Friday, July 29, 2011

Why “dorm” and “housing” are terms that have long outlived their usefulness!

John Gardner

Recently I wrote my briefest post on record and simply asked what my readers might want me to comment on. To date I have received two replies. I will quote below from one of them:

“I would love to hear more from you about the role of the residence hall on the college campus. I'm a residence life professional, so I'm always intrigued to hear respected folks like yourself talk about your thoughts on the "dorm" and its role.”

So I am going to do exactly as requested. This may be more of a rant than a “talk”.

I think anyone of my generation (college in the 1960’s) knew that the “dorm” experience was a powerful one. But we also knew that it could be more than it was. It is now at many institutions thanks to the professionalization of those who manage college residence halls and the faculty and senior administrators they work with who aspire to more closely integrate the academic with the residential..

My most basic perspective on the importance of the collegiate residence hall is that they are places where the most important influencing on college students takes place: the influence of other students. Hands down the greatest influence on students during the college years is the influence of other students.  Many residential students spend more time in residence halls, literally, than in any other context of the college experience. This is an argument then for colleges and universities to pay more attention to the importance of “the halls” than many do. Perhaps the best argument though is that on-campus residents are more likely to be

I like to think of these facilities, ideally, as constituting sanctuaries, places of peace and refuge, and powerful learning, not just places to eat, sleep, and make love. It has struck many of us then that the term “dorm” just does not do them justice. And so we stopped in the last quarter of the 20th century using this terminology of “dorms”. Thank goodness. They were never just dorms.

The other form of truly egregious terminology though is the very name we give this component of the college experience—“housing” and that same term is used as a common descriptor for higher education professionals who manage collegiate residences.  About a half century ago, sadly, the higher education accounting rubric was restructured and the fees generated from student residences became classified as “auxiliary revenues”. In other words the halls were being structured to become cash cows. This meant that only the “business” staff of the institution were to care about what went on in these facilities. Unfortunately, the connotations of “housing” did not speak in an inviting way to other educators, particularly  faculty.

I believe that the continued use of the term “housing” continues to invite misunderstanding about what these environments are really designed for; the term continues to suggest then that the residential component is divorced from the faculty driven curriculum component. I maintain the term also invites outsourcing. The whole outsourcing movement is truly overtaking our campuses and a myriad of functions which we the faculty used to be responsible for.

The reality is that we are not in the “housing” business. We are in the education business. We need language that follows form and describes the referent point more accurately. To describe this profession which has such great opportunity to influence how and what students learn with such an education-lite term in a continuing exercise in banality.

So what have I done about this over and above simply lamenting it? Well, a few years ago I wrote the board of the professional organization which  supports “housing” professionals, an organization which unfortunately has the term housing enshrined in its title (ACUHO-I), Association of College and University Housing Officers-International, and suggested they consider changing their name. My gratutitious and self initiated suggestion went absolutely nowhere.  More recently, in October of 2010, I had the opportunity to lay out this argument at an ACUHO-I national conference. They were polite to me as I made my case, but, as I expected, no action. This is an organization that is deeply attached to its traditional name and seems to have little if any idea that its nomenclature is now quite outdated, except for the fact that it is widely used. Maybe I should just give up on this crusade.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Retention is a Real Slog

John Gardner
One of the absolutely worst Secretaries of Defense in US History has given us one thing to remember him positively for: reminding us of the word “slog”. His use of it so famously was in description of the Iraq war, a disaster which he had a great deal to do with designing. I am going to use the word to refer to the holy grail of undergraduate higher education in non elite colleges and universities: retention.
Achieving retention is a real slog. It is very, very difficult to do, short of going out and recruiting lots of “better” students which everyone else wants too. I have been helping colleges try to achieve this ephemeral goal for four decades now. I know.
This reflection is occasioned by my giving two talks the day of this writing, at a meeting of one of our six regional accreditors. And I had two rooms full of conscientious and worried higher educators under a lot of pressure from their campus leaders to improve retention. And I felt compelled to tell them that this is just very hard work and many of our approaches just aren’t going to work at all. I told them about my top four—that is strategies that do seem to “work” as demonstrated by externally validated evidence: first year seminars, learning communities, Supplemental Instruction, and Foundations of Excellence®. But even these take a true “slog” to make them work. I know. I lead one of these for 25 years (a first-year seminar); and I have been working another, Foundations of Excellence with 197 institutions since 2003.
Unfortunately, we higher educators are just like many other consumers. We work for people who want a quick fix, now, not a slog that will take years and years. We are looking for a panacea. A silver bullet. This makes us vulnerable.
And the good ol’ American free enterprise system is responding to our desperation. Even I who thinks he has seen everything by now in the way of the marriage of shameless commerce to the academy—what I refer to as the military-industrial-university complex, now find myself marveling at all the for-profit entities that huckster their wares promising to achieve retention for their clients. Just today I noted one of the largest college textbook publishers offering in an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education “student retention solutions”. As a textbook author myself, I would never made such claims. I know I couldn’t support them. Caveat emptor. Retention can only be achieved by a slog: yours, ours, and mine. I invite you to join me.