College Advising Center to restructure despite understaffing


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College Advising Center to restructure despite understaffing

By Campus Editor

With nearly one-third of the staff positions in the College Advising Center now vacant, Columbia’s Advising Center is making restaffing one of the first steps to implementing a new advising strategy, according to Brian Marth, director of the College Advising Center.

The college’s new advising model, cemented in the college’s Strategic Plan, distinguishes the roles of college and faculty advisors. This leaves college advisors to guide students on registration and graduation requirements, and faculty advisors to serve as mentors, he added. 

“What we’re trying to do is streamline [advising] so students have more support with understanding academic navigation and requirements with centralized advising,” Marth said. “[We want] more professional advisors and the professional advisors really being integrated into the departments and working closely with the faculty, but not [expecting] faculty to know all of the policies, procedures and requirements.”

Marth said the Advising Center was designed to house a staff of 18 advisors representing the various academic departments. Currently, only 12 advisors are employed, including one advisor on temporary leave. The six vacant positions include one advisor who took an administrative leave, one who resigned and three who participated in the Spring 2015 Semester’s Voluntary Separation Incentive Program, which resulted in the loss of 29 faculty members and 30 staff members including former advisors Robert Blinn, Wayne Tukes and Janet Talbot, former director of Academic Advising.

The center’s staff has been trying to cover for those vacant positions but is now moving forward with filling them, Marth said.

“We’re talking about growing the professional advising, building the system where we’re more integrated into the departments, and right now we’re operating at a two-thirds staff,” Marth said.

The college is experiencing a hiring freeze, but the College Advising Center has been approved to fill its vacant positions, Marth said. In the meantime, he added that the center has hired two part-time advisors to manage the workload. 

Keri Walters, assistant provost for Academic Services, said the college will fill the advisor positions by the end of the Fall 2015 Semester.

Caseloads per college advisor currently range from 400–800 because of growing departments, Marth said. The new model will aim to reduce each caseload to approximately 400 cases by hiring additional advisors for  the larger departments. 

Because the caseloads are so large, the responsibilities they entail are shared between college and faculty advisors, Marth said.

“We’re relying a lot on faculty to be providing academic assistance, navigation and requirements,” he said. “Depending on the faculty, their comfort level with that varies.”

Will Casey, college advisor for the Theatre Department, said he oversees nearly 900 students with help from faculty advisors, with whom he said he often collaborates .

Implementation of the new model has yet to begin, but Casey said differentiating the roles of professional and faculty advisors will benefit students.

“It’s the way things probably should have been going all along,” Casey said.

Walters said lowering college advisors’ caseloads will free them to do things like create “intentional campaigns,” which includes helping students who may have been actively seeking advisor assistance in the past.

“We want to move away from a system that is largely reactive,” Walters said. “We make an effort to serve every student that walks in the door. That’s a good thing, but it’s not enough. There are some students who don’t walk through the door.”

Marth said that after filling the vacant positions, the college will examine the center’s internal structure and hold departmental conversations to determine which practices work effectively and which could be improved, adding that changes to advisor assignments have yet to be determined. 

Walters added that the new advising model could be implemented as early as the Spring 2016 Semester, but they aim to have all changes in place by the Fall 2016 Semester. By then, the college plans to use a new advising software that will enable them to run reports on varying students and classes and run “advising campaigns” for students who have similarities. 

“What’s happening now is to get the entire [college] community to start thinking about, ‘What are we doing really well, what can we improve, where is it confusing to students and for staff and faculty on who does what and how do I get this help,’” Marth said.

Marth added  that the new model will not diminish the roles of faculty advisors but permit more focus on their students’ specific industries.

“We want to make it a better student experience, not to say, ‘You no longer do this, you no longer do that,’ but more of ‘Let’s figure out the expertise and make sure students are able to access and tap into that,’” Marth said.

Lorence Valasco, a junior interactive arts & media major, said he typically visits his faculty advisor first for guidance because they are in his department and easily accessible. He added that he thinks a change to the advising model could produce varied results.

“On paper it could be a good change, considering it’s more organized,” Valasco said. “It clarifies which advisor would do what. The only reason it could be a bad change is [it is a] sudden change to that [model].”

Ali Howell, a lecturer and faculty advisor in the Fashion Studies Department, said that she considers herself knowledgeable about degree requirements but tells students to also visit their college advisor to get multiple opinions.

Howell added that she thinks the new role of faculty will benefit the college, and though it is not formally outlined, it is something many advisors already do.