Consider This: How to Nurture Student Leaders

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The relationship between university administrators and student leaders, whether they are activists or elected by their peers, is complicated. These students are partners in governance, and they are astute and sometimes vocal critics - but they are also learners. In some ways, we are their mentors. Certainly, it's challenging to maintain all those dimensions of the relationship and keep it a productive partnership that works for the institution and its community.

The inherent power imbalance between students and administrators is usually felt much more keenly by students, especially graduate students, than by administrators. Helping student leaders identify and use their own, sometimes considerable, leverage can seem like a bad move in peer-to-peer negotiation, but it is necessary and salutary in the complicated relationship between administrators and students. It also helps alleviate the power imbalance that is at the source of much mistrust between those who should be partners.

It's important to remember that there are many life cycles in a university. A senior faculty member on the University Senate may have been around for 30 or more years. A president or a dean typically serves five to 10 years. Graduate students might be in the university for up to 10 years or more, but see a very narrow slice of it in all that time. Undergrads are with us for about (ideally, it is thought) four years, and elected student leaders typically serve one year in any given position. It isn't surprising, then, that key stakeholders in the university community have very different ideas of what "rapid progress" looks like, or of what current priorities should be. This leads to frustration and miscommunication on all sides and often gets in the way of badly needed institutional change.

Administrators should explain these different life cycles to student leaders early (in an orientation if possible), but we must also vicariously feel the urgency of the student leaders' one-year term. We should:

Explain to student leaders why they should measure their success by the direction in which they were able to move the process rather than by the rate at which they moved it. This will ease some of the frustration they inevitably feel. Show them how, historically, major policy initiatives that significantly benefited the community took the efforts of several generations of both students and administrators.
Use the urgency and energy that students bring to the process to encourage complacent or reluctant colleagues, faculty associations, and government partners to embrace change.

Rely on the fresh perspectives our student-leader partners bring to bear on our common problems and their solutions to guide the way in which we prioritize our policy-development efforts. They know what is hurting now because they are living it every day for the first time. We have gotten used to old pains and have learned to tolerate them; students remind us that we don't need to.

The institution and the community can survive without solving most of their problems, but they will benefit greatly from an investment of energy into solving the worst ones. Student leaders can help us identify what is most pressing and what will help our community thrive rather than merely survive.

A few years ago, in the run-up to visits to our campus by controversial speakers, I was approached by student groups wanting to know how different tactics for protest would be handled by the administration. After some productive discussions, we agreed that in a university context, some disruption should be tolerated and even expected, but obstruction of university activities would call for sanctions under relevant policies.

The various groups then made informed decisions. Some of them shouted down speakers and forced the cancellation of an event, with predictable disciplinary consequences. Others decided to stage a die-in protest, which was a disruption but certainly not an obstruction. Because there was clarity on all sides on these issues ahead of time, the outcomes were accepted and the situations did not escalate beyond the local community.

If student leaders remind us that we have problems and should try to solve them more quickly than most of us think possible, we, on our side, need to help guide them through the difficulties of actually solving them in highly diverse, complex, and decentralized institutions. Student leaders and activists often imagine that senior university administrators have some sort of ultimate authority. They imagine that we can impose solutions from the top. Sometimes they insist that we use our dictatorial powers to achieve immediate reform.

The first thing we can explain to them is that they wouldn't actually want us to have that power, and neither does anyone else in the institution, including ourselves. Sure, we have access to some administrative levers, and we can create incentive and disincentive structures. But universities, we find ourselves explaining to them, are not authority structures. They are leadership structures that benefit from the deployment of influence.

If we want to put an initiative in place or see a policy adopted, we have to convince our faculty colleagues, our administrative partners, and our students that it is actually a good idea. We have to get buy-in. Fortunately, no one will force the members of a university community to comply with a deeply unpopular or misunderstood policy. And we want it to stay that way.

Student leaders sometimes suspect that this pleading of powerlessness by people in lofty offices is a delaying tactic, a sign that we are shirking our duty as academic leaders, or worse, that we are conspiring to unjustly protect an unpopular status quo. And sometimes they are correct.

It is important that senior administrators be responsible and ethical in invoking the "powerless" argument. We should use it only when it is true and we can give a good account of why that is so. More important, we should be willing when necessary to ignore our own wise counsel on this point and plow ahead with an initiative or a decision when the road is hard but the cause is just.

Student leaders often don't see the full implications of actions or decisions, because they don't have as broad or deep a view of the institution as administrators do, and we shouldn't expect them to. We can, however, help them understand just how complex and diverse our institutions are. But, just as we should never use powerlessness as an excuse to be idle when we should act, we should never hide behind that complexity. Instead we should reveal it to students and help them navigate it.

If you find yourself thinking that student leaders, whether elected representatives or activists (or both), have just made a good point, and that the problem to which they refer should be dealt with as a high-priority project, but you find yourself thinking that it would be too difficult or burdensome to deal with it just now: Deal with it. Enlist them (and their successors, no doubt) as full partners in dealing with it, pain and all. Future generations of students and administrators would thank you for it, if they were ever likely to know or appreciate what you had done for them.

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André Costopoulos - Vice Provost and Dean of Students

André Costopoulos, PhD, joined the University of Alberta as Vice Provost and Dean of Students in July, 2016. Born and raised in Montreal, Costopoulos holds a BA (Hons) in anthropology from McGill, an MSc in anthropology from the Université de Montréal and a PhD in archeology from the University of Oulu, Finland. He began his career in 1999 as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Eastern Connecticut State University. In 2001, he joined McGill as a research associate and sessional instructor in the Department of Anthropology and joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2003. From 2012-2016, he served as McGill's Dean of Students.

Originally Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.The Chronicle of Higher Education.