The Place of Student Voices and Data in Decision Making at Goucher

by

By Cecile Adrian

Decision making power at Goucher is concentrated in the upper levels of the administration. Decisions which are ultimately made by the board and upper level staff are informed by qualitative information given committees as well as quantitative metrics. Over the past three years Goucher students have widely critiqued our own exclusion from these decisions. If administrators are not listening to us, what information and which data are informing their decisions? The story of ACE shows how student knowledge and wisdom, even when it takes the legitimate shape of quantitative research, is overlooked by decision-makers in Goucher’s administration. 

In November 2019 Peejo Sehr and Kay Beard, ACE’s assistant director, were laid off, along with dozens of other staff members as part of the administrative restructuring (Levinson). Sehr and Beard are both alums. The administration said administrative restructuring was necessary to balance the college’s budget (Levinson). But it was more difficult to defend their closed decision making process. This amputated version of ACE now falls under the leadership of “Director of Academic Advising and Support.” Students widely expressed their disagreement with the administration’s decision. Our sentiments were aptly captured by Emma Kristjanson-Gural in her open letter to the president published in The Quindecim, where she wrote: “There cannot and will not be an Academic Center for Excellence that offers the same level of care and support to students without Peejo Sehr and Kay Beard.” 

Sehr’s holistic coaching model expanded understandings of “students” and “learning.” At ACE, students were not defined by our study habits or their grades and did not need to check their emotions, spirituality, race or mental health at the door. Sehr wanted to create “a valid space for the emotional, spiritual, social components of learning.” Sehr said when a student walked into ACE she wanted them to understand: “You are home, you belong here, you are loved, you matter.” Sehr described her work as “nonlinear” and as “love in action.” The office was grounded in the belief that “every student comes with their own inherent wisdom.” Sehr was one of the few adults and members of the staff, faculty and administration to name the care she had for students as “love.” This radical love makes ACE one of the few spaces at Goucher where students are not faced with adultism, or branded as overly emotional or incompetent. Most radical was Sehr’s acknowledgment of students’ wisdom and her willingness to let it inform her decisions.

When Sehr and Beard were laid off the Goucher community rallied to express the importance of the student support that these two leaders had in student support. Town Halls, online, in The Quindecim and in hundreds of comments on an online petition entitled “Save ACE” which racked up over 2,000 signatures from students, families, alums and faculty. The sentiment that ACE is vital for students at Goucher is also expressed in the data sets at Goucher. 

Data, the recording of information with symbols, is used all over Goucher. In allowing us to organize and synthesize information, data is supposed to lead to knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom are also achieved by other means. At Goucher, decision-making power is held by a very narrow segment of the upper administration who rely on various sources of information including data (namely admission and retention rates). In general the role of college administrators is to keep their institution afloat and manage the school’s finances, while students and faculty are more entrenched in education. With different roles and goals different groups at universities conceptualize retention and student differently. Some data sets at Goucher, like the feedback data ACE collected, are given less importance over others by administrators. 

The data about ACE indicates that it is a widely used resource. 62% of Goucher undergraduates used ACE in 2017 (“ACE: Academic Center for Excellence”). In the feedback survey taken by 254 students from fall of 2017 to Spring 2020 indicates that students across all years use ACE services. 83.3% of respondents to the survey rated their session with ACE as “excellent” while the remaining 16.3% rated their session as “very good” or “good”. 95% of the respondents said they would return to ACE and 56% said ACE played an important role in their decision to stay at Goucher. While the data is not perfect because it is a voluntary response sample it still paints quite a strong image of an office that was widely utilized and highly appreciated by students (Moore and Notz 22). Students’ demonstrated their need for ACE to continue in it’s integral form through informal means such as the “Save ACE” survey and social media posts. Even though students demonstrated their need for ACE (as it stood before restructuring) through the official avenue of the feedback survey, this input was ignored when senior staff was evaluating how to restructure offices and staff positions. 

So, which data sets are more valued as the administrators deal with the difficult task of lessening Goucher’s deficit? Admission, retention and graduation rates are used by the administration to help make decisions. However, it is very difficult for students to access precise and up to date information about our retention and graduation rates. The most important metrics are graduation and term to term retention rates, but they serve different purposes. Four, five and six year graduation rates tell us what percentage of the freshman class eventually graduates from Goucher College, indicating “student success”. Term-to-term rates are used by administrations to make projections for the budget. High first year enrollment, coupled with high retention and graduation rates mean a college has a larger operating budget (more money!). The metrics of “student success” are thus an integral part of a university’s bank account, but do not meaningfully display how students are doing as whole human beings, what we’re learning or how useful the skills we’re gaining are. 

Currently Goucher is exploring another use of data, pioneered by Georgia State called predictive analytics, to ameliorate our financial situation. Sara Lipka defines predictive analysis as the ability to track students data points such as “demographic factors, grades, even student-ID swipes” in order to “identify broad patterns and individual needs” (19). Lipka writes, “Developing the capacity to collect, analyze, and apply student data is fundamental to improving student success” (14). Predictive analytics raises many ethical dilemmas in a college setting. Who will write the code for these data scraping softwares and what biases will be introduced in the process? Are demographic factors, grades and student-ID swipes a good way to measure “student success”? It is unethical to ask students to sign away our privacy when using our school’s apps and onecard systems. Not to mention, buying the software to implement predictive analytics would probably cost a fortune. Another way of measuring student success is possible. 

We need to reframe retention and graduation rates solely as financial measurements. If students, staff and faculty were to redefine “student success” we might follow Sehr’s holistic route and examine measures of student emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being, avoiding the compartmentalizing these different parts of ourselves into “Academic advising” and a “Wellness Center.” Perhaps students could design cheap and ethical ways to gather information about our success. We might suggest  implementing self-collection of data so that we could have agency over their data points. Student success might also be measured by how challenged students are academically or how useful our degree is after we graduate. The same way Sehr insisted on addressing academic issues at their root cause, students might seek to identify the root causes of low retention rates. Students could save the college money by creating alternatives to pricey predictive analytic softwares like Navigate. A redefinition of student success and recalibration of which data sets inform decisions, administrators, students, faculty and staff could reach our respective goals of financial stability, quality education and student wellbeing. Perhaps the value of programs like ACE, whose importance is reflected through data and student voices, would be acknowledged by those with decision making power. 

Works Cited

Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) Feedback Form. 

“ACE: Academic Center for Excellence” Goucher College. https://www.goucher.edu/learn/academic-support-and-resources/ace/.

Baud, Olivia. “Underlying Issues Identified as Student Organizers Engage With Administration.” The Quindecim. 28 September 2018. https://quinnews.com/underlying-issues-identified-as-student-organizers-engage-with-administration.

Block, Noah. “Re: GSG Election Results+Gardaworld Ballot Referendum.” Received by Cecile Adrian, 2 December 2019. 

Devereaux, Kent. “Re: Administrative Restructuring.” Received by Cecile Adrian, 18 Nov. 2019.

Emma Kristjanson-Gural. “Letter About ACE.” The Quindecim. 18 November 2019. https://quinnews.com/letter-about-ace.

Foucher, Sarah. Interview with Peejo Sehr. “Transcending Boundaries” 

Levinson, Neve. “Staffing Cuts Across College Go Into Effect.” The Quindecim. 13 November 2019. https://quinnews.com/staffing-cuts-across-college.   

Lipka, Sara. “The Truth About Student Success.” The Chronicle for Higher Education. January 2019. 

Moore, David S. and William I. Notz. Statistics Concepts and Controversies. W.H. Freeman and Company, 2017. “Save ACE.” https://www.change.org/p/goucher-board-save-ace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*