As I begin to think about the issues of alcohol on college campuses and all the time we spend using educational approaches and educational sanctions, it is beginning to become clearer to me each and every year that our time, money and energy should be spent in different avenues. If we spent more resources understanding the culture of our individual college campuses and our student bodies, we might have a little more success dealing with alcohol related incidents that involve vandalism, damages, noise, roommate issues and the many petty incidents that have a tendency to take up a significant portion of our administrative lives. Through community development and student involvement, colleges and universities can experience the positive impact of collaboration between students and administration.
After working at two large state institutions and now at a small liberal arts college, I am finding out we should be spending more time understanding our student body and working on developing community. I define “community” as getting students actively involved on campus, thus leading to more institutional investment, so students take more ownership and responsibility for their actions. Community development is one of the most underrated areas in higher education. We spend more time handling incident reports, creating more restrictive policies, and at times working against our student body than we should. After 15 years in Student Services, it has become relatively clear when I spend more time working closely with students, I develop a better understanding of who our students are, what they believe and why they attend “our” institution. It takes a lot of intentionality, time and effort; however, this understanding has helped me work more effectively with our student populations and develop the trust needed to positively affect student lives without fostering the constant lack of trust for the “administration”.
As administrators, we have to develop policies to make many external and internal constituents content. However, if we work to develop strong student communities within our student population, we have a better chance of students feeling an ownership for our institution and thus taking responsibility for their actions.
In my current position, I play a part in making sure students understand they belong to a community at all levels within the institution. I try to make sure students don’t just feel involved but feel that their contributions make a difference. Students need to understand what it means to be a member of a community and how a strong community can positively and negatively impact their lives. In general, I feel our students come to our institutions lacking the understanding of community and community development. This is a societal issue we can attempt to alleviate.
At my current institution, our student staff and other professional staff members spend a significant amount of their time as community developers, resources and advisors. We also have structures within the residential community so students have involvement and investment for their floor, hall and campus community. These structures are not only within the residential community but exist outside residence life within student government, campus budgeting, student organizations, etc. We are far from perfect, but we have created intentional structures to create an environment where students take ownership, responsibility and accountability for their actions.
I would argue there is a correlation between students feeling they belong to a community on or within our campus, and students taking responsibility for their actions, ideas and beliefs. I believe one way for institutions to start building stronger communities would be to give students the opportunity to make decisions within their community that may impact the institution. For example, we had to make a significant change to our alcohol policy in recent years, and I can honestly say students hate these alcohol policy changes. However, students better understand the changes, because we took a proactive approach to getting them involved, listening to them and allowing their voice to impact the final policy.
Our proactive approach included a number of steps. We shared alcohol related incident statistics with students, the alcohol and drinking tends on our campus, and explained external related issues such as insurance issues, risk management, etc. We developed an alcohol task force (made up of students, staff and faculty), offered many campus open forums throughout the process, and regularly talked to Student Government, residence life student staff, and students at large. We never stopped informing and involving students throughout the alcohol policy change. Currently, our students might not like the policy changes, but they understand and generally follow them.
We all know it is much easier to develop a policy and have the “higher ups” talk to campus lawyers and just implement the policy or procedural changes. I am proposing we spend the extra time (which can be very painful and time consuming) and help students understand the entire process and let their voices be heard. It is not OK anymore to say, “we had students involved or on the committee”. Did you do a good job involving students throughout the change? Did students have a significant impact on the final decision or policy? Was student involvement significant? Did we create an environment where students could share their opinions or beliefs via open forums, small focus groups, etc.? Are we truly creating environments where students can express ideas?
I am sure some of you are thinking that this all sounds great, but wake up and smell the stale beer, broken chairs, and cigarettes. Who has the time to do this? Our administration would not support it. I would say to you, take baby steps and truly allow students to understand the administration and existing bureaucracy. It has always seemed to me that as administrators, we are afraid to show that we don’t have all the answers. Let’s use our students’ fantastic minds and innovations to mold our institution. Let’s use these methods to help educate students outside the classroom. The more adversarial we are with our students, the more they will resist us and the more work we create for ourselves in the long run.
Submitted by Steve Larson, Associate Dean and Director of Residence Life, Grinnell College