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The University Advising Council

"Creating a Student-Centered Learning Community"

National Academic Advising Conference
Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting
Days Inn, State College
Thursday, April 19, 2001
9:00 a.m.
Graham Spanier, President, Penn State University

Good morning and welcome to the Advising Odyssey conference hosted by Penn State.

I am pleased to be here with all of you today, because as president of one of America's largest and most complex institutions, I am deeply committed to higher education's mission to transform students into educated members of society. As academic advisers, I know you are also committed to this same goal, and you are absolutely essential to that process. The success of our students, as all of you know, is in part a matter of them being able to make successful transitions and understanding the culture of higher education. This is not as easy as it sounds, considering that many of us – including myself – are still trying to figure out the culture of higher education.

Looking out at all of the experts gathered in this room reminds me of something Oscar Wilde said during a visit to the United States a century ago. A friend took him to Niagara Falls to see that spectacular natural wonder. Asked what he thought of it, Wilde remarked that it would be much more interesting if it flowed the other way.

So I expect this program would be more interesting if you did the talking and I did the listening – because I'm sure you have a few advising stories that would easily qualify for the "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" category.

There's no doubt that as academic advisers, you have a difficult job to perform. Not only must you have a genuine interest in students, you also must teach them how to take control of their own lives, how to think more broadly, explore possibilities and develop learning and life management skills. You must assume that all students will succeed, and you must know how to move them toward self-sufficiency.

Academic advising brings with it an abundance of challenges, many with solutions that will not be found in a manual or handbook on the topic. I know that in this room there is quite a mix of individuals who have a stake in the advising process – some of you are full-time advisers, some career counselors, others are faculty members and some are administrators.

But you are all educators, and with that designation comes countless responsibilities to help students take charge of their own lifelong learning and personal development. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Man's mind once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." Students have a desire to learn and we must give them the tools that will encourage self-reliance and create an environment where exploration, discovery and learning across the life span are truly valued. Four years of college is no longer considered an adequate education for a lifetime, and education does not end with a college degree.

What does this mean for academic advising? In the coming decades, your role will grow and change. It is estimated that by the year 2015, our nation must be prepared to educate 4 million more students simply because of population growth. Add to this the number of returning students and an increasing number of older, first-time students, and that number mushrooms. We are facing an unprecedented time in American higher education – a period that is marked by rapid technological advancements, globalization and changing demographics. It is also a time when all indicators tell us that people want to attend college. As recently as a few years ago, most citizens in this country believed that too many people were going to college. Now, three out of four think the country cannot have too many college graduates. In a 1997 survey of adults, 80 percent believed that they needed more education to advance their careers.

As a more diverse pool of students arrives on our doorsteps, we must reorganize our institutions and alter our methods – as well as our ways of thinking – to respond to the needs of these different students. As you've undoubtedly heard, the advising process and the services provided – or those that may be lacking – rank near the top of the list for student complaints. I can't begin to tell you the number of students who write to me for help in resolving a problem that, in their view, has its roots in the advising process. Somewhere along the line, as the story usually goes, their advisers failed to given them advance warning about something, gave them bad advice, steered them in the wrong direction, or advised them to take a class they now regretted taking. You are the scapegoats for many problems a student encounters. On the positive side, this is actually valuable information that can help us create better learning communities that support and inspire learners of all kinds. As academic advisers, you are a crucial part of a student's support network on campus and you have a critical role to play in a new kind of university that I would like to tell you about.

Recently, I had the privilege to serve as chair of the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, a group of 24 university presidents and chancellors from across the nation who looked at the many challenges facing higher education. This group devised a blueprint for change that will transform our historic mission of teaching, research and service into a forward-looking agenda of learning, discovery and engagement. The recommendations that came out of the Kellogg Commission's findings focused on a singular goal for institutions to become more engaged with the communities and the people they serve.

Some of you may already be familiar with the work of the Kellogg Commission and the idea of an "engaged university." It is a term that the commission believes will define the successful institutions of tomorrow. Most of us are already in the process of creating it, but it will take the efforts of everyone within our university communities to truly realize this new model of higher education. It is a university that is flexible, a university that respects the dramatically changing needs of its students, and a university that is student-centered.

In a student-centered university, we must help all students develop essential skills. According to the Kellogg Commission, institutions cannot be anything else but student-centered "for only a student-centered approach has any hope of creating the kind of dynamic learning environment, both in and out of the classroom, that is required for a learning community."

So what does it mean to be an engaged university? In discussions within the Kellogg Commission, at the most fundamental level, it meant three things:
  • An engaged institution must be responsive to the needs of today's students and tomorrow's-not yesterday's.
  • It will enrich student experiences by bringing research and engagement into the curriculum and offering practical opportunities for students to prepare for the world they will enter.
  • And it will put knowledge and expertise to work on problems its communities face.
While the nature of our relationship with our many communities certainly is a critical part of engagement, putting students first is vital as well. The key is to broaden our notion of students to include so-called non-traditional learners of many different circumstances, to place them at the center of our learning communities, and to be committed to meeting their needs, wherever they are, whatever they need, and whenever they need it.

An essential characteristic for serving this diverse group of learners across the lifespan will be institutional flexibility. We are greatly assisted in embracing this idea by the new technologies that are highly supportive of anytime, anywhere learning. In a recent report from the computer industry, it was estimated that by the year 2002, 490 million people around the world will have Internet access. Not only is higher education expanding its reach through these new technologies, we are also improving our services to students.

Through new technologies, students can now access information that in the past, only their academic advisers could supply. Students can now, on their own, monitor their academic progress, access academic records, and gain timely and useful information about internships and co-ops, education abroad programs, and research and leadership opportunities that will round out their classroom experiences.

Technology also has made it possible to provide students with diagnostic tests that allow them to explore – on their own – strengths and weaknesses and to learn strategies for improving their academic performance before they arrive on campus.

These advances in technology allow institutions to not only answer some of the criticisms that have been lodged against the advising process, but they also further move our students toward independence and self-reliance. Learning is not a spectator sport, and students must take an active role in their own educational planning. With new technologies, students and advisers can focus less on what we consider to be the mechanics of advising – degree audits, signatures, and forms – and instead concentrate on more meaningful explorations of a student's interests and needs.

An unflinching commitment to excellence in meeting learners' needs and in creating an environment in which learning is the most important expectation is what the Kellogg Commission and others in higher education are calling for.

Academic advising is integral to the educational mission of any institution and it is especially essential to creating and maintaining a learning community that is student-centered.

Maybe you saw a commercial on television saying that Dwight D. Eisenhower was an average student, Marilyn Monroe worked on an assembly line before finding fame as an actress, and Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper for lacking ideas. The commercial speaks to the potential in all of us, particularly those who have not yet found their place in the world. We may not succeed with every student, but if we concentrate on becoming a student-centered learning community, our successes will far outnumber our failures and our students will benefit fully from their collegiate experience.

I commend you all for the wonderful job you do in preparing our students for a lifetime of learning.

Thank you and best wishes for a productive conference.

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