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Recommendations to improve advising debated
STANFORD -- Stanford's advising system is comparable in quality to advising programs at other U.S. research universities, but it falls short of the level of distinction the university strives for in other areas, according to a report delivered to the Faculty Senate on Nov. 9.
Only 9 percent of Stanford faculty members currently serve as freshman advisers, according to the report issued by the provost- appointed Advising Task Force. Finding ways to encourage more faculty participation in a student's formative years on campus was one of the key goals listed in the task force's report.
But the two-part question of whether faculty members should play a greater role in freshman and sophomore advising -- and whether they should be compensated for it -- provoked contentious debate at the senate meeting.
In introductory remarks, Ramón Saldívar, vice provost for undergraduate education and chair of the Advising Task Force, said that compared to other universities in the country, Stanford falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum with regard to faculty involvement in student advising.
Yale's system, for example, is made up entirely of faculty advisers, whereas the University of Chicago's system is run by professional staff. Stanford, in contrast, has a "hybrid system" that is loosely organized around faculty advisers, professional advisers and volunteers, and peer advisers.
The 11-member task force of faculty, administrators and students began meeting in January to review the quality of undergraduate advising. Using information gathered from focus groups and a survey of earlier reports on advising, the task force concluded that Stanford's advising system "extends to its undergraduate students a broad if uneven array of advising services."
The group prepared a list of 20 recommendations to improve the advising system, ranging from the creation of faculty and staff training workshops to the expansion of Sophomore College -- an intensive two-week academic program designed to combat "sophomore slump" -- and the creation of new freshman seminars that stress small group contact between faculty and students.
To improve the quality of dorm-based advising during the freshman year and beyond, the report suggests the creation of two pilot programs, one in a freshman house and one in a four-class dorm, to test the effectiveness of coordinated advising teams. Unlike students in the present system, participants in the pilot programs would have access to in-house advisers. In addition, freshmen in the four-class house would be given the option of continuing to reside in the same house and continuing their dorm-based advising relationships.
The report also recommends that dorm-based workshops be held regularly in the fall to help inform students of the different functions of professional advising staff at the Undergraduate Advising Center and volunteer faculty, staff and student peer advisers.
Clarifying the roles of each actor in the current advising system and strengthening advising in the major with more consistent departmental oversight of undergraduate advising also would go a long way in improving the system, the report states. Other recommendations include augmenting the resources of the Undergraduate Advising Center.
Faculty advising was singled out in the task force report as an area that requires special attention for improvement. President Gerhard Casper and Provost Condoleezza Rice, who were unable to attend last week's meeting, submitted a letter to the senate in support of advising reform, particularly in that area.
"We view the need to enhance the faculty's role in advising (particularly in the early years of a student's program) to be the most important step that we can take," Rice stated in the letter. "Advising is one of the key obligations of the faculty. Frankly, it is a part of our jobs and should be taken into account systematically in the review of faculty for salary and for promotion. Extraordinary effort in advising may need to be recognized in other ways.
"In focusing on faculty advising, I do not mean to say that others are not capable of quality advising," she wrote. "Indeed, I believe that many non-faculty advisers are among some of our most dedicated and effective advisers. Nonetheless, we will examine ways to increase the number of faculty involved in freshman advising."
The committee's wide-ranging recommendations didn't go over as smoothly in the senate, however, where members sparred over everything from compensation to whether professors who predominantly teach graduate students should be exempt from advising undergraduates. No action was taken on the committee's report, which is scheduled for further discussion on Jan. 25.
At the senate meeting, Bob Simoni, professor of biological sciences, said he has "certain mixed feelings about the general complaints about the advising system. I think it's actually quite good. I am a little concerned that complaining about the advising system is a rite of passage much like complaining about dorm food."
Rather than having the university provide incentives such as salary increases, research funds or sabbatical time to encourage faculty members to mentor lower-division students, as recommended in the report, Simoni said that perhaps students should be required to declare their majors at the beginning of the sophomore year rather than the junior year. That way, he said, students will have an incentive to seek out faculty advisers during their first year.
Robert Polhemus, professor of English, questioned whether compensation would inhibit teaching and research. "We have to keep advising in the large picture of perspective and priorities. If we give more resources to advising, we take them away from something else. . . . Advising will never be perfect. It is not as important as the teaching and research that happens in the university. It's not what the university exists for." Polhemus also acknowledged the importance of intellectual mentoring and praised recommendations to expand Sophomore College and add freshman seminars to the undergraduate curriculum.
Regarding compensation, Saldívar responded that such incentives are important because as long as faculty advising isn't a requirement, those who choose to become advisers "do it as overload."
John Shoven, dean of humanities and sciences, applauded the report's broad range of recommendations to improve advising -- a subject he said is worthy of serious review by the senate -- but took issue with the recommendation to provide separate forms of compensation to faculty advisers. "If we need those separate rewards, it is a failure of our current salary setting system," he said, noting that time spent advising should be factored in during the appointment, promotion and tenure process.
Some senators questioned whether faculty should advise freshmen at all. "If you really believe you have to 'incent' somebody to advise freshmen, professionalize it. Take it away from faculty. There are much cheaper people who could do a respectable job of that," said economics Professor Timothy Bresnahan, voicing an opinion frequently expressed during the 90-minute debate. Bresnahan argued that faculty can have more of an impact with first- and second-year students in small group seminars than by advising them about the nitty-gritty of course requirements.
Many senators said students are partially to blame for the low faculty participation rate for undergraduate advising. "I have demonstrated my commitment to undergraduate advising in many ways, but like education, it has to go two ways," said John Bravman, senior associate dean of the School of Engineering. "About 28 percent of my student appointments don't show up. No phone calls, no e-mail, nothing. . . . It only takes a few of those events to really turn off faculty involvement."
George Springer, chair of aeronautics and astronautics, counted himself among the group of faculty members who have been burned by their experiences with undergraduate advising. "I would never do it again in my life, because I think it is a horrible thing. The students don't want it," he said.
While senate members seemed to agree that increased faculty- student contact is a good thing, they disagreed about what the nature of that contact should be. Psychology Professor Amos Tversky suggested that the task force report shift its emphasis to faculty-student interaction in lieu of faculty advising, because he viewed the latter as "too paternalistic."
Other senate members, however, enthusiastically defended advising students in their early years. "Undergraduate advising of freshmen and sophomores should be on the list of good things that contribute to the life of the university," said Franklin Orr, dean of the School of Earth Sciences, who has been an adviser for 10 years. "It gives you a window on undergraduate life that you can't have any other way. I think that the time demand is really quite modest compared to the rewards."
Marsh McCall, professor of classics, defended the task force's call for increased faculty participation for first- and second-year students on the grounds that the university has a responsibility to live up to its contract with its students.
"A sense of desperation, I think, informs this report, because the report doesn't want to give up on the promise that appears in the literature," he said. If the university can't take concrete steps to increase the percentage of faculty who are freshman and sophomore advisers, he said, the literature mailed to incoming freshmen should be changed before the next crop of first-year students arrives on campus.
Chemistry Professor Michael Fayer took issue with the fact that the report focused on undergraduate advising. "The tone of this report completely ignores that half of our students are undergraduates and half are graduate students and postdocs. We are overloaded. If you want more faculty advising, then have the faculty have a smaller teaching load," said Fayer, adding that the report is skewed because it doesn't take into account the number of faculty who advise graduate students.
He further argued that issues of compensation and promotion also need to include graduate student advising, and questioned whether faculty who predominantly teach graduate students should be expected to advise undergraduates. "Before everybody runs off and says 'yeah, yeah, we should all advise more,' I think we ought to realize that some of us are advising up to our eyeballs already," Fayer said.
Two faculty members from the Medical School disagreed with Fayer, noting that they advise both graduate and undergraduate students.
"I believe the School of Medicine should be involved because there are undergraduates who look to that type of advice in planning their careers in science or medicine," said Phyllis Gardner, professor of molecular pharmacology, who urged that some form of compensation be provided to encourage teachers in the professional schools to advise undergraduate students.
Developmental biology Professor Lucille Shapiro, who has been advising undergraduates for six years, said, however, that a simple acknowledgment that she and her colleagues in the School of Medicine take part in advising would suffice.
"We are advising," she said. "We would like a greater role and we are here."
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