Dr. Dallas Long on Library & Student Affairs Collaboration (Part I)

In this installment of College Fluency Conversations, we speak to Dr. Dallas Long, Dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University (ISU), a position he has held since 2020. Dallas Long is the author of the book Collaborations for Student Success: How Librarians and Student Affairs Professionals Work Together to Enrich Learning (2019). In a previous post for the blog, we discussed Long’s 2016 dissertation on the interactions between librarians and student affairs professionals, especially as it relates to student success. Here, we are delighted to present Part I of our conversation with Long.

Craig Nielsen: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Long. We’re incredibly excited to have you join us for one of these College Fluency Conversations. Our first question for you is, looking back at your 2016 dissertation and your 2019 book, what lessons or principles do you consider essential for effective collaboration between librarians and student affairs professionals?

Dallas Long: What struck me as essential is that there really needs to be a shared understanding of the student experience and a good grasp of the campus environments that the students are experiencing. So, what are the barriers that students have in navigating campus life and accessing student services and other resources that may reduce the barriers that they experience? But also, really having a good grasp of the demographics of the student body and how that has changed over the years–not only racial and ethnic demographics, but how are students experiencing food or housing insecurity? Or if the campus is less residential than it used to be, and has a growing number of adult students, what kind of experiences are they having with childcare, and how is the campus meeting or not meeting those needs?

I think what is really germane in my research is, the co-curricular experience is really crucial for a student persisting to graduation. The academic experience they have in the classroom and in the libraries really needs to be much more closely tied to their experiences with student affairs professionals and other campus services in order to really provide a holistic support for the students. Unfortunately, I think too often, there’s this big gap between the academic affairs and student affairs on campuses, and they each have a pretty narrow view of what the student experiences.

CN: In your work, you’ve discussed the feelings of caution on each side of the academic affairs-student affairs divide, given how they approach the student experience differently. You also just mentioned this idea of the necessity of having a shared understanding that goes beyond simply academic motivators or academic determinants of success. Do you want to touch upon that some more?

DL: Sure. I saw a perfect example of this last night in our university senate. We have a proposal on campus that originated with the Student Government Association that would allow students to have five mental health days per academic year. And the faculty members on the academic senate pushed back on this, because we have some data that suggests that the average student misses 60% of their class sessions. So, they are concerned that allowing more options to miss class will be detrimental to the students’ learning, and they put a lot of the emphasis on student procrastination and how perhaps students might benefit more from working with academic advisers and other experts on study skills to find ways to structurally overcome their inclination for procrastination.

However, because of student affairs professionals who were in the space—not officially part of the academic Senate—they were able to say, “Well, procrastination is very often a symptom of mental health issues, particularly around anxiety or longer-lasting depression. So, if a student is chronically procrastinating, referring them to academic advisors or to the library for study sessions is probably not the right intervention.” So, they do need to have a more holistic understanding of what is really going on in a student’s life. I think that’s a great example of where the two worlds need to be talking to each other, because the academic side doesn’t always know what goes on in the student world the moment the student leaves the classroom. And the student affairs side doesn’t necessarily have a strong grasp of what the expectations are for student learning and the curriculum.

I think the first step is people have to be willing to sit down and have a conversation with each other, and keep the focus on how they have a shared desire to see the student persist to graduation–and not say, “You know, my agency is just what goes on in the academic curriculum,” or “My agency is just what happens when students are residents in the residence halls.” But really, everyone’s goal is to make sure the student has a successful experience and earns their degree in a timely way. So, I think just being willing to sit down and have that conversation is really the crucial moment, and be able to kind of frame the conversation with, “Here’s the larger goal,” and recognize that we are experts in our own way. And how do we bring that expertise together in order to solve what is a more global problem?

jean amaral: Thinking about that need for shared understanding, are there ideas or ways that you’ve seen to bring the student affairs and academic affairs together—and in particular, librarians—with that group? What could we do to create those spaces? Or, what experiences can we create to bring those two groups together?

DL: There are a couple of different ways to approach it, and I’ve had mixed success, depending on what the strategy is. There’s what I consider the micro level, which are individual collaborations between specific student affairs units and librarians or units in the library. I think those are wonderful, and that was really the focus of the study in my dissertation. But the downside to that is it often doesn’t get formalized or acculturated into the student affairs division or into the library as a whole, and if staffing changes and those individuals leave, those partnerships are often lost. So, I think they’re a great first step, because often if a librarian or a student affairs professional says, “I’ve had great success working with so and so on this,” their colleagues will often listen to that and want to be involved or try to replicate that.

I think from the library dean’s perspective, a way to try to formalize that and integrate it into the library ethos is creating official liaison responsibilities with different student affairs units, and being able to sit down with leadership and student affairs and say, “This is what I want to achieve with the librarians having a formal relationship with you. Please invite them to your staff meetings.” And talk about, what are the goals of your units? Where are there opportunities for joint programming? And joint programming is, I think, often where it first takes place. For instance, at my library, where we’ve had success recently is with Preview, which is when the admitted first year students and their families come on campus for a two to three day period, during which they receive a pretty thorough orientation to the university. That starts in the library, because we have the most space, which is difficult on our campus. It’s a great opportunity for the librarians to be able to have the parents together and be able to provide a session to them on what the library can do for them, particularly for their first year students. We know that the parents are often the initial influencers in getting their students to the library. And of course, it’s a great time to partner with our admissions and financial aid colleagues who are in our student affairs unit and with University College [ISU advising and tutoring center], who are the general academic advisors before students enter into a major and are assigned a formal academic advisor. So, it’s a great first opportunity to really begin to work together.

For a much more intentional process, the buy-in really needs to come from the top, and that’s the Provost or Vice President of Academic Affairs and the Vice President of Student Affairs. Recently, the leadership of those two units had their first ever sit-down meeting together to talk about what is the student experience. You know, here’s what we say in the university’s mission and in our marketing materials, but does that really reflect what our students are saying they’re receiving? And what are the ways that we can start working together more closely to bridge that gap? I think once college deans and student affairs leadership begin to hear the messaging from the people above them, that this is a value of the university, then there is much more incentive to try to start working together on joint programming, sharing data together. And I think sharing data is a really interesting challenge. Because often, we know that 60% of the students aren’t showing up for class, but we don’t know why. But student counseling services, the Dean of Students office, probably has a better understanding of that, because they are the ones who are working with students on medical information or other issues for which they would issue an excuse to absence, and then reach out to the individual faculty members or the department chair. So, there is a data gap in understanding what is truly going on in terms of that student experience problem.

CN: Given the evolving academic landscape, and particularly in the wake of the pandemic, do any of your findings from your recent work take on a different resonance, and how might those insights relate to the current context that we’re facing?

DL: I feel like from an administrator’s perspective, everything has changed since the pandemic, for a variety of reasons. What we see is a significant skills gap between where students were pre-pandemic and where they are now. What I hear from my peer college deans is that we’re graduating seniors who have the skill level of what we used to have for second year students. First year students are coming in at the skill level of tenth or eleventh grade, and in some ways the psychosocial skills are similar to the content knowledge or critical thinking skills, as well. So, where our curriculum programs and services were designed to meet students intellectually and psychosocially needs to change, because students are not in the same place. I do not see on my campus—and I can only speak for my campus, but I suspect we’re not much different than other institutions—is that we are not yet having those discussions about what needs to change, either to bring students up to where our expectations are, or how we need to adjust our services to meet them where they are right now. I see frustrated faculty who are cutting assignments and lowering expectations, and in some ways that has hindered our work as librarians, because what students are expected to do academically doesn’t involve us as intensively as it did pre-pandemic.

JA: I think a lot of academic librarians still very much feel like they’re on the academic side of the house, and some may feel like they’re that bridge between the academic and the student affairs side. And I do see college libraries still really focused on the academic side. Given that, is this an opportunity to really embrace serving holistic needs? And if so, what is the library’s role in serving holistic needs? And maybe psychosocial as well, as you said, if that’s where our students are—what can the library contribute to their growth?

DL: I think that is an opportunity for us, and one that is actually imperative for us to meet. I’ve seen librarians and libraries more willing to embrace that than they were pre-pandemic. But I think the challenge right now for collaboration is on the student affairs side. And I will say those are for structural reasons, because student affairs units have had massive turnover since the pandemic. They were often working on-site. If they were at residential campuses and students remained, the student affairs units were often here, while faculty and other university professionals were working remotely. And I’ve seen a lot of folks burn out and become frustrated with what is often lower pay for student affairs fields, and are exiting the professions in large numbers.

So, we’re trying something we’re calling Proactive Librarianship, where we’re trying to identify students who are most at risk of getting a DFW [drop, fail, and withdraw] in their courses or from dropping out of the university, trying to partner with academic advisors to identify those students, and then proactively reaching out to those students, asking them things like, “Have you thought about this term paper that’s due in three weeks? Have you met with your librarian? What’s your thesis statement?” Trying to make progress on some of those much more complicated initiatives has been really challenging, because student affairs has often said that they do not have the capacity to do anything beyond the basics right now, while they ramp up where they need to be at an appropriate staffing level. And I suspect that is true across higher education institutions, based on what I have heard from NASPA and ACPA about changes in their field. So, I think it is an opportunity, but it may not be the right time for student affairs, unfortunately.

But I think, as higher education institutions, broadly speaking, face the demographic cliff, I think librarians are going to have to just figure out how to navigate this and work with students differently. One instance we’ve seen is that we have 20% of the student body identifying as Latinx, whereas ten years ago it was more like 5%. And what we have found with our Latinx students is that they don’t have a very deep understanding of what librarians can do for them. Their experience has been largely the public library as a space for community services, and they don’t think of it as having the research mission; it’s more about social services. They don’t use the library as early as their white counterparts on this campus, so we’re trying to forge connections with the Latinx student groups and Latinx faculty, who we know are allies and often mentors with Latinx student populations. We are working with student affairs to participate in Latino Family Day, where we go to the neighborhoods and school districts where Admissions does their recruiting to talk early about the academic library’s role in the student experience and academic performance. So, yes, there are opportunities for us, and it’s going to be important that we try different strategies if we’re going to be able to effectively meet the needs of students. But I would caution a librarian audience that our student affairs professionals are experiencing different pains as they adjust to post-pandemic academic life.

Stay tuned for Part II to be published in the next project update!

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