Friday, March 23, 2012

What does it mean when we say we are advocates?

Yesterday morning I was in a meeting attended largely by academic advisors on my campus.  One of the items on the agenda was a report on a sub-committee's year-long efforts to develop a vision and mission statement for the campus advising community.  Aside from my generalized lack of confidence in the ability for these kinds of sterile statements to produce meaningful change on a campus (especially when they are created by stakeholder groups with very little power, like academic advisors, and not a priority for central administration), I was intrigued by one of the "goals" outlined in the document:  "Advocate for student success."  

Statements like that, while nice-sounding and politically correct, are fraught with challenges because of the lack of a shared understanding of what is meant.  For example, what do we mean when we say we "advocate for" students?  And, what is "student success" on a particular campus?  I'm not sure that anyone in the room yesterday could have provided a clear answer to either of those questions.  Consequently, I have very little hope that the vision and mission statements shared yesterday will have any real impact on the advising that takes place here.

Advocacy has become, in recent years, a buzz word in student support and first-year experience circles.  This makes sense--the FYE movement and the focus on providing student support services both came about, in part, because of a clear need to provide students with resources (both human and otherwise) that they could access to move through higher ed more productively.  However, there is danger when these "advocates" confuse advocating for a cause and advocating for an individual.  Let me explain, when I advocate for an individual person, my interest is in finding a way for their voice to be heard.  I plead their case, argue for their hopes or wishes, and act on their individual behalf.  In essence, I do and say the things they would do themselves.  My advocacy is helpful because of my position in an organization or access to particular people or dialogues.  Advocacy for a cause, while similar in many respects, involves support and defense of a set of values, assumptions, or philosophical ideals.

From this perspective, there may be times when advocates find themselves in situations where advocating for an individual would come into conflict with a cause.  In my experience, this is a situation academic advisors find themselves in quite often.  Here's a composite story to illustrate.  It is October and students on campus are busy registering for classes for the upcoming winter/spring semester.  A senior student makes an appointment to meet with his academic advisor to discuss his graduation plans.  The student is in a bind:  he is planning on graduating in April and has one more general education class to take; however, the class is not offered during the winter semester.  He made the advising appointment to request that the requirement be waived so that he can graduate on time and complete the internship he has been accepted for this summer.  What to do?

Advocating for the student would mean making some kind of formal request that the institution make an exception to its policies for this individual student.  Advocating for student success could, however, mean something very different and run counter to the student's wishes.  If I believe that student success on my campus means a rich and diverse general education experience, then I'll be inclined to hold students accountable to having that kind of experience before they graduate.  And, anytime campus personnel (be it advisors, faculty members, or anyone else) hold students accountable, there is some chance that the student will be upset or angry because their wishes haven't been met.

 So, when someone says that they "advocate for student success," does that mean advocating for a particular type of educational experience (e.g. deep learning, breadth of experience, service, etc.) or advocating for students' own interests?  Of course, those two don't have to be mutually exclusive and we hope that they aren't.  However, until a campus can be clear about what "success" is and what it means to have the "Anywhere U experience" we will continually find ourselves in situations where our efforts to be advocates put us in double binds.