Issue Date: Dec 15, 2003
By Richard Gorman
More than 80 student leaders and members of the administration gathered on the Busch campus Dec. 8 for a Presidential Retreat designed to suggest improvements in the level of campus services for all university students. The retreat grew out of a meeting hosted by President Richard L. McCormick with the elected heads of student government associations in October. While sitting around his dining room table, the students “let me know that the services were often delivered in an unfriendly way,” McCormick said.
“We are all aware that Rutgers is poised for a new level of excellence in higher education,” moderator Brent D. Ruben told retreat invitees at the Hale Center. “But I think equally important…is to have that level of excellence also extend to the services we provide and to the kinds of relationships we have with students and other constituencies.” Ruben, executive director of the Center for Organizational Development and Leadership, was asked by McCormick and Emmet Dennis, vice president for student affairs, to plan and conduct the retreat.
Student concerns about service ranged from a lack of civility and an uncaring attitude on the part of service providers to a need for improving processes like spring transfers and the way information is disseminated throughout the university. Representatives of the offices that provide student services — housing, dining, financial aid, parking and transportation, the police department and others – attended the retreat.
“Students are frustrated,” said Jason Redd, the student representative to the university’s board of governors. “I don’t think they feel like they’re the priority.”
But the biggest surprise was the students’ focus on faculty issues. Students commented on the tenure process; teachers who receive poor marks in student evaluations, yet return year after year to teach; and the need to better prepare teaching assistants.
“Some of the problems for students involve professors who don’t want to be teaching,” Redd added. “Many professors want to be doing research, but they have to teach because that’s part of their charge here. Some students are frustrated because they see key faculty members leaving the university because they haven’t done the things they need to do to gain tenure.”
“I think there’s a major issue here in that students feel powerless,” said Adam Cooper, president of the Rutgers College Governing Association. “They feel there’s no way for them to express their concerns to anyone with any decision-making power.” Cooper called for establishing an effective mechanism for feedback, either on the university Web site or through focus groups.
Several students said the university was “huge and confusing” and that service providers often don’t know how to direct a student to the proper office or person. “It’s a very big school,” another student offered. “It’s overwhelming.” Lovelace Baden, a University College senior, said few Rutgers College students even knew her college, a liberal arts school geared primarily toward adult and part-time students, existed.
The Presidential Retreat was well orchestrated. During the portion titled “Understanding the RU Student Experience – Students Share Perceptions,” a dozen students voiced their concerns over service issues. Later in the program, the audience formed nine teams, each equipped with an easel-backed drawing pad and markers, paper and pens. The teams then conducted brainstorming sessions, filling page after page with ideas for improving service on campus. At the end of the sessions, each team presented its top four ideas to the assembly.
Some of the suggestions were:
- Improve training for front-line student services staff and faculty. Most agreed that staff members know their own jobs but are unfamiliar with the services provided by other departments on campus. To help promote accountability, nametags could be issued to each staff member.
- Expand the amount of service-based information for students on the Web site. Combine all service-related information on one Web page for easy reference. Direct all feedback on service performance through the Web site. Make it easier for students to determine what services exist and how to access them.
- Locate all student services in a single geographic area so students can take advantage of “one-stop shopping.” Alternatively, group the financial aid office, registrar’s office and the cashier near a bus stop. Students requested extended office hours at least one night a week.
- Appoint a university ombudsman to represent student concerns.
- Institute a financial incentive system to recognize and reward excellent service in faculty, staff and service functions.
- Provide a mid-semester orientation. Many students either miss orientation or are so overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the university and their college that they don’t derive full benefit from the present orientation program. Establish a peer-mentoring program so freshmen can benefit from experienced upperclassmen.
- Create advisory groups for all student service organizations to handle feedback.
Ruben will evaluate the suggestions and schedule follow-up meetings with service providers and students to develop an action plan to be presented at a second Presidential Retreat in the spring.
“We are determined to address these issues,” McCormick told the audience. “This is not a one-shot deal. It represents the beginning of a concerted and comprehensive effort to address these issues.” He further promised to develop “an accountable process for following through on the concerns you’ve expressed.
McCormick said that he was “particularly impressed” by the extent of the concern over academic issues. “This emphasis upon your academic needs was something I had not expected. I, and the deans who are present, will have to raise those questions with our faculty. Those issues, too, will receive our concerted attention.”
Administrators attending the retreat will review the recommendations and develop a plan. A second presidential retreat will be held early next semester with students, administrators and faculty. “I give you my word that we will not fail to take advantage of what we have learned from you this afternoon,” McCormick said.
This article was published in the Dec 15, 2003 edition of the Rutgers Focus and is available online at http://urwebsrv.rutgers.edu/focus/article/link/1226/