Friday, December 4, 2015

Anatomy of a Disaster: The Provost Ignores a Well-Founded Committee Recommendation and Imposes Her Uninformed Will on the University. Who Can She Blame?

As many of you know, we are currently witnessing the disastrous effects of the Provost’s advising policies. I went to the advising center yesterday and observed a number of students sitting outside, waiting to see an advisor, while the unfortunate advisors in the understaffed advising center worked diligently at their jobs. Clearly, this ill-conceived and ill-executed plan has created problems where none previously existed. How did we get into this position?

Before I answer that question with my interpretation, I think it important to remember that no one in this administration ever takes responsibility for their failures. That said, who will Angela Henderson blame for this unfolding catastrophe? Is it the responsibility of the persons charged with implementing this ridiculous set of procedures? Are the advisors themselves responsible? Are the students at fault? Could it even be me because I have advised our members not to go along with arguably the worst decision made by an administration with a long history of terrible decisions? Of course, the scapegoat remains to be determined, but it seems fair to say the administration will attempt to find one (or several).

I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but I will turn to the original question I posed as an historian attempting to offer a coherent chronology of the events that led us to this debacle. I make no claims that this interpretation is definitive, but it is certainly supported by some compelling evidence which I will share.

The story apparently begins some time in 2012 when Enrollment Management conducts some sort of advising analysis. In April and May 2013, a committee made up of CSU staff, faculty and administrators titled the “Ad Hoc Academic Advising Model Committee” meets and subsequently produces both a report on the “CSU Academic Advising Model,” and recommendations related to advising at the school. The most pertinent parts of the summary are below. They include these comments: “An analysis of the CSU advising model reveals that most of the problems with the academic advising model are not necessarily structural, organizational, or even resource-related, but rather are the result of systems, policies/processes, internal communication, and technology that do not work as efficiently or effectively as possible.” And this: “The Split Model (faculty/professional advisors) is the dominant one at four year public colleges and universities . . .” The report identifies a total of 111 persons doing advising at Chicago State, including 44 faculty and 34 Professional Advisors.

The committee minutes include a “SWOT Analysis” on the advising model that seems to be specific to professional advisors and unwittingly offers a preview of the present systemic failures. “Weaknesses and threats” include these weaknesses: “General student dissatisfaction, High student to advisor ratio, lack of training as it relates to curriculum, and Low morale. “Threats” include: “Loss of enrollment and low graduation rates, Problems with Drop Session, Communications, Perception of CSU (internal and external), Lack of benefits for professional advisors, Frequent curriculum changes.” Any of this sound familiar?

Ultimately, the committee recommends the continuation of the mixed advising model. In academic years 2013-14 and 2014-15, university students continue to be advised by a mix of faculty and professional advisors.

All this changes in August 2015 when Angela Henderson decrees that the entire advising process will change. In an imperious memorandum dated August 6, 2015, Henderson makes a number of regal proclamations: “Moving forward, the university center for undergraduate advising . . . will be the advising center.” Then, “All faculty and professional advisors will need to vector their Fall advising hours to occur in the Center. I realize that this will involve changes in practice and want you now to initiate the process.” Then, “Prior to my approving finalizing Fall advising assignments, I expect you to discuss with me your plan for aligning advising personnel with this expectation.” The source of this brilliant decision? A discussion “with the Deans at our recent retreat.” What happened to the Ad Hoc Committee’s report? In her infinite wisdom and using her vast university experience, Angela Henderson apparently decides she knows best and ignores the committee’s recommendations.

Despite this ridiculous pronouncement, fall advising goes basically as it always has gone, with most faculty advising students in their offices. However, a number of professional advisors find themselves reassigned to the advising center. The lack of faculty cooperation in this absurd endeavor apparently angers the Provost because she decides to cut faculty out of the process altogether. In a dishonest memorandum dated November 10, 2015, Henderson makes the dubious claim that “all undergraduate programs and departments have professional academic advisors performing duties through the University Advising Center.” The gist of Henderson’s memorandum seems to be that faculty are no longer allowed to advise undergraduate students. Henderson anoints the Dean of the Library as the leader of the Advising Center, although it is not clear what experience or programmatic expertise Dr. Darga possesses.

From the start, the new advising practices create confusion and disaffection among our students. After listening to some student complaints, on November 19, I write to Henderson expressing my concerns and detailing what I view as the major problems for students and advisors in negotiating the new system. These include: long wait times, an inability to get answers to basic questions, insufficient training and staggering workloads for advisors. In my concluding paragraph, I discuss my concerns about the well-being of advisors and the potential consequences of this bad system for our enrollment.

Henderson’s response provides a model of disingenuous bullshit. It elides the issues I raise in my e-mail and reverts to cliches and platitudes about students coming first and how faculty are doing such great work. Despite the vacuity of Henderson’s response, there is data on this issue, let’s do a little fact-checking on her various communications.

CLAIM: “all undergraduate programs and departments have professional academic advisors performing duties through the University Advising Center .”

FACT: The advising assignments are based on workload. On November 10, the undergraduate advisors numbered 9 (one took another position in the university a few days later). Most of their assignments reflected no logic. One advisor handled all of Psychology; another advised Criminal Justice and Political Science; four advisors had responsibilities in two colleges, two advisors had responsibilities in three colleges. On November 19, each advisor was responsible for an average of 362 students. In 2013, 26 professional advisors worked in the various departments/colleges. In late 2015, that number had been reduced to 8; hardly adequate coverage.

CLAIM: “We alrady have a team of advisors who advise the Freshmen and Transfer students.”

FACT: In May 2013, 8 professional advisors worked in the First Year Experience component of the university. By July 2014, that number had dropped to 5 with only 1 remaining in November 2015. Currently, first year advising is being done by six persons, 5 with administrative titles other than advisor, and one person whose job classification is apparently “advising specialist.” In Fall 2013, 78 faculty and professional advisors served Chicago State’s 4340 undergraduate students. In November 2015, only 14 “professional” advisors bore the responsibility for advising more than 3000 undergraduates.

CLAIM: “Regarding your concerns, it has been taking place for 3 years. Dr. Westbrooks organized an ad hoc committee to review advising.” This seems to suggest that somehow the committee bears the responsibility for the new advising processes.

FACT: Henderson obviously ignored the committee’s recommendations. As a result of her ill-conceived and possibly petulant and retaliatory actions, we have this ongoing fiasco.

CLAIM: “We are implementing best practices in the advising center and welcome input.”

FACT: “Best practices,” whatever that may mean, hardly describes the situation in the advising center. Instead, reality there includes widespread disaffection with the job and its benefits, chronic absenteeism, and alarming turnover. Students continue to be upset with long waits and the obvious confusion caused by advisors who are responsible for multiple programs in multiple colleges. The real damage done by this process is likely not to be felt for a number of years, but I think it almost certain that damage will occur.

The Provost’s fingerprints are all over this disaster. Look at the SWOT analysis. The Ad Hoc Committee did a great job of anticipating the major problems this system and the entire idea of an exploited class of "professional advisors" might create for the university. Did Angela Henderson even bother to read it? Even more important, is she capable of understanding its implications? Who will she blame? Stay tuned.


  1. I don't understand how changing advising practices in the middle of the process of advising for spring semester translates to caring about students. Like all of us, students need a certain amount of stability in regular activities. Making advising less accessible, convenient, and less accurate does actual harm to students.

  2. "Vector" as a verb doesn't seem to be good usage, as advisers are not aircraft. Perhaps it was meant as a noun, which can describe the transmission of a disease from one organism to another by an organism. I'm thinking of the mosquitoes, ticks, and other blood-sucking parasites.