The Power of Partnering with Students

The following is a guest post by E. Royster Harper, a senior advisor with Peterson Rudgers Group. She served for four decades in student life roles at the University of Michigan, including as vice president for student life.

E. Royster HarperUniversities are well aware that after two years of pandemic disruption, students are feeling stressed, disconnected, and concerned about their safety, their futures and the value of their education. We’ve seen their fear and anger over sexual assaults and racial incidents spark campus protests across the nation, demanding change.

When Generation Z students are dissatisfied, they take their complaints straight to the top. They expect to be consulted and heard — yet too often, university leaders don’t take the time to engage students in honest dialogue and involve them when addressing issues that shape their college experience.

This is a major missed opportunity. Both sides learn and everyone benefits when university leaders engage students and build meaningful relationships with them. That means seeking out their perspectives, listening to their concerns and involving them as partners in solving common problems.

This should be an unshakable commitment and university-wide practice. And it should start at the very top. Presidents and chancellors should schedule regular, informal opportunities to listen to, learn from, and respond to students from as many corners of the campus community as possible.

Getting to know a distinctly different generation

As administrators, we value our students and take pride in their talent, achievements and potential. But too often, we don’t take the time to get to know more than a handful of them. Yet we are educating and supporting a generation of students whose life experiences are vastly different than ours.

Generation Z grew up in economic turmoil and escalating partisanship, exposed to racial inequality, the threat of mass shootings, an epidemic of mental illness and the constant influence of social media. All this undermined their sense of security — and then came a global pandemic and all the losses that entailed.

The most ethnically and culturally diverse generation in history, today’s students are comfortable with difference. Just over 20 percent identify as LGBTQ, and they are open to gender fluidity, yet they are too often exposed to the risk of sexual and relationship violence. They are living and learning in circumstances so different than ours that we can barely fathom their experiences unless we make a concerted effort to do so.

Our students have different expectations of us, too. Collaborative and pragmatic, they are willing to work for change, but they are quick to call out broken promises, inaction, or actions that veer from an institution’s stated values. They are skeptical of authority and will not follow guidance of institutional leaders without honest dialogue and ongoing relationships to establish trust.

Make it an institutional priority

In my 40 years of experience in student affairs, I’ve seen a focus on student engagement pay great dividends. Presidents benefit enormously; there is no substitute for the insights you gain in direct conversations with students. What’s more, it can be an energizing source of joy to connect with smart, committed and passionate young people who are already shaping the future — and, after all, they are the primary reason the university exists.

In my current role as senior advisor with the Peterson Rudgers Group, I’ve observed many universities struggling with student engagement. Too few invest the time to connect with students personally and build relationships before a crisis erupts.

In some ways, it’s surprising that academic leaders don’t do more of this. In business and elsewhere in the not-for-profit sector, it’s accepted that it’s critical to understand your audience’s needs and preferences. If your product is for young people, you have a team of young people involved. We are the only sector that thinks the people we are providing for have the least amount of useful insight.

Our students are the leading experts on their own campus experience, and they have valuable ideas on how to improve it. When we field their complaints but don’t truly engage them in solutions, we lose sight of the fact that students are on an educational and developmental journey. Everyone learns best when they discover for themselves. When we partner with students to tackle hard problems, they gain broader perspectives and learn to grapple with complexity — a crucial life skill. This process encourages students to take more ownership for their own experience, rather than being passive (and often resistant) recipients of decisions coming from on high.

Engaging effectively and authentically

I’ve also seen this fail, when engagement with students is simply a transactional tactic without a serious commitment to listening and learning. Students can spot inauthenticity a mile away and are very sensitive to being co-opted.

Students need to feel seen, heard and validated. If, in fact, leaders are going through the motions and not truly open to student feedback and suggestions, the effort to engage may backfire, eroding trust in leadership.

Partnering with students takes time and effort, which in turn requires a leadership mindset and commitment to a culture of openness and engagement. So how does your institution make this work?

First, think about your “Why.” As with any initiative, clarity of purpose is key. What is motivating your institution to improve student engagement? What institutional values are you advancing? How will you measure success? Without answering these questions first, efforts may become a high-level exercise that doesn’t achieve authentic connections with students.

Next, build an inclusive process. Increasingly, universities are supporting a community of virtual learners, and it’s important to reach out and listen to them as well. It’s also critical to consider the perspectives of the growing segments of “nontraditional” students: working or returning students, parenting students, veterans, and more. To reach all these groups, outreach must be hybrid, with a variety of online and in-person opportunities.

What gets in our way?

Obviously, some leaders are going to be more comfortable in conversation with students than others. For those who feel they are not good at this, some advice: Learn. Building the skills to relate well with people from different backgrounds and perspectives, at different points in their life and learning, will serve you well in in other aspects of your career.

Next, involve others. Partner up and bring a colleague who can do some of the talking while you focus on listening. True student engagement should be a university-wide responsibility. Sharing student sessions with other top administrators models the desired behavior and sets expectations of responsiveness.

Some may feel that involving students risks giving them too much power in decision-making. After all, the students aren’t in charge. That’s true, but the hallmark of good leadership is to seek feedback and engage, while preserving authority for decisions and outcomes. There are many ways to seek feedback that informs your decisions without a corresponding loss of power. The key is to set expectations and make the approach clear.

Leaders might say, for example: “Your input is helpful; I’ll combine it with feedback from other sources, and it will shape my decision, but ultimately, it’s my decision, and when I make it, I’ll share how feedback shaped it.” Another approach is to outline clear goals, and then solicit feedback specifically on how best to accomplish the goals that are already decided.

Other ways to connect

  • Schedule periodic, informal listening sessions with the president or chancellor and small groups of students; this can be a fireside chat, an online Ask Me Anything, or any other format that fits your campus culture.
  • Plan drop-ins at strategically selected student events, arts performances, or other events where students are enjoying themselves, or organize and host picnics or other casual events in student spaces.
  • Establish a diverse advisory board of students whom leaders can meet with, learn about their concerns, and collect feedback.
  • Hold open meetings, when needed, to discuss specific, significant issues of concern to students.
  • Build opportunities for leaders other than the president or chancellor to connect with students; this builds their credibility for when student-related issues arise in their domains.
  • Encourage leaders in functional areas with less student contact to establish ways they might involve student perspectives in their planning and problem-solving.

Developing strong relationships with students takes time and requires reinforcing structures and processes. Doing this consistently creates a climate for improved dialogue and a virtuous cycle in which students can take greater responsibility for issues arising from student culture. We think of this kind of influence as a “magnet” of meaningful student engagement that creates a mutually beneficial partnership. Without it, the “hammer” of compliance and discipline gets overworked.

Although presidential schedules are overloaded and spending time with students may seem like a luxury, in reality it is a necessary and valuable investment. When presidents and other leaders engage with students regularly and authentically, it builds priceless relationship capital. It strengthens a sense of community and helps forge stronger personal bonds to the institution. And it taps students as a source of creative solutions that power real change.

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