Offices of student and academic affairs must call off the turf war

The mutual suspicion of autonomous bureaucracies ignores the multifarious needs of living, learning, maturing young people, says Harvey Graff

August 12, 2023
People fit jigsaw pieces together across a chasm, symbolising cooperation
Source: iStock

Whatever vacuous slogans to the contrary may be invented by university administrators and their marketing teams, the parts of large institutions such as universities necessarily loom large over the whole.

However, that ought not to preclude those parts from forming genuinely interactive, mutually reinforcing interactive relationships with each other.

Stereotypical, self-promotional “purposes” – or, in anachronistic terms, “missions” – sway contradictorily across different forms of post-secondary education, from the pursuit of higher learning and preparation for life to training for jobs that may or may not exist upon graduation.

These are not mutually exclusive. As sites of “growing up”, broadly defined, universities have mutual teaching and learning across groups, ages, ranks and interests at their core. Both intellectual maturity and (inter)disciplinary mastery are central – inside and outside formal, credit-bearing courses. But we must connect these threads more closely and creatively.

Almost all undergraduates with whom I have spoken, over decades as an academic and now as an emeritus professor still living in a university district, desire a more connective education. That is especially so in their general education requirements and the relationships between required studies and out-of-classroom activities. Crucially, their motives encompass the intellectual, social, cultural and civic: students do not segregate their studies in the ways that their major programmes, departments and colleges do.

The prototypical, all-but-complete disconnection in US universities is between the Office of Academic Affairs (which includes provosts and college deans) and Office of Student Affairs or Student Life. At many universities, revealingly, deans of students are part of Student Life and have no direct connection with academics.

Each side of the divide ignorantly belittles the other. In the US recently, some professors condemned all non-faculty student programmes as an illegitimate “shadow curriculum”: attempts to usurp authority from the decreed “keepers of knowledge”.

Purveyors of these power-obsessed jealousies misunderstand the concept of a “shadow curriculum” and put their own sense of authority over the interests of students, who need “academics” and “life” – the curriculum and the extracurriculum, so to speak – to intersect, even at the cost of some overlaps, repetitions and superficial conflicts.

Cooperation could begin with preparation for civic engagement, with core courses in government and history accompanied by programmes in first-year dormitories and student organisation. Another compelling connection lies between science courses on climate and environmental change and a range of student activities on and off campuses. But such connections need to be pursued in all major phases of students’ university lives, not a one-semester first-year course and/or a 15-minute optional video on safe behaviour.

The connection-making might commence in the dorms and first-year classrooms with instruction on legal and civil rights – and responsibilities – as students and then as tenants. It may next move to mental and physical health and safety, all in the context of the demands and rewards of intellectual, social, political, cultural and economic maturity. Political science, history, writing and communications, and science and technology all have a reciprocal role to play in this. And student societies, across the social, political, cultural and economic spectrum, are critical points of interconnection.

Job descriptions and hiring criteria need to change. “Academic Affairs” and “Student Life” could become the major components of reformed Offices of University Affairs or the equivalent. Institutional means of setting common goals and pursuing cooperation are many.

As one example, many universities are already building basic opportunities through “theme” residential houses for common interests. Historically, these were faith houses, but they have expanded to cover common pre-professional, sociopolitical and cultural interests. Healthcare houses or sororities are growing, too, as are those themed around language and culture, civil rights and activism, arts, and engineering.

Locating and supporting a resident graduate student or lecturer in the relevant field of each house would meet multiple needs – especially since fourth-year students are now offered free room and board to substitute inadequately for the graduate students formerly paid to be dormitory “floor counsellors” or resident advisers.

The overall consequence of most disconnected Student Life offices is the juvenilisation of young people, just when they are most challenged by the needs and opportunities of maturity. That neglect shows in harassment, hazing and sexual assault in dorms, fraternities and public spaces. Such problems cannot be eliminated completely but they can be reduced significantly.

We must do better. Student services for the 21st century must be part of an integrated, reconceptualised mission of the entire university as something like a training ground for individual and collective futures.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at the Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio eminent scholar in literacy studies. He is now writing Reconstructing the “Uni-versity” from the Ashes of the “Multi- and Mega-Versity”.

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