I have been listening to Columbia students since August 2006, when I first moved into Wallach Hall with my family. Living in an undergraduate residence gives me a unique perspective on students’ lives, behaviors, needs, and passions outside the classroom. I have found that listening to students—in my office, at my home, or as a guest at their meetings—and working together to identify issues and find solutions leads to the most effective programs and initiatives. I approach my work with this in mind. In fact, the work that I am most proud of from my time as associate dean of Residential Life includes direct collaborations with students.
Since becoming dean of Undergraduate Student Life in February, I’ve realized the increasing importance of direct collaboration and conversation. I have seen both students and administrators impacted by the negative comments in our online publications, where individuals who may or may not be part of the Columbia community are able to “speak” without acknowledging how others may “hear” them. And although students and I do not always agree (nor do my husband and I, nor my children and I, for that matter), I believe that working through disagreements is critical to building and strengthening relationships.
The ability to engage in respectful, open, and honest conversation is something that I value. Rather than speaking anonymously about our thoughts and concerns, we must be open and transparent—we must build bridges to reach desired solutions. I, and other administrators, need to hear specific concerns in order to engage in strategic problem-solving.
For example, online, students have suggested that there is a widespread receipt of late paychecks for campus work. One student reached out to me directly. In her case, the issue occurred when her work-study allotment ran out and she was switched from work-study to casual employee. Had her issue been work-study specific, she may have been directed to the departmental administrator in the office for which she worked. Instead, her issue was the result of miscommunication between two departments. I was able to connect her to the appropriate administrators to rectify the situation—a protocol will be established between those offices to ensure a similar issue will not occur again.
I prefer to speak openly and directly; to hear what is going well, question what is missing, and find ways to improve. I listen, without defense, to better understand students’ underlying needs and sentiments. Since I stepped into my position—dean of Undergraduate Student Life—I have been listening to a broad range of student voices, both in individual conversations and at focus groups.
Once a week, for example, I sit on the Lerner Ramps during my lunch hour to hear from students informally. Rather than always have students come to my office, this is one strategy I have to be more accessible and visible. I ask about the programs, traditions, and services they value. I question what’s missing at Columbia; what communities define the undergraduate experience; how students and administrators might partner more effectively to achieve certain goals; and, if money were no object, how students might enhance the undergraduate experience of Columbia College and Columbia Engineering. I ask open-ended questions, and as students share their experiences, I request clarification to ensure I have understood them, and attempt to validate what I hear.
In my conversations thus far, I have heard a range of opinions, as one may expect. There are students for whom Columbia is meeting or exceeding their expectations. However, I also hear frustration. Some recurring themes I’ve noticed include concerns about how Columbia provides support in difficult times, frustration regarding limited access to the lawns, and exasperation about the level of support for first-generation, low-income students.
I assure you that I have been listening and will continue to listen—on the ramps, at community events, and at student group meetings. I also hope that you will reach out directly to me, as individuals or student organizations, rather than through online anonymous comments. With direct outreach, I can let you know, face to face, that I hear or understand your concern. We can begin to establish rapport and trust in addressing concerns. And if there are real hurdles to addressing an issue, I can share specifically what those roadblocks are.
In a large University, so many issues involve competing priorities, but in direct conversation, we may prepare for solution-oriented conversations with other key administrators and partner offices. At Columbia, I have found that resilience, thinking out of the box, and a willingness to compromise are true keys to success.
Columbia College and SEAS students are welcome to email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up conversations, invite me to group meetings, and share both positive and respectful criticism about the student experience. I also invite all Columbia College and SEAS students to share feedback in our Undergraduate Student Life survey. Regardless of where the listening takes place, I look forward to working together to continue to build bridges and create a fun, memorable undergraduate student experience at Columbia.
The author is the Dean of Undergraduate Student Life. To see other pieces from this Scope, click here.
To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.