Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

A great one has departed, and the system will resist any who try to fill her shoes

Today my wife and I went to a memorial for Dean Joan Schaefer, an old mentor of mine.  By the time I was in college Dean Joan was formally retired, but that which is formally true on paper is rarely a reflection of practice (to return to one of the constant themes of this blog).  As a Dean Emerita she was, officially, still involved in a scholarship fund (which I benefited from), a study-abroad summer program at the University of Cambridge (which I also participated in), and a few other programs. Unofficially, she was a confidante, friend, advisor, mentor, sounding board, and protector for countless students who sought her out or were noticed by her. She was certainly important to me, and in tough times I drew strength from her. Dean Joan remained in those roles formally until 2006, and still went to campus frequently to talk to students for a few more years after that.  Before her retirement, her job title was "Dean of Women", but she transcended that title very quickly, and for essentially her entire career she had an open door for any student who needed her.  She was the mother and grandmother of the Trojan Family.

We still have people like her in lower-level roles, and officially we have people with similar titles (though nowadays they are the Dean of Student Affairs rather than Dean of Students, and certainly not Dean of Women or Dean of Men).  On the official level, the biggest difference between Dean Joan and a Dean of Student Affairs is that a Dean of Student Affairs oversees people who actually have in-depth interaction with students, promulgating policies and managing budgets and mitigating risks.  They might interact with a few students (especially student leaders) but most mentoring is delegated.

In the lower levels, we have many people who have taken on a wide portfolio of mentoring and counseling that goes beyond their official job titles, and we had them even back in the day of Dean Joan.  The difference is that back in the days of Dean Joan we had one person who not only had an open-ended mentoring portfolio, we had her sitting at the same table as many other high-ranking administrators.  Nowadays, the professor or mid-tier Student Affairs administrator or coach or whatever who takes on such a broad portfolio will never sit at the high table.  Nobody who sits at the same table as the upper administrators will have much ground-level interaction with students.  The ground-level stuff is done by people who report to people who report to high-level administrators and explain how their one-on-one interactions are advancing the goals outlined in the latest Five Year Plan Strategic Plan.

At my institution, the closest we get to people who combine a broad ground-level mentoring portfolio with reasonably high-level access (more because of political significance than official flowcharts) are people who run Special Programs, usually aimed at students with identifiable disadvantages, and generally with the goal of helping some identifiable segment succeed in some set of majors.  It's all highly specialized.  This is a poor substitute for a Dean Joan whose official brief is 50% of the student body, and who has a sufficiently expansive role in Student Affairs to concern herself with 100% of the student body, while also reporting at a high level.

At this point you're probably thinking that my objection is something along the lines of "All Students Matter" or "Why do only _they_ get a special program?"  No.  I wholly agree that some people have it harder than others, so while all need attention some need even more.  By all means, have Cultural Centers and Resource Centers and whatever else.

Rather, what I object to is that the personal touch is only valued as a Solution To A Problem.  There's a statistically significant gap, an identifiable disadvantage, so the person who provides the personal touch is valued...provided that they can help improve the numbers, or at least help with PR.  There's no baseline of "College students are people being brought in for a formative experience as they prepare to join the professional classes, so we value those who provide attention, and if some need even more then provide even more."  Rather, they only value those who can provide the attention needed to plug the gaps that cause embarassment; all of the other personal attention is at best taken for granted and at worst treated as inefficiency.  Every valued attention provider is a specialist aimed at a segment, and the greatest value goes to those who help plug a noticeable gap that looks bad for somebody in charge.

I suspect that most (not all) of those whom Dean Joan helped still would have done fine without her, but she helped most to do even more and a few to succeed at all.  We have people who provide similar attention today, but they do it only because they value it, not because the system values it.

What I'm ultimately talking about here is valuing the human connection as such, not just as a fix for embarassing numbers, and valuing it at the highest levels of the academy.  Alas, the technocrats have moved us beyond that.  I don't think it's a coincidence that Dean Joan, concerned with the individual touch at the highest levels, was also such a staunch advocate for the arts and humanities, the areas of study most directly concerned with the problems of the human condition.  What she provided transcended any faddish Best Practice, and USC was blessed to have her sitting at the highest tables.