Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Blind Administrators

A conversation with a colleague yesterday has had me thinking ever since and they have been largely depressing thoughts.

Those that follow this blog know that my work is with first-year students at a large private university.  One of our biggest initiatives are New Student Orientation programs at the beginning of each semester.  Like most educators we are faced with making decisions about where to focus our efforts and what messages are most important to communicate to new students during our 2-3 day orienation sessions.  

Yesterday, I was talking about this with a colleague of mine and she related that one of our administrators had commented that "new students aren't ready to hear about the "Aims of a BYU Education" at orientation--it's too heavy."  In other conversations I have learned that this administrator, however, feels that reminding students to take shorter showers and turn off lights, as well as injunctions to "stay until the very end of weekly campus devotionals" are critical to communicate during orientation.  

This all seemed incredibly short-sighted to me and represents, I think, the lack of vision that is becoming common among university administrators.  I wholeheartedly agree that student behaviour is lacking on a lot of fronts, from mediocre study skills to sometimes appalling lack of decorum.  I also agree that universities have a charge to help students become better citizens, however that might be defined.  The problem I have with most university leadership is their way of going about changing behavior.  

My view is that most behavior stems from internal values and attitudes.  Consequently, if we want to change behavior, we need to change thinking.  Burdening students with a long list of do's and don'ts may bring about temporary changes in behavior (although, I would argue that more often it leads to rebellion and resentment--much like authoritarian parents' inflexible rules for a wayward teenager).  A more effective way, I believe,  to help students adopt change is to help them develop the same vision that we have for our insitutions.  At mine, that vision is almost entirely captured by our Aims of a BYU Education, and I would imagine that similar foundational documents and mission statements are found at almost every institution of higher education.  If students don't ever catch this vision or develop a picture of what a BYU education is all about (or Notre Dame or Westminster College or whatever institution we are talking about) it is naive to expect them to act and behave in the way we would hope they would.  As a result, their educational experience is fragmented and more an exercise of jumping through hoops and obeying abstract rules than anything else.  I think this is what the writer of proverbs may have meant when they said "where ther is no vision, the people perish."  Having an internal picture of the ultimate goal or objective helps frame the way people think and act.

This leaves me with a few questions I need to ask of myself (and wish I could ask of the administrator who I referenced earlier in this post):
  • What is the vision that we want students to have of their education?
  • Do all of our key stakeholders (faculty, administration, boards, student leaders, etc.) agree on this vision?
  • How do we help students "catch this vision?" 
  • How will we know that they have caught it

Until my administration, and others, are more thoughtful about the ways in which we orient students to the missions of out institutions, they will never become what we hope they will become.  All the orientation talks, seminars, workshops, and other technical responses will just lead to temporary change and continued frustration.

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