by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute
“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies. Put a Glock to their heads.”
The above is a quote from former Mount St. Mary’s University President Simon Newman earlier this year. I say former, because the quote, in part, forced him to resign from his position only a few weeks after stating this to other faculty and less than a year after being hired for the job.
The undoing of the former private equity manager began with his insistence that a freshman student survey be used to weed out 20-25 students as a strategy to increase student retention rates 4 to 5 percent. Certain faculty members rightly had significant issues for the imprudent use of a student survey.
The student newspaper published the quote and other insights into the President’s actions. It is said that President Newman fired two personnel who were in the line of fire, including the advisor to the student newspaper. Although he reversed those firings shortly thereafter due to increasing faculty pressure, the faculty senate voted 87 to 3 to demand that he resign. He did.
So here are the two faces of student retention. Or perhaps the two edges of a sharply-honed sword that can cut efficiently in two separate directions. Policymakers and stakeholders continue to push for more efficiency in higher education, as they should. However, the downside is that administrators will sometimes resort to dastardly strategies to bring up their rankings in US News & World Report, the Times Higher Education Rankings, and other highly-noted systems that institutions use to promote themselves, and that students and families use in the college-choice stage.
We have the complexity of working as a unit to increase retention rates, graduation rates, and student learning at universities, while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on how the university works, in an ethical and moral manner, to help students. These issues can certainly be mutually symbiotic, but when ill-considered, they can cause devastation to students and institutions.
There is seemingly constant fight on many colleges about student retention. The “glock to the head” circle includes faculty and staff who believe that students should be able to stand alone. Students are adults now and should be able to weather the academic and social conditions that college brings. Conversely, the “bunny cuddlers” believe that institutions should be extremely cognizant of student experiences and do whatever possible to ensure potential success for every student.
It should be little surprise that I rest with the latter group. But I wouldn’t call myself a cuddler because I have some understanding and appreciation for the former. At institutions of higher education, there must be an acknowledge of both sides of this issue. There is some truth that students must be able to serve as their own best self-advocate and stand for themselves. But the truth is, college is tough for almost anybody, especially for those who are historically underrepresented in college, such as low-income, first-generation, and minority student groups. Some students are as young as 17. Going to college is hard. Going away to college even harder.
But holding hands and easing the pathway must be done strategically to allow students to build confidence and acquire the necessary skill sets and knowledge to persevere, both academically and socially, through the college experience. Making college too easy is not the answer. And neither is making it so cold and empty that students feel lost.
I’m a proponent of ensuring the right fit between students and institutions, or students and faculty members. The Admissions Office is critical to ensuring that the students who are admitted and subsequently enroll have the wherewithal to persist. They must possess the basic skills to succeed. If they do not, they probably are better served not being admitted. Of course, many institutions suffer from a Macbethian thirst for more and more students, requiring that they enroll students who ultimately will not graduate from their university. Instead, these recruits will stay around for a semester, a year, and sometimes more. But they won’t graduate.
This is the ethical concern of institutions of higher education. If an institution believes they should put a glock to the head, that is only because they themselves failed along the way. They failed during the admissions process; they failed as teachers and educators; they failed as social workers.
Do me a favor: when you consider how to improve student success at your institution, keep in mind the culture you wish to enhance and nurture across your campus. Which side are you on?