Thursday, December 27, 2012
I spent seventeen years in my first career working with undergraduate and graduate students. Then after graduating law school as a non-traditional student and practicing for some years, I decided to return to higher education and combine my education and law backgrounds. Those earlier years in my student affairs career have certainly held me in good stead in my current ASP work.
For most of the years in my first career, I was involved not only with academic dismissals but also with disciplinary cases and, towards the end, with Honor Council cases. I was the one who investigated cases, presented at administrative hearings, and counseled dismissed students.
Part of my discussions with students focused on their behaviors (actions or lack of actions), consequences, rules, integrity, maturity, self-discipline, etc. I always wanted students to learn from the situations so they could avoid future problems. This aspect of my work was really more about the head - how to think through situations, how to see alternative courses of action, how to understand societal norms, how to implement different study strategies for success, how to behave differently, or whatever matched the circumstances.
No matter how difficult the student had been during the process of an academic dismissal or a discipline/Honor case, I always tried to add a second part to the discussion. I switched to the heart by focusing the end of a discussion on how the student was coping with the results (suspension, possible readmission later, permanent dismissal), how the student was dealing with the legal process if there was one when disciplinary actions applied (we took administrative actions first because too many lawyers had played around with court continuances in order to go beyond a graduation date or a transfer when we previously waited), whether the student had told their parents/spouse/others, and what the student's plan of action was for the future.
Why did I spend the time switching from head to heart matters? Because no matter what a student had done, the student was still a human being. Once we had dealt with the head matters, the student was still often dealing with the heart matters all alone. Most students had not told family or friends that they were in academic or disciplinary or Honor Council trouble. Most students had hoped to the last moment (often unrealistically) that a suspension or dismissal would not happen. Most students were without a game plan to deal with the worst outcome.
One thing I learned early on was that if I could look beyond the failures/behaviors to the person, the student left with a different attitude than if I stayed merely aloof and clinical. The student was more willing to take responsibility for the situation rather than blame the school, the administration, the student witnesses, the faculty member, or others involved. The student was more willing to look at the life lessons and consider change. The student was less likely to bad mouth the school to others later on in life.
By taking the time to treat the student as a person, to help the student decide the next steps, to listen to the fears, or to even role play how the student would tell family and friends, I allowed the healing to begin. I allowed the student to learn that one can recognize bad decisions the student made or disapprove of/censure behaviors but still treat the person with dignity. I let students know that someone cared about them even in unpleasant circumstances when many might say they got themselves into the situations.
At law schools, I think the head part of the process is sometimes focused on totally, and the heart process is ignored. Students from various law schools around the country have told me about getting only an academic dismissal letter and not being given an appointment to discuss it. Students have told me about being told they are "not good enough" or do not have "the right stuff" to be in law school. They have told me about comments suggesting they will be failures in life because they could not meet law school academic standards. The stories have come from students at both public and private law schools, at law schools in every tier, and law schools in different parts of the country.
Our profession has begun to recognize that there are "soft skills" that attorneys need and that the human element does have merit in the legal process. I hope that we can regularly recognize the same need for the human element at our law schools when we deal with the multitude of conduct and academic problems that students are involved in during law school.
As professional schools, we definitely need to maintain standards of conduct, integrity, and academics. But we also need to maintain those standards while treating others as human beings during the processes.
Few of our students are dismissed under circumstances so egregious that they are incapable of being productive and worthy members of society. If we model combining head and heart in unpleasant circumstances, we treat students with dignity and provide a lesson that will resonate throughout their lives about how to treat others. (Amy Jarmon)