternization' policy was drawn up at one time, in response to one incident, and the outreach policy was drawn up separately. You might need to connect the dots for them. Tactfully, of course. Don't do it on voicemail.

Worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.