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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: Recent Articles Highlight Sexual Assault Issues

Editor's note: There will be a general campus forum on sexual assault at 6 pm on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 in the Fiesta Room of the Coates University Center.

Nearly everyday I receive a forwarded article about sexual assault on college campuses. While many contend that there are university efforts to cover-up assaults and there is gross incompetence in the handling of cases, I find these assertions to not be true in the majority of cases. These are really complex issues and situations and results can be second-guessed on any side of any given case. Processes should be evaluated in full, not based on outcomes of high-profile cases. While I have given much attention to this topic, here, over the last year, I think it deserves it.

So here are some of my choices of really good recent articles that I recommend:

How Drunk is Too Drunk to Have Sex?
By Amanda Hess, February 11, 2015

What I like: This reinforces to me that our newly proposed behavior-based policy hits the mark. In it, in the absence of force, coercion, or a lack of consent, drunk sex is not a violation. Incapacitation essentially means just that. A lack of control of motor skills. This change has been vetted by the Coalition for Respect and sent for comment to all students, faculty, and staff.

It's clear to all reasonable people that it's cool for two sober men and/or women to enthusiastically consent to sex and that when one person in unconscious, that's assault. But there is an ambiguous middle ground between clear-eyed sober and passed-out drunk where one or both parties may become too intoxicated to meaningfully consent to sex, and school have now been tasked with discerning that line for themselves. In doing so they've been forced to confront a host of philosophical, moral, physiological, and practical questions -- none of which have easy answers.

On a Stanford Man Who Alleged a Sexual Assault
By Connor Friedersdorf, January 28, 2015

What I like: This is a thoughtful, non-judgmental piece that asks more questions than offers answers. And, it makes it clear that in a word, it's "complicated."

How we ultimately define sexual assault is a choice–one that combines elements of prevailing culture and law, of connotation and denotation. Insofar as a community adheres around a notion of sexual assault that tends to involve high degrees of predation and trauma, the stigma against it will remain relatively powerful. As "sexual assault" is broadened to encompass gray areas that combine low degrees of predation with victims who aren't traumatized, the stigma may diminish.

Why It's So Hard to Talk to Our Daughters About Campus Rape
By Susanna Schrobsdorff, January 29, 2015

What I like:
Everyone understands (or should understand) that women have the right to go to a party and drink and choose to hook-up. It is never their fault if they are assaulted. And yet, we should be able to arm them with risk reduction tips. If it is precautionary it isn't victim-blaming.

It’s not fair, but it’s reality. I realize that I need to have some version of the talk that so many African-American parents have with their sons about being careful of what they wear and how they behave so as not to put themselves in danger.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Why a four-year advising model might be a good thing

Four years since the process began, we are seeing some aspects of the Trinity Tomorrow strategic plan come to fruition. Encouraging plans are underway for the soft launching of centers related to international initiatives, student success, and experiential learning. Other components in the plan, such as those related to academics, marketing, and admissions are well in motion. One recommendation yet to be addressed is a review of Trinity's advising model.

According to the plan there should be an initiative:

" revamp the advising process to include conversations about students' current and future goals - academic, professional, and personal. While these conversations certainly occur in some advising interactions, they are not as universal as they should be. Effective advising enhances student learning, promotes professional development and a healthy work-life balance, and strengthens student retention."

As someone in the Student Life area this is very appealing. The question is "how do we get from here, to there?" I hope that this issue can be reviewed with robust conversations that go beyond the fringes of the issues, but that might start with this premise: If we could rebuild advising from scratch (which we could), how would we rebuild it? And how could we meet the aspirations in the strategic plan?

I believe that the vast majority of our faculty members are exceptional advisors. I think most issues with student advising are systemic, in part, because there isn't even agreement about the advising role.

The University has shown that it is committed to having faculty, rather than staff advising. There are many advantages to this. First, the faculty are already employed and we don't need to hire full-time advisors. Second, most faculty members generally are experienced with the curriculum. And third, and most important, it is in the ethos of the institution that our faculty advise our students. This is what students want when they come here: personalized attention from our faculty. And though I can't speak for the faculty, this is what I think draws many of them here too. These advising relationships can be very meaningful and the potential to develop them further is hopefully on the horizon.

As we are currently situated, advising is primarily academic, intended to assist students in course selection and registration, fulfillment of requirements, and consideration and completion of majors and minors. Many advisors take this further, naturally, by showing concern for the welfare of their advisees and continuing mentoring relationships.

When students declare majors, they generally switch advisors. In place of the (usually) random initial advisor, they choose -- or assigned -- someone in their major. Essentially the advising process that begins in year one is truncated in the sophomore or junior year. Then the process begins anew.

In order to achieve the goals laid out in the strategic plan, I propose consideration of a four-year advising model. Under such a plan, a faculty member would work with a small group from "cradle-to-grave" if you will: From new student orientation up until graduation, and maybe beyond.

Here are some potential advantages:

1. With a four-year advisor, each student will have one person who assists them, not only with the mechanics of registration, but with the full arc of their experience: academic, personal, professional. An advising syllabus would probably need to be developed so all advisors could cover all of the elements that make for a student's experience, not just the academic ones. Personal touchstones could include sleep, time management, health, substances, relationships, family, and more. Professionally advisors could discuss with students their involvement in activities, service, plans for going abroad, internships, and resumes as well as offer advice related to graduate school and employment. This would dovetail well with our residential model that builds over a period of time and is developmentally based.

2. If a student stops out for a period of time the advisor, under this model, is perfectly situated to keep in touch. Each advisor will have a better sense of their advisees and be able to track what is happening with their students, even if they leave. At times, a simple nudge from someone, anyone, when a student is six weeks out, six months out, or a year out may help get students back on track.

3. One program mentioned in the strategic plan is a reflections seminar. Ideally, the full experience here would have several points of natural reflection. Imagine an opportunity for advising groups to convene each semester -- or at least annually -- and to do some sort of informal and formal reflection and discussion. One of the exciting things about working with students is to watch their growth over four years as they mature into adulthood. By having a support group to address successes, challenges, and developmental issues in a sharing environment, students could put their experiences in context chronologically and with others.

There are clearly some logistical impediments, but none that couldn't be addressed:

1. Having a person who advises students on their major is currently important for upper-class students. In this model, there are no such roles. Formally. An advisor working with a person who has declared a major takes on some of the academic responsibilities, but often serves as a kind of informal role model and mentor. There is no reason that students couldn't still get the kind of mentor-ship from one or more faculty members in a department. Indeed, I suspect this happens routinely, especially as students take on multiple majors and minors. Given our culture and environment, perhaps the role of "major advisor" can be reconsidered. Concurrent to whatever transpires in a student's majors and minors, the student would continue the important advising relationship developed since day one.

2. The numbers still work. If professors don't serve in a "major" advising role, then that reduces their number of formal advisees. At any given time (2,400 students and 240 faculty) each faculty member would have one advising group. Perhaps the advising might be more intensive and fruitful, but not likely more time consuming.

3. There are areas that require very structured and specific advising. Engineering Science seems to be the most structured. We could continue with matching prospective Engineering students with that faculty. In Health Professions, most first year students who start there don't end there. For them, having four-year advising could be really beneficial. For those continuing in Health Professions, they will find the mentoring they need. I know there are certain structural pathways to navigating the Health Professions curriculum. But if those things can't be read in curricular bulletins they are likely too complex and subject to individual interpretation anyways. Certainly group sessions on the curriculum could supplement what transpires in individual advising.

4. Some feel that they, as faculty, are more oriented to their disciplines than to holistic advising. I would challenge that. I have yet to encounter a faculty member who isn't student-centered. With appropriate orientation, training, and resources - such as an advising handbook and syllabus - everyone here could be effective in a four-year model.

Though I am not a student or faculty member I do hear about these issues regularly. I don't feel unqualified to suggest something different. Advising as an issue was raised in a 1999 task force on student life and again in 2006 in the upper-class task force. That the issue has surfaced again in 2011 suggests that we have an obligation to do something different and bold. After all, our approach should be first and foremost student-centered, focused on creating an advising model around them. Perhaps it is something like this or something vastly different. I hope we can have energized and creative discussions around this topic. It is time.