I remember when I was first asked to serve as interim vice president of academic affairs back in February 2014, the president at the time let me know that I might be receiving “emails” from Dr. Lowman’s PCJ 215 class. Actually, the emails were to the president, sent by members of that class as part of a specific communication assignment, but they were going to be forwarded to me if they dealt with academic issues. One of the very first emails was one about online classes, in fact. Interestingly, the email wasn’t over the issue of whether we should have more or fewer of them, but about the way communication occurred in such classes and that it wasn’t always the same from one to the next!
I’ve tried to figure out the number of emails I received over the past five years, but, not being a computer programmer or CIS person, it was too much of a challenge. (I can tell you that my Gmail account tells me that I received 1638 messages from Dr. J in about 10 years, but that’s as far as my talents will take me, ha ha!)
What I *can* tell you is how valuable such communication is. Many of the emails, as you might imagine, express concerns or suggestions about how to make the college experience at UMPI better in one way or another. They can range from course scheduling suggestions, to snow removal (you can imagine how serious that topic is this year!), to the quality of the dining hall food, to suggestions for new programs or courses, to upgrades to equipment and computers, all the way to very specific concerns about the price of college tuition. They range from course- or program-specific suggestions to remarks upon the general culture and environment for living and learning here at UMPI itself. They come from students who are new to college, in their first year, to those who are returning after many years and have a wide range of comparison about how processes and programs worked at other institutions.
All of them are important.
They’re valuable for different reasons. Sometime, they show trends in educational programming, such as that very first email on online course offerings. Five years ago, people wanted to know why and how we selected certain courses to be offered online, and they wanted to know how we could provide consistent experiences for students taking those courses. They still do. And we still need to continue working on providing consistent experiences and making sure that we’re always using best teaching and learning practices to ensure the best experience we can.
They can show other kinds of trends as well. Dietary habits have changed dramatically on college campuses since the late 1980s when I was an undergraduate and all anyone worried about was the “first year 20” or however much weight you might gain from simply eating as much as you want for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today, as those who attend college are more informed and concerned about their own choices, we need to be aware of how we can ensure that our food service provider can best meet those needs. (Of course, on another level, some things don’t change—as the quality of food is always going to be pretty high on the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs!)
Such information can help over longer institutional planning as well. It took years, for instance, to recognize that a commuter lounge in Folsom/Pullen was essential, and more time to figure out the best place for a lounge. And more time as to what should be in such a lounge. Our current campus master plan includes considerations for updating the entire west entry area as a result. And the suggestions I’ve received this month include ones for desks and workspace areas for commuters doing academic work between classes. To me, that’s a brilliant suggestion, but something that simply wasn’t on the radar of those planning the furniture for the lounge several years ago.
Even more important, such feedback tells us the directions we need to go in offering new programs and how current ones can even better meet the need of students. We get endless lists of “high need” programs for colleges and universities (Cybersecurity, which we add this fall, is right at the top of the list, for example). But it’s even more helpful, quite often, to hear directly from what our current students want to see.
And, finally, such suggestions are most helpful of all in making this the sort of campus and environment that we need so that we can best support all of us. A university must always be a place of transformation, and that means that it itself must always be in transformation. It must always be getting better. (Because the only other option is the opposite.) It must always be getting safer, more welcoming, more inclusive, more caring, more responsive.
So keep the suggestions, the compliments as well as the concerns, coming. As they tell us not just what we do well, but what we need to do better. And send them anytime, not just when (if!) you’re a student in Dr. J’s PCJ 215 class!