Advisers to get advice

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A committee established to improve academic advisement for undergraduate students is in the process of resolving university-wide policies that various colleges and departments interpret differently.

The Academic Advisement Policy Reconciliation Committee was established at the request of President Jolene Koester in response to last spring’s Graduation Rates Task Force findings.

“There are 16 policies and practices that people are interpreting differently,” said Cynthia Rawitch, associate vice president of Undergraduate Studies and committee member. “One college does (advisement) one way, while a second college does it another way, and a third will do it a third way.”

Rawitch said the task force found that there needed to be greater consistency and communication between Academic Affairs and advisers.

The way university policies, such as adding and dropping classes, probation disqualification, English and math proficiency tests and the upper-division writing exam, are interpreted is under review, Rawitch said.

A memo circulated to academic advisers in September asked them to identify any policies or practices that were vague or confusing and if they believed they were responsible for advisement problems, Rawitch said.

Of the three areas of concern that the committee identified after the data was compiled, inconsistent advisement policy interpretation among the colleges and lack of communication between advisors and students became the focus, Rawitch said.

“We seem to be having differences of opinion about what (policies) mean,” she said.

Along with Rawitch, William Watkins, associate vice president of Student Affairs, and Jose Luis Vargas, director of the Educational Opportunity Program, staff the three-person committee.

Implementing additional training for an academic adviser is the third concern, which is of slightly less urgency presently but will be addressed by the end of Spring 2006, Rawitch said.

Karren Baird-Olson, American Indian Studies Program coordinator and academic adviser for the Sociology Department, said she relies heavily on her memories of student life and knowledge of department procedures to pass along sound academic advisement to students. Despite having these advantages, she said it is still not enough.

“I have asked before that maybe the right people are not getting a manual with clear advising expectations,” Baird-Olson said. “I do not know where the breakdown in communication is.”

The new interactive Degree Audit Reporting System is one aspect helping first-time freshmen along the path to a timely graduation, she said, adding that colleges have different advisement standards within their own departments.

Access to an understanding faculty also helps students.

Siva Sankaran, accounting and information systems professor in the College of Business and Economics, said his department sends him a dozen students on academic probation for advisement. The process, which can be an embarrassment to some students, should be made as painless as possible yet retain its seriousness, he said.

“It’s not too nice to see a student’s future spoiled,” Sankaran said. “We are supposed to be an audience and not give an overdue presentation. But sometimes they come with mental baggage.”

He said it is important not just for students to utilize the available academic resources, but faculty as well.

While the College of Business and Economics places academic advisement at the forefront of their outreach efforts, Sankaran said, it is perceived by many faculty members as a thankless investment that students constantly rank low in comparison to other services.

The perception that students are a priority, rather than scholarly work, is found more often among the lower-ranking faculty, said David Diaz, an urban studies and Chicano/a studies professor. Faculty will too often attribute low retention and graduation rates to uninterested or unconcerned students, which has contributed to a disinterest in advisement, he said.

“The president and provost are attempting to change the anti-student culture of a large section of the faculty,” Diaz said.

Whichever policy nuances the committee settles will only partially benefit students if it excludes a similar drive to hold faculty members accountable for a student’s successful navigation through the course work, he said.

Advisement is necessary for students to synthesize their understanding of their required courses and sequences so that the beginning student isn’t discouraged into dropping out, Diaz said. He said that prior to the last three years nothing was been done to provide students with an adequate level of support.

CSUN’s low graduation rates are a stigma on the university and the committee’s attempt to improve the advisement process is an attempt to reconcile those rates, Diaz said.

Thirty-six percent of the CSUN student body graduates within six years.

“If that’s not a crisis, nothing is,” Diaz said.

Julio Morales can be reached at julio.morales.605@csun.edu.