Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thoughts on the Fifth Estate

Oso Raro has a thought-provoking, if maddening, piece up – check it out – on the changing role of the Student Life side of the house, or what he calls The Fifth Estate. In his telling, as I understand it, what he calls the Fifth Estate of Student Life professionals represents a liability-driven resource suck, a sort of brainless parasite growing fat on the diverted resources of its increasingly dessicated host. As he puts it,

They [once] seemed a vague presence on the edge of more important things: the machinations of evil administrators, the follies of faculty, the striving of clerical staff. But increasingly, the Student Life professional represents a new cadre in the academy, one imbued with considerable power and influence over the structuring of students’ social lives and, consequently, some of their relationship to the dynamics of the classroom.

A new cadre is on the rise! The barbarians have breached the gates! Circle the wagons!

He elaborates...

This is a dangerously missed opportunity, for two reasons: firstly, Student Life services are here to stay. They are a competing power centre in the institution, and they tend to be allied directly or indirectly with the concerns of administration, which are mostly about maintaining control, period. Secondly, in their disinterest, faculty have unintentionally abandoned aspects of their traditional precincts of teaching to an administrative arm of the institution that arguably is not as concerned with intellectual enlightenment as it is in enforcing the rules. Did you know there are now degree programs in Student Life services and academic administration? Student Life is a growth industry, even as tenure-line faculty positions go the way of the loon.

This is one of those times when I have to decide where to start.

I believe, having read his stuff faithfully for years, that OR is well-intentioned, very smart, and trying to do the right thing. His insights on the contrasting attitudes of Gen X'ers in our student days, and the Millennials now, are recognizable, humane, and funny, if a bit overdrawn. And I won't deny – hell, I've written myself -- that many 'diversity training' programs are actually much more about avoiding legal liability than about actually teaching something or provoking thought. They can be staggeringly banal, which must be particularly galling if that's your area of scholarly expertise. All of that, granted.

(At Proprietary U, the HR department made the management folk watch “Remember the Titans” during work time. I think that, as a general rule, if a given piece of art works well as an HR demonstration piece, it fails completely as art. But that's another post.)

The loaded language doesn't help -- “machinations of evil administrators” who “are mostly about maintaining control, period,” a new “cadre” that forms a “competing power centre,” etc. I think it derives from the old “total institution” school of analysis, which assumes that any given institution – colleges, hospitals, prisons, whatever – can be understood as a freestanding polity unto itself. If someone other than faculty is getting resources, the only possible explanation is a sort of agonistic competition. It couldn't possibly be that, say, there are other tasks that need doing, or other constituencies to which the college has to answer.

Except, of course, that there are.

From this piece, you wouldn't know what Student Life (or Student Affairs, or Student Services) offices actually do. Put differently, the point of Student Life offices isn't to dumb down political discussion, to centralize administrative control, or to devalue faculty. It's to take care of the necessary and important things that faculty don't do.

On my campus, as an example, the Student Life area includes such new and cutting-edge functions as the registrar, the Admissions office, financial aid, student clubs and organizations, athletics, and counseling. I'm not sure which of these is supposed to be sinister; they all seem pretty useful to me. One can always argue about the best uses of limited resources, I suppose, and I certainly won't say that I've agreed with every decision I've encountered from those quarters. But they aren't competing with the faculty. They're doing other things, and those other things need doing.

Without adequate 'back-office' functions, colleges lose their accreditation, and faculty lose their jobs. (The recent demise of New College in San Francisco is as good a test case as any.) Without a vigorous Admissions office, the college goes out of business. Without adequate student record-keeping, everything falls apart. Without financial aid, the most disadvantaged suffer the most. Without clubs and athletics, students get a one-dimensional educational experience (not to deny that some of them are okay with that) and are less likely, statistically, to finish their degrees. Without counseling, faculty are left to their own devices to handle student mental health issues and all their legal and ethical complications.

There's no such thing as a total institution. The college is not a self-contained unit. We have to comply with the ADA, so we need people to provide services for diagnosed learning disabilities. We have to comply with Title IV, so we need people whose job it is to make sure we follow all the financial aid regs. Our ERP system is off-the-shelf, and it takes very smart people a lot of time to figure out how best to bend it to our (and our students') needs.

Some of those issues are deadly boring to lively academic minds. But 'boring' and 'unimportant' are not the same thing. My paycheck arrives with boring predictability every other week, and I'm glad it does. In some parts of life, 'boring' is good. And to assume that those things just happen, without someone making them happen, is just magical thinking.

On the complaint that much of the public programming offered by the Student Life folk happens without faculty input, I'll offer an incredibly simple response. Volunteer. (Or 'infiltrate,' if that makes you feel better.) Make the outreach yourself. Call the external events person – or whatever the local title is – and make yourself available. At both of the colleges at which I've deaned, the folks over there have always been short of ideas for programs, and eager to enlist volunteers. I have personally volunteered at both, and have personally done presentations for students and for the community. (I started in my faculty days, before a deanly title was even part of the equation.) The reason my college has a debate club is because one of our faculty got tired of students' political apathy. He got some funding from SL and became the advisor to the club. If you can lead a more thoughtful and useful discussion of 'diversity' than the usual consultants do – and you almost certainly could – then *%&^#% do it. And list it as “college service” on your P&T forms.

If it doesn't count for much, the issue isn't with Student Life.

When I've talked with my colleagues in SL about their interactions with faculty, I've always received two responses. “They always blow us off,” but “we'd still love to work with them.” The former is iffy, but the latter has consistently proved true.

Rather than viewing the Fifth Estate as a “competing power centre,” I see it as helping us help students. We're here for the students. That's the point. To the extent that the SL folk help students get their stuff together sufficiently to sit in your classes and glory in scholarly nuance, everybody wins. To view the SL folk simply as competitors for fixed resources is just narcissistic. The college doesn't exist for the faculty. (Put differently: it's not about you.) It exists for the students, and their needs go beyond the classroom.

There are real enemies out there. Don't go after the folks who make your job possible. Engage with them, and the students – the reason we exist in the first place – will benefit. If we replace “Remember the Titans” with something reflecting actual thought, if we supplement role-playing game clubs with debate clubs, you'll see eventual benefits in your classes. It's not about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. It's about knowing which is which.