All faculty and staff at a university are engaged in delivering the academic mission of the institution. Some only indirectly support the education, research, or service functions of the university. Others are on the front lines. This is a post about one group with such “first responder” duties.
When I first arrived at Georgetown, I miscommunicated with undergraduate students around the word “deans.” To me, this meant the dean of a school. To them, it meant their advising deans. I learned repeatedly over the years how central is the role of advising deans in the lives of undergraduates.
Further, I now know that, in response to a large number of questions in student exchanges, an all-too-common phrase I hear is “Ask your advising dean.”
The classroom was the focus of much of the popular press involving the impact of the pandemic on higher education. Most of the media attention concerned faculty and students adapting to online learning. Less media coverage was devoted to how the work of advising deans was radically changed at the same time.
At Georgetown, many of the pre-COVID activities advising deans thrived on face-to-face contacts. Forms were used for student requests. Starting in March, 2020, all such transactions had to be internet-assisted in some way.
For first-year students, advising deans have always been a crucial resource for adapting to living away from home, sharing space with roommates, and dealing with the time management issues of college life. Post-COVID, the problems quickly switched to dealing with internet problems and adapting to different course structures. For some of these needs, other offices have the primary responsibility. But lack of knowledge among students about these services led to the advising deans being the first contacted.
Further, some students at home found that they had to resume duties they had foregone on campus – care for younger siblings, work in a family business. All these problems hit the agenda of advising deans as they affected students’ sense of academic progress.
Further, the advising deans found themselves dealing with changes of schedules, reducing course loads, facilitating the transfer of credits form other colleges, and advising on the possibilities of leaves of absence.
During the pandemic, as with most Georgetown staff, the advising deans mostly worked from home. But since their jobs were supporting students, the hours they worked were highly variable. Georgetown students were now spread throughout the world, and those outside the US faced unusual problems. The Eastern time zone was only one possibility – so nights and weekends were no longer free time.
Further, some students remained in residence halls on campus, when their situations demanded it. So the advising deans came into campus to serve their needs on some days during our remote learning.
We think of advising deans as focused on students, but they also are often a crucial link between students and faculty. Thus, advising deans found themselves working with faculty in a partnership to tailor course operations to the needs of individual students. Sometimes these were academic matters; sometimes these were mental health issues that require quick actions on everyone’s part.
In short, the COVID experience itself led to an increase in the response, “Ask your advising dean.” This group of our colleagues performed at the highest level of excellence. The devotion of our advising deans to their profession and to Georgetown is a key ingredient in navigating these strange times as a university.