I've had the wonderful opportunity to visit four universities while in Europe - one in Trier, Germany, two in Nancy and Metz, France, and the fourth in Luxembourg City. These have stimulated profound reflection on the nature of student affairs work, how we are prepared for it, and the different organization models that can be used to advance it. In the cases of Trier and Nancy/Metz, student affairs is essentially an out-sourced service to address students' logistical needs. In the Luxembourg case, the model is still being developed.
There are very clear dividing lines between academic and non-academic affairs in all of these cases. However, there were fascinating (in my judgment) and unexamined exceptions in crossing these boundaries. Particularly in the case of Nancy, a wonderful cultural programs office is doing some of the most interesting work and I provide more detail on that below. Europeans are curious and a bit surprised that people actually study to prepare for student service/affairs roles. Those in these capacities in Europe have a variety of academic backgrounds and they report being drawn to the work as a personal commitment. They are very dedicated and interested in "serving" students and, for the most part, don't even recognize the powerful impact that they have, or could potentially have, on students' learning. As you might expect, I quoted a few research studies on the impact of out of class experience on student learning and they were curious, although not persuaded. Organizational boundaries, professional preparation, and mental models were all issues that I found inhibit the involvement of all these good people in the work that they hold so dear. These are not unusual inhibitors, even in the U.S. environments where we hope we've made some progress - or have we?
I'm providing more detail notes on the Nancy/Metz visit for those who might have interest.
The functions of student services in Nancy/Metz are application/admission services, on-campus residences for ~10% of the student population, off-campus housing referral as requested, dining, student employment coordination, cultural activities, financial aid analysis and grants, and service to international students (in the Nancy example this includes ~10% of the student population).
Some interesting policies and practices:
• On November 22, 2005, a rather historic agreement concluded that “personal development” is the primary goal of all the student service programs. This agreement was secured through conferences between administrators and the academic staff of the respective campuses.
• While the commitment to “personal development” was agreed among faculty and staff, students will be involved in the consideration of how this will be addressed.
• Technology issues are just emerging in residences. They want to convert to swipe-card access systems and they are attempting to increase the number of computer labs in residences. There is no wireless access as yet.
• Cultural activities include theater, music, dance, and literature but apparently little of the kinds of social activities characteristic of clubs/organizations on U.S. campuses. A particularly effective way to get students involved in these includes competitions for creative works; these come with monetary prizes.
o The cultural mission caused considerable resistance among faculty at first because faculty believed that they were the providers of both academic and cultural learning.
o The cultural activities in which students express the greatest interest are music of all kinds and the “Cultural Action Fund.” This fund is a source of support for students to create their own initiatives (100-1,500 Euro/project).
o Because of the reported “service” commitment and the very clear boundary between in and out of class life, there are no mechanisms to stimulate or assist students in the discovery of learning acquired from out of class experiences. (My observation is that this is happening informally due to the commitment and interest of staff.)
• There is a growing problem among French families being unwilling to assist students with the cost of a university education.
• There are no staff in the residence halls, other than to see to maintenance concerns. My observation is that this is likely the result of the organization model focused on service instead of educational purposes.
Throughout the day, I grew to have greater appreciation for the quality and depth of service being provided by the staff of Nancy/Metz. Although there were repeated statements about the service focus and the clear divisions between in and out of class life, there are very interesting educational/developmental things going on just below the surface. A couple of cultural program examples that are just below the surface and could be explored as deeper learning possibilities are:
o A program called Artem is a community development initiative in partnership with the city of Nancy. While we didn’t get into a lot of detail, this sounds like a community service or service learning initiative. The outcome of this initiative and its potential as a catalyst for learning could be fascinating.
o Because students prefer single rooms and because there appear to be benign divisions between those on campus and those who can pay for private residences off campus, it would be interesting to explore concepts of community – What is is? How it can be enhanced? These campuses seem content in students being very independent, yet, those students we met expressed a desire to connect with their peers. Is community a uniquely U.S. kind of issue or does it have relevance at Nancy/Metz and elsewhere as well?
o The cultural programs office at Nancy has a series of competitions for students in creative endeavor (film, theater, photography, literature). They are now focusing these competitions around themes (almost like Miami has our First-Year Reading focus) and the 2006 focus is “Prison.” Students are allowed to define the theme very broadly so they could address prison as incarceration or they could address prison as the mental frames which constrict our learning and development. I found this idea absolutely fascinating and wondered about its applicability to Miami in a variety of areas.
o The movement into “cultural programs” was resisted, much in the same way that faculty in the U.S. resist the notion that student affairs should have anything to do with the learning mission of the institution. The need to, and provision of services or managerial control, bring certain expectations and may place student affairs staff in boxes that are hard to escape. How can we counter the mental models and confinement of our own experiences?
o The French model is much like the growing trend on some U.S. campuses of out-sourcing. What do we need to learn from the French about the merits or difficulties of such a model? If out-sourcing becomes inevitable, how would a commitment to student development and the enhancement of learning be maintained?