Dean of Advising: Six Aspects of the Role
As a dean of advising, my job is to run a center for student advising, which serves 6,000 undergraduates of two schools, a liberal arts college and an engineering school. Our goals are to support and work with every student to ensure a superb college advising experience, with a constant eye toward the integrity of the degree. So, my days are generally spread among six areas.
The staff comprises about 36 professional and support staff, so an enormous amount of my time goes to personnel management. Part of managing people is helping them grow as professionals. People who decide to devote their lives, even temporarily, to advising do it because they love students. Managers have an obligation to enable staff members to become the best possible higher education professional they can be. To achieve this, you can put in place many and varied growth opportunities. In my current role, we hold meetings about a dozen times a semester for the purposes of conversation with faculty and our non-academic partners. The goals of these conversations are not only to learn of new departmental offerings and trends in the fields but also to stimulate conversation about new or old issues. We partner closely with faculty in each department as well as with staff of disability services, psychological services, the libraries, global programs, fellowships, career education, among others; we try to ensure that every essential partner office has an opportunity every year or two for a whole staff conversation.
Part of managing people is helping them grow as professionals.
A second structure we have put in place is inviting our partners into our smaller unit meetings. (We have broken the center up into seven functional units.) For example, since the early detection of possible psychological issues benefits everyone, we invite psychologists and psychiatrists to attend our unit meetings once a month to talk about individual student issues or new trends we are noticing and the best ways to handle or address them. Third, every adviser leads at least one advising specialty, and each adviser is a liaison to at least one academic or non-academic partner office. Those interactions are always opportunities for growth and learning. Since higher education is changing so rapidly, and there is so much literature on it, we usually have a book club underway which gives advisers the opportunity to read insightful and provocative books on college, students, and higher education. We also provide every adviser with an individualized annual aggregate assessment of their advising as perceived by their advisees and then help advisers create their own individualized professional development plan for the coming year. I try to ensure that all or most of these structures are in place and moving forward at all times so that personnel have many opportunities every year to develop themselves in the best possible ways.
Personnel management also entails hiring. Our retention is high, but people do move on for many reasons. The average length of an adviser’s tenure at our advising center is somewhere between seven and eight years. We also hire temporary advisers when several people take a leave at the same time for personal reasons, e.g., maternity leave. So, we are usually in the midst of a search or two. For an advising staff, I consider it essential to hire people who fall into one of three areas:
- PhDs in a subject taught in the Arts & Sciences
- People schooled in higher education (M.Ed.’s or Ed.D.’s)
- MSW’s or people with other degrees that speak to a formal education in counseling
When a staff has at its fingertips on a daily basis people with expertise in all areas, the amount of cross-training and cross-education that can and does take place, both formally and informally, makes for a rich learning environment, for the benefit not only of the students, but also of the staff.
The second big piece of my job is advising. People are often surprised that I “still advise,” but I consider it essential. I want to keep a finger on the pulse of current topics of conversation among undergraduates. I want to experience for myself on a continual basis what it takes to enforce new rules and guidelines. But mostly, I am deeply committed to helping students find their way. I have observed that it is very easy for higher education administrators to fall into a hyper-bureaucratic mindset. That is the last thing I want. Spending time with students keeps me in touch with the very reason I do this in the first place.
Advising can take many forms. First and most commonly, there is the one-on-one conversation. These can be expansive talks about everything from how homesick a student is to their performance in their current classes to their family and community background to their dreams and aspirations. One of my main goals is to connect students with faculty, something most students are quite hesitant to do. It is possible to spend 30 minutes on that one topic alone! Second, the center runs over 150 “advising programs” per year, which are essentially group advising experiences for particular sub-populations of students. It could be a roundtable conversation for transfer students; or a conversation with a faculty member for students interested in a given area of science; or a workshop for pre-dental students; or a panel of alumni engaging undergraduates in the pros and cons of pursuing an MBA; or peer advisers talking to students about ways to manage stress. A third form of advising is consulting with colleagues about the best way to help in a given situation. Let’s say that a student has recently been diagnosed with concussive syndrome. The student and their parents come into the advising center to request incompletes for some courses and withdrawals for others. Since it is still weeks from final exam period, when incompletes can be granted (according to the rules established by the faculty), the adviser talks with her supervisor and me about the best next steps. We agree that we need to connect the family with disability services to ensure that the student receives all accommodations he needs to weather this setback. But rather than send the student and parents across campus to another office, since that feels very much like being at the Department of Motor Vehicles, we call disability services and accomplish what we can over the phone, then reiterate next steps, emphasizing that we will do whatever we can to ensure the well-being of the student. Consultative advising, the third type, is common in our center and is probably the one I spend most of my time on.
A third part of my job is sitting on and leading committees. These committees are mostly designed to develop, refine, and enforce rules and guidelines. That sounds so dull! Well, the truth is that some of it is, and some of it isn’t. Like any committee in any realm of life, it is the committee members and the topics that determine how engaging and productive the committee can and will be.
One committee I sit on, staffed by faculty and a few administrators, reviews proposals for new courses and majors and proposed changes to existing majors and minors. At times, that is rote and boring; but at others, interesting. When the committee members talk about the meaning of a major rather than how many credits a major has, it can be pretty engaging.
One of the committees I lead reviews applications from students who wish to return to college from medical leave and is comprised of staff from health services, judicial affairs, advising, and residential life. The work for this committee entails reading the applications for readmission prior to the meeting and then discussing each student’s case from each office’s perspective to decide whether a student is ready to return to be successful in the coming semester or not. The narratives the students compose are at times heart-wrenching, at times uplifting. The overwhelming majority of students have gone away, taken care of their health needs, and are ready to return. Reading about the work they have done to prepare themselves to come back and succeed is enlightening. As a follow-up, I often try to meet with a student once they have returned to hear how things are going in the transition back. It is elating to hear, for the most part, how much happier and healthier they are, and how much readier they are to get as much as they can out of the time they have left at college.
At times, I have been involved in reaccreditation, which can involve many sub-committees, each with a very specific task. I’ve also sat on educational policy committees and on large committees that adjudicate student misconduct, among others.
One of my very favorite things to do is to work with athletes. As such, at two universities, I have participated in the work of the faculty-athletics committees where we discuss the student-athlete experience and work together to enhance it. Student-athletes and the student-athlete experience are not always well understood in colleges and universities, so I try to direct my efforts toward bringing more understanding to the community of this sometimes quite large sub-population of students.
A fourth large area of my work is dedicated to strategic planning and the concomitant budgeting. This work is accomplished in part by an advising assessment team that I have created and at times manage. Advising can seem so wishy-washy, so I have spent a lot of time looking for creative ways to generate data, both qualitative and quantitative. We learned advising assessment through the good work of NACADA; we try to attend their advising assessment institute every year. After a successful assessment cycle, we use the data we compile and interpret to show the ways in which our resources are being utilized and to formulate our future needs. We now know, for example, that we hold over 25,000 advising appointments in a ten-month period annually, that the number of pre-health advising appointments is skyrocketing, that the pre-law appointments are plummeting, and that the need for more science advising resources is dire. We recently started a new initiative for first-generation college students, which students are responding to with great enthusiasm. We record the number of students that attend each of our programs, so we can plan for an uptick or downturn in interest in many different topics. We are about to discover how successful our efforts were to ensure incoming students felt prepared to embark on their college experience, and will use the data to design the next class’s advising experience prior to arrival on campus. Planning and budgeting are the things that get tossed to the wayside when crises intervene, so I try to spend every Monday morning working on this aspect of my job.
A fifth part of my job is crisis management. It is common knowledge among advisers and others who have student-facing administrative jobs that we spend 90 percent of our time on 10 percent of the students. The worst crises involve the unexpected interruption of the normal course of a student’s college life. Each of these requires many hands and a lot of intensive attention to the individual student’s needs and their family situation. There are many ways to approach each crisis and it is essential to bear in mind that one’s initial reactions can often determine the degree of future escalation. It is here that the balance between integrity of the degree and compassion for the individual must be balanced the most carefully.
We spend 90 percent of our time on 10 percent of the students.
A sixth piece is national and international engagement in college advising. When I was a college student, I don’t think anyone thought much about advising, but in the past twenty years, it has become a large field of research and inquiry. We try, as a staff, to get involved on national and international levels. NACADA is an international organization devoted entirely to college advising. It has regional organizations that are also very worthwhile. The COFHE schools also have an advising group that communicates with one another frequently and meets once a year at one of the COFHE schools. There are a number of other groups that talk about advising, including a first-year deans’ group and a New England deans’ group. They are not solely devoted to advising, but it is a frequent topic at the conferences. Colleges all over the world are in various stages of building advising programs. I was invited to speak at two in South America, where college advising is still quite inchoate. We have also entertained guests from Europe, the Middle East, and Australia who are curious about our particular advising structure and resources. Wherever I go, I learn an enormous amount from my colleagues and, especially when I am flummoxed by a particularly thorny issue, it is always salutary to reach out to my advising colleagues across the country and even the world.
These six areas comprise the overwhelming majority of my role, but it is always flexible and open to expansion. Recently, for example, I have begun to get involved in an initiative designed to change campus culture with respect to sexual respect. I’m also working on a conference paper proposal that will hopefully take me abroad, to a country I’ve never visited before. My personal philosophy is to stay always open to new things and never say no at the outset when people approach me with something that may seem outside my general purview.