Higher education is undergoing changes and transformation to meet the needs and demands of society and its members. Student services is no exception to this transformational process. The traditional models of student services are being challenged (Hollowell, 1993 & Belmont University, 1998). As institutions of higher learning sharpen their focus on the student-centeredness of the educational process, the expediency and effectiveness of the services that are provided become even more essential in the overall package which an institution provides to its members.
Traditionally, the model for student services is designed and established based on separate and distinct functional areas. This model, which has remained stable and consistent for perhaps more than a century, is now being challenged and forced to adapt to better meet the needs of the learners in the information age. Areas such as financial aid, registration, admission, finance/billing, and advising operate in functional silos, each reporting to a different branch of the institution's organizational structure. They are referred to as silos because they often operate as though they are independent, non-connecting entities. These areas are critical to manage the business of being a student. Although, each student's interaction with a functional area requires and affects interactions with and information from other functional areas, these interactions are often disjointed, repetitive (from one functional area to another), complex, and frustratingly not intuitive. Students are often required to go from one office to another, re-authenticating themselves, re-telling the stories, frequently waiting in line in order to get to another line (Beede & Burnett, 1999).
The lack of integration of functional areas within individual institutions are reflected in the disjointed development of professional organizations that support the specific funtions of student services. The specificity of the organizations encourage the professional development of bursars, of registrars, of financial aid officers, of admission counselors. The need for specificity is not in question here, for there is a recognized need for distinct responsibilities and services. For example, federal regulations require that the awarding and the disbursing of Title IV federal aid must be distinctly separated in two functional areas within an institution. Aside from laws and regulations, the information and skills needed to effectively serve students do differ from one area to another. But as these specific areas develop in their own specific fields, the distinctions among each area add to the divisions that segment the whole process of servicing student needs, furthering the disjointedness and adding to the complexity of the process.
As we examine the traditional models, we see how much they have been informed and shaped by the official theory of learning (Smith, 1998) which has been so inveterate in the culture of learning institutions. Processes are subdivided into areas. Accomplishing an administrative task requires arduous efforts on everyone's part as well as memorizing a series of steps that must be performed consecutively. Processes are developed within each individual area that are used to apply to the students en masse, regardless of the individual circumstances or needs. The students are forced to wrap themselves and their needs around institutional process monoliths rather than allowing the processes the flexibility to meet the needs of individual students.
With the tranformation of higher education, the traditional view of student services is changing. What were once considered back office functions are now being brought to the forefront to be examined and considered. The table of the student experience is no longer just supported by two legs (curricular and co-curricular); rather, a third leg is being fashioned and formed that would strengthen and stabilize the table itself. This third leg is the administrative services and support side of the student experience.
The fashioning and forming of the "third leg" of the student experience has been in the works for almost two decades at many universities, including here at our institution. When our current student information system was designed and installed in the mid-1980's, its intent was to provide for better cross-functional information sharing than the previous adminstrative system. At the same time, the administration building was designed to house all administrative offices in one place, to encourage the cross-functional interactions that are critical in delivering quality service to our students. Despite the intentions of informational sharing, the technologies available in the late 1980's were better suited to support specific areas rather than the convergence and integration of the information systems and the information itself. Functional areas continue to develop distinctly from one another. University operations continue to separate under titles and placed in separate boxes on the organizational charts that conspicuously lacked dotted lines connecting one area to another. Once again, we see the effects of the immersion of ourselves and our practice in the official view of learning (Smith, 1998).
As early as the early 1990's, some pioneering institutions such as the University of Delaware began to break down the functional divides and found creative ways to develop the generalist professionals and incorporate them into a system that has grown so accustomed to the services provided only by specialists for many years. Other schools have slowly followed suit. In the mid 90's, the president of Pepperdine University attempted to bring this concept to the University under the banner of reengineering processes. The first attempt was met with strong hostility, resentment and fear. Change in academia is often met with resistance (Beede & Burnett, 1998), and this change was wrought with that and much more. Other priorities and demands placed this effort on hold, until seven years later when Belmont University gained national notoriety for implementing integrated services (Belmont University, 1998). This refocused Pepperdine's interest in creating centralized student services.
Today, we have become a member of a small but growing number of institutions who have embraced and developed student services that are student-centered rather than institution-centered. The processes that each institution has undergone are personal and often specific to the institution. We are at the beginning of the change process. While the success of such changes would call for a more evangelistic approach in spreading the word, the complex and often emotional nature of the change process has caused many professionals to be more reluctant to openly publish or share their experiences. Much of the inter-institutional learning on this subject have been done through campus visits, conference calls, and other personal interactions. Literature specific to centralized student services tend to be institutionally specific (i.e. Belmont University, 1998). However, there is much literature on collaboration (Brown & Duguid, 2000; Isaacs, 1999; Wenger, 2002; Bridges, 1991), cross-functionality (Brown & Duguid, 2000; Wenger, 2002), streamlining (Brown & Duguid, 2000), knowledge sharing (Brown & Duguid, 2000), intuitive nature of learning (Smith, 1998; Horton, Kohl & Kohl, 1998), seamless and integrated services (Brown & Duguid, 2002), and mission critical activities (Beede & Burnett, 1999). All these topical variables are critical to the transformation of the delivery of student services.
The traditional model of student services is based on a fragmented view of life and of organizations that exist therein. Services are divided along the lines of functions and specialities. The "system" is a conglomeration of unrelated parts (Isaacs, 1999), connected only by the students' engagement in the required complex web of activities designed to perpetuate the divisions. The shift to an integrative approach in delivering student services, however, is situated in the abstraction of wholeness, which is described by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers as "symbiotic relationships" towards which life (and organizations) organizes to sustain itself. Integration, as viewed through these lenses, is not moving away from the natural order of life; rather, it is moving us toward it (Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers, 1996).
In addition to published information, much of the knowledge reside in the knowers who have lived and are living through this transformation. The informal network of student services professionals who were once considered heretics because they dare to challenge the status quo, and who are now considered to be invaluable consultants to the change process, provides critical input and knowledge for my action research. I have the privilege of participating in the practice and the learning of that community of practitioners.
PRIMARY SOURCES & COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
Student Services Council: This community of practice comprises of directors of administrative functional areas across the university that provide direct service to the student population for our undergraduate college. The members come together to share knowledge, plan and assess activities that require the integrative efforts of multiple departments and their personnel. The intention for the establishment of this group was to engage key personnel in the development of an integrative approach to problem solving, planning and communication. The forerunner to this group was the new student orientation planning committee, which I chaired for eight years. Our specific charge was to organize and implement all orientation programs for the undergraduate school. When conversations regarding the development of an integrated approach to student services began, I used the model of this orientation committee to develop a new community of practice of student services professionals who would reach through the particularities of our specific functional areas and integrate our knowledge and practice to enhance the quality of the services that we provide to our students.
Another critical community of practice is the loosely affiliated group of professionals from four institutions of higher learning who are involved in various stages of transforming the delivery of student services at their institutions. This is an important group of knowers, whose knowledge has been and will be instrumental in the development of better and more effectively delivery of student services at our institution.
In addition, there are two other critical friends at our institution to whom I regulary go to consult for advice and help in defining the process that we are attempting to transform. They are key players within the university who possess important historical knowledge as well as a strong grasp of the articulated vision for our students' overall experience. They help to keep me grounded while empowering me to move forward. These critical friends are instrumental in helping to keep me focused on the details while not losing sight of the whole picture. They help to open doors when doors need to be opened while helping to steer me away from doors that should not be opened for any number of reasons. The level of trust among us is paramount.
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