Although Edward Willis has only been the dean of students since September, he is already becoming a well-known figure among the student body he helps lead.
His ability and desire to interact with students becomes clear whenever he’s around them. At a student-led discussion last week, he gave hearty welcomes to the first students he saw and hugged another one before sitting down to listen in on what the students were talking about.
His job description, like that of all employees in the Division of Student Affairs, demands that he interact with numerous students on a daily basis. For Willis, getting in touch with the student body is not a problem.
“The interaction is happening on a daily basis in so many ways just by the work we do,” Willis said, adding that his schedule normally consists of meetings with a variety of student groups and student-centered offices, such as the biweekly Michigan Roundtable, in which student leaders meet with University officials to discuss campus issues and ways to improve the University community.
But at a time when the University’s administration is being turned upside down, with old leaders steadily moving on and new faces constantly arriving, other University administrators haven’t had such an easy time becoming well-acquainted with the student body.
Many undergraduates say they are dissatisfied with the distance between the administration and students.”I remember my freshman year feeling completely lost as to what to do with my time here,” LSA sophomore Amy Keller said. “I really didn’t get much guidance, so I felt as if I had to do most of the reaching.”
Keller added that she sometimes thinks administrators do not always make the best decisions given students’ needs.
“I do feel that sometimes this University is run like a business,” she said. “It’s common knowledge that some professors are hired purely for their research capabilities, especially with our new Life Sciences Initiative, and not necessarily for their teaching capabilities. The research that they do, alone, is enough to put (the University) on the map, but is it necessarily fulfilling my undergraduate experience?”
But Keller, a member of the Michigan Roundtable and the executive vice president of the Residence Halls Association, said many of her negative feelings about the University’s administration were dissolved after she became more involved in student groups. “Once I found myself in an organization, and met many people on the administrative level, I didn’t feel so lost in the crowd,” she said.
University officials say they are doing everything they can in order to help students like Keller, who want more interactions with the people leading them.
Due to the size of the student body, officials said not all interactions can be personal. Officials are turning to other forms of communication, such as online surveys and e-mail, to gain student insight.
Still, University administrators do set up fixed times for students – like the Michigan Roundtable, the monthly fireside chats led by University President Mary Sue Coleman and Open House sessions held at various venues.
“Each session is different as students bring a variety of issues,” Coleman said about the fireside chats. “I find the students are very open and willing to talk about all sorts of issues – problems with classes, or coordination of issues. We have talked about careers and indecision about majors. I enjoy these sessions very much.”
But attendance at each fireside chat is limited to only a random selection of students and Coleman said her busy schedule keeps her from holding more.
Vice President of Student Affairs E. Royster Harper said she understands students’ frustrations with University administrators. But she added that she does not feel administrators always need to be visible in order for students to feel comfortable in the University community. “We are not where we want to be. We do not see every student every semester, and we know that,” Harper said. “But sometimes, you just don’t need an administrator.”