The Dark Side of Higher Education: A Call for Comprehensive Administrator Education
University administrations have grown exponentially in recent decades. Although the financial implications of this trend receive a great deal of attention, it is no surprise that other discussions about the university’s most niche professional group are rare. But these are the individuals responsible for introducing students to academic life, for advising residential students living away from home for the first time, for monitoring students’ physical and mental wellbeing. At the higher levels, administrators react to some of the field’s most pressing concerns: student retention, student success, diversity initiatives, faculty-student relationships, and campus climate. And their prominent role in working through these issues often leaves them caught in the middle of the most contentious of campus controversies.
It should therefore be a concern for everyone in higher education that the training administrators receive in graduate school is so often detached from the responsibilities and quandaries they will actually encounter in their day-to-day work.
Master’s-level coursework in higher education administration programs, influenced by the field of mental health counseling, is overwhelmingly positive-minded. Administrators-in-training take courses in student development theory, ed leadership, identity development, advising, counseling strategies, group counseling, educational psychology, etcetera—all of which tend to be upbeat and growth-oriented areas. Courses like these look to build confidence in the future administrator, and make it seem as though many of the field’s critical issues can be solved by applying the right empirical model or psychological theory.
On the one hand, this is a good thing. Those getting into the field of student affairs should, of course, arrive with a positive mindset and a framework with which to respond to students’ diverse needs. After all, research tells us that strong personal connections with competent staff members is conducive to student success (see here and here).
From an intellectual diversity-perspective, this is not so good. The darker side of the field, the macro-level issues that can’t be solved by consulting an empirical model or a few textbook strategies, are often overshadowed or ignored in the standard curriculum for higher-ed administrators. And this lack of exposure to the major criticisms and harsh realities of higher education sets up to-be administrators for failure. Without providing a comprehensive understanding of higher education’s most pressing problems and the debates surrounding them, master’s programs risk sending future administrators into the field unprepared for what they will encounter.
How many graduate-level classes read Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty, a work that admonishes the growth of the very profession such students are entering? How often do higher education students read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which offers a vicious argument against moral relativism, a way of seeing the world that Bloom believed was being both administered by and simultaneously destroying higher education?
What about Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness’ recent Cracks in the Ivory Tower, which argues that higher education is failing in its ideal of providing a comprehensive, high-quality learning experience? Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, which uncovers the severe shortcomings of the financial aid system? Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, which argues that higher education, among other American institutions, is instilling in young people pernicious ideas about the precariousness of their physical and psychological safety? Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s landmark Academically Adrift, which calls into question the work of higher education writ large?
The answer to all of these questions is, likely, not enough. A graduate-level education that doesn’t cover critical works like these, nor the conversations they have ignited, fails to prepare future administrators for reality.
A financial aid counselor cannot fully understand the potential financial obstacles of their students without understanding the ways in which the federal aid system may fail them. Academic advisors cannot fully support their students through academic hardship without a full understanding of the risk factors that may cause a student to become “academically adrift.” Entry-level professionals cannot communicate productively with upper-level administrators without a primer on the most pertinent issues of their field.
None of this is to say that the works listed above are conclusive observations on the state of higher ed. Nor is it to say that students must agree fully, or at all, with the conclusions these books arrive at. Nonetheless, they should be familiar with the field’s major discussions, even if they may make for difficult, even awkward, class discussions.
It’s obvious why graduate programs might shy away from covering more critical analyses of higher education. Faculty may not want to turn students away from the profession (or their lucrative graduate programs). They may be fearful of breeding negativity or conflict between students and their professors. Or they may be downright reluctant to acknowledge such difficult topics.
But reading and talking about such works in a graduate seminar can be a fruitful exercise for all involved. Faculty members get to teach compelling works that differ in tone and focus from the technical textbooks they may usually assign. Students, on the other hand, get the opportunity to grapple with ideas that may challenge their initial understanding of the field they’re about to enter. Criticisms of the field should inspire us to work harder and constructively disagree in pursuit of the truth, not to shy away from conversation or leave the field altogether.
The goal of all this is to produce administrators who are willing to challenge themselves intellectually even after they’ve completed their graduate degrees. In fact, many of the goals the student affairs profession has set for itself depend on intellectual diversity. For example, Learning Reconsidered, a widely-read document published in 2004 that sought to modernize the field, argued that the ability to respond to changes in the student body and the field itself is necessary for fostering holistic learning (the idea that learning occurs not only in the classroom, but in the social milieu as well). How can young administrators contribute to such a goal without a full understanding of all that is being said and all that is going on in higher education?
The importance of producing professionals capable of striving in the midst of change and transition is no more evident than in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. There is sure to be fierce debate as the field grapples with the election’s result, given our politically polarized environment and the fact that universities are perhaps more civically-minded than ever. We have promised to help students become politically engaged in a chaotic political age. We need to ensure, then, that they are willing to exercise their political proclivities, have them challenged, and revise them - even when doing so threatens their preconceived ideas. We cannot guide them to do so if we are not used to having our own moments of cognitive dissonance. Graduate programs need to make this clear to new professionals and make it a standard throughout the field.
On another note, introducing future administrators to the most contentious topics in higher education may also improve their relationships with faculty and slowly mend the at-times- strained relationships between professors and administrators. Equipped with a greater knowledge of the field’s broader set of ideas and problems—the ones faculty are often concerned with—administrators can open up a new line of communication with their counterparts on the academic side of the institution. They also avoid fulfilling the lingering reputation that often precedes them: that they are career bureaucrats disconnected from the larger concerns of the university.
This is not an argument for a more dismal curriculum. Rather, it is a call for a more comprehensive and realistic one. It is very likely that some graduate programs are already assigning works that discuss the dark side of higher education. But this needs to become the norm, not the exception.
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