Does faculty involvement in student life matter?

Kate Baier, Senior Director Residential Life, New York University

Does faculty involvement in student life matter?  Yes.   Shortest blog post ever.

The real – and more serious – answer is more nuanced.  There is no question that faculty involvement in student life matters.  The real discussion is: for whom?

In an age of rising tuition costs, increased competition to attract students, and higher scrutiny of colleges and universities, faculty contact with students outside the classroom is often presented as a value-add proposition.  The proposition isn’t just an admissions brochure fantasy.  Faculty contact outside the classroom does result in positive outcomes for students.

In their 1991 and 2005 meta-analyses of the student outcomes of the college experience, How College Affects Students, Pascarella and Terenzini list the positive outcomes of faculty contact for students, including development of cognitive skills and career-relevant skills, persistence, educational aspirations and degree completion.

The National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE) measures levels and types of faculty engagement including discussing career plans, talking about ideas initiated in class outside of the classroom, collaborating on a research project, and participating in activities other than coursework.   This type of intentional program can be designed on both commuter and residential campuses and provides a range of possible faculty investment.

The University of Calgary, for example, hosts a “Last Lecture Series”.  The speaker series was inspired by the last lecture of Randy Pausch, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University whose “last lecture” went viral when he gave his last lecture after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In residence halls, faculty involvement can range from a one-time program hosted in a residence hall to a more long-lasting affiliation with a residence hall community.  Living learning program link faculty members to themed hall communities.  Faculty-in-residence programs situate faculty members to live in student residence halls.  The media has even taken note of the phenomenon, reporting the curiosity of faculty members living among undergraduate students.

The other side of the “faculty involvement in student life” question is the faculty.

Does faculty involvement in student life matter to faculty?  The answer: yes.

In 2013, I completed a qualitative study to examine the outcomes for faculty serving in a student life program in a residence hall.  Recognizing that participation in residence hall programs holds little weight in the American university tenure triumvirate of research, teaching and service, I was interested in identifying the less tangible benefits for faculty-in-residence.

I found that the participants of my study reported an enhanced sense of community.  The program widened the faculty member’s collegial network and increased the number and type of collaborators to include faculty members from other academic departments and administrative staff.  Faculty members used opportunities with students to explore new interests.

Faculty members who had student contact through this residence hall based program were more mindful of the academic demands on students and were more explicit in sharing mental health and wellness resources with students.  The faculty members felt they had greater access to university information and leadership.  They were more willing to participate in university activities and felt a higher degree of investment.  Many reported that participation in the faculty-in-residence program was a factor of their own retention at the university.

So, does faculty involvement in student life matter to the university?  Yes, it does.  The mission of most universities can be generalized to include the advancement of knowledge.  Faculty involvement increases the likelihood that students will stay at the university and improves the means and outcomes for the transmission of information and the generation of knowledge.

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