Are you in touch with your university’s Dean of Students Office?

Back when I was a new professor, I had a student in my class who left a voicemail one day. She was clearly in a panic. She had received bad medical news, and was worried about her ability to complete a major class assignment. During the message, she said, “I’m not sure I can handle all this.” Hearing that phrase definitely concerned me, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. So, I walked down the hall to talk with a colleague who had lots more experience than I did. She was very clear: call the Dean of Students, briefly explain the situation, and let them handle it.

That’s exactly what I did. For that student, and for other students I have referred over the years when they were in crisis (or I feared they might be), being contacted by the Dean of Students office is a relief. I had been worried that they’d view it as an intrusion or a violation of privacy. But, for a student in crisis, having someone with the appropriate training and knowledge reach out and offer to help them is like being thrown a life preserver when they’re flailing in the ocean.

To be clear: I don’t refer tons of students a year. But, given the large number of students I teach (and that I teach many first semester students who are adjusting to college), I do generally refer at least a couple each semester I’m teaching. Any time a student misses an exam without getting in touch, we first email the student right away to ask them to let us know they’re okay. If we don’t hear back quickly (say, within a day), I ask the Dean of Students to do a wellness check. It is very unusual for a student not to show up for an exam, and even more unusual for them not to get in touch right away explaining why, and I want to make sure things are okay. In addition, if I have a conversation with a student who seems to have more going on in his/her life than one person can reasonably be expected to bear – or where it seems like the Dean’s Office can help them get in touch with resources that might make their life easier (e.g., related to financial assistance) – then I ask the Dean’s Office to get in touch with that student.

Why am I writing this post? Because, in the past few weeks, I’ve asked the Dean’s office to check in with a few students. They’ve been very responsive and helpful. While I was reaching out to the Dean’s office, I was remembering my initial hesitance about referring students, and realizing that, if I knew then what I know now, I would have been so much less hesitant initially.

Everything above has focused on cases where I’m worried about a student’s wellness, and that leads to the referral to the Dean’s Office. There is another reason why I refer students to the Dean’s Office – issues related to academic integrity (e.g., plagiarism or cheating on an exam). Those students certainly have a different, less positive reaction to the referral, but I still think it’s in the student’s best interests. When I started as a faculty member, something that was drilled into me was that, if I don’t refer things to the Dean’s Office, that means I am both determining whether the student is responsible and what the punishment should be – and that is all being done with a clear power imbalance between me and the student. So, it’s in the student’s best interests to have an outside person evaluate the evidence related to the incident. They also have so much more experience with sorting through these situations that it’s more efficient (though still quite time consuming) for me to refer everything to them. Referring students to the Dean’s office for academic integrity concerns is also important because, in cases where a student is found responsible, it creates a record of that, so that any future academic integrity violations are evaluated with the knowledge that there have been previous ones. (Usually, the penalty for subsequent violations is more severe than for the initial violation.) When emailing with students about academic integrity concerns, I always make it clear that we can leave everything up to the Dean’s Office to decide – and, even in cases where they are admitting to a violation but seem to be doing so grudgingly, I refer it over to the Dean’s Office. Dealing with academic integrity incidents can be incredibly time-consuming and frustrating. It is one of my least favorite parts of my job. But I think it’s important, and so I do it.

Trying to get help for students in crisis isn’t exactly fun, but it can be rewarding. There are probably very few other things I do in a professional setting where I can have such a direct positive impact on someone’s life. So, while this can also take up a lot of time, I am happy to devote that time to helping a student. And, in my interactions with the Dean’s Office this semester, one thing I’ve been struck by is how many different people on campus really care about trying to help students in times of crisis. It would be easy for a student to slip through the cracks at an institution this size, but there are a lot of people working to make sure that doesn’t happen and that students get the help they need. That is really nice to see.

All of which is to say: learn how to contact your Dean’s Office and, if you suspect a student is overwhelmed, ask the Dean’s Office to check in on them. It could make a really big difference in that student’s life.

5 thoughts on “Are you in touch with your university’s Dean of Students Office?

  1. You are right about the Dean of Student’s office, though other universities may have other best ways of helping students. At Rice, the College Master (what a terrible term) for example, is more likely to know what is going on with students. At Wash U it is the Dean of Students. They have a whole bunch of people they call deans, have a Dean of the Day for anyone to go see. They are really Assistant Deans and it sort of dilutes and confuses the meaning of dean. But my real problem is much more serious. These people are often acting as psychological councillors even though they have no official training in this area. Is it because Wash U is too cheap to have enough real councillors? For real councillors the students are limited to something like 9 visits. It is a scandal. I know academic and personal matters blend often, but it is a shame that students cannot see real psychologists or other trained people more easily. I think it is similar in other universities.

    • On a related note to this, many universities offer counseling to students for free (or nearly so) during the semesters. At my university, this service is also freely available graduate students. This is excellent, but I don’t think many folks are generally aware of this. Unfortunately, no one really tells anyone about these. So spread the word!

      Both undergraduate and graduate studies can be tumultuous times for folks personally and professionally. A number of students in my department (grads included) have used these services and benefited.

    • Michigan fortunately has really good counseling services available for students. I mention this to many students during the semester. I know some of them follow up with the counseling service, and find it very valuable.

  2. This is one of the things I really like about working at a Large American Research University- the infrastructure that exists to support both faculty and students through common problems. I did a fair bit of teaching at my previous institution (I won’t doxx it but it was smaller*) where things like academic misconduct were handled at the academic department, then college level, disabilities by another unit, with very little communication directly to the instructor, and reasonable accommodations were left mostly up to me. Not that it was a big problem to do so, but I got to figure out on the fly how to adjust my lectures for deaf students and how to adjust the workload and expectations for a student undergoing with a serious medical problem- it would have been helpful if there had been more infrastructure during both of these situations. The responses to academic misconduct cases I found varied dramatically with who was the department chair, and nothing went ‘on record’ unless it was escalated several tiers above that- so when I uncovered an elaborate cheating ring, and found out through the grapevine that this had been going on in courses in other departments, too, we lacked the paper trail and history of escalation to show the severity of the problem.

    So what I’m saying is, +1000 to this post. If you have access to this sort of infrastructure, USE IT!!!

    *and what it lacked in infrastructure it made up for in heart!

  3. This probably varies among institutions.

    Many faculty and students at my undergraduate institution were fairly mistrustful of how the college handled mental health or physical health emergencies. The College tended to be rather free in handing out de facto expulsions at the first sign of difficulty – technically suspensions with the option to rematriculate later, but nobody ever seemed to get back in, even if they were doing better.

    Presumably, this was the College’s way of dealing with a rash of suicides in the years prior to my attendance. I think their view was that if “at-risk” students were identified and kicked out early, then the school’s image wouldn’t be affected if something bad happened. It just seemed cruel to derail student’s academic careers, cut them off from their friends, and their access to health care at a vulnerable moment in their lives when free counseling or other health services would have sufficed.

    Of course, this might all be changing now. It’s also possible that suspension really was the best solution in these cases, and that we, as outsiders, simply did not have all the necessary information to make a fair judgment. Nevertheless, I still can’t shake the feeling that their entire approach to health evaluation was based on minimizing trouble for the administration.

    Anyway, it’s just an anecdote, not data, but I thought it was relevant. It is really nice to hear about everyone else’s positive experiences with these kinds of services at their institutions, and I’ll be sure to keep an open mind about them when dealing with my own students and not be overly jaded by what I witnessed at a single school.

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