are college faculty responsible for educating the whole student?

(Washington, DC) I am at a conference at which most of the participants–who represent a few dozen diverse colleges and universities–believe that faculty should take more responsibility for the overall welfare and development of their students. Professors should worry about problems (such as depression and interpersonal conflict) that interfere with learning, and they should treat students’ non-academic experiences as assets for learning.

I agree that many students, including those enrolled at expensive, private colleges, face significant challenges outside of the classroom that should be addressed. I also agree that the best education always draws on the “whole person.” But whether faculty should pay attention to these issues is a more complicated question. Consider professors in the following imaginary cases:

  1. A poorly funded metropolitan public university whose student body (of more than 50,000) is mostly composed of part-time commuters older than 25. The issues that arise in their personal lives clearly interfere with their learning. If daycare falls through, they will fail a course. At the same time, their experiences from family, work, and community are educational assets. But each professor teaches hundreds of such students every semester. Their personal challenges seem overwhelming. The faculty have their own problems balancing work and life on inadequate salaries–many are adjuncts. They are likely to agree that students need help with psychosocial problems, but they may not feel that the responsibility can justly be assigned to them. Professors may also resist being paternalistic toward adult students.
  2. An expensive, private, selective college. It may employ more professionals in student affairs than faculty. For a sticker price of $50,000 or more, it provides 24/7 services for its undergraduates, including counseling, extracurricular activities, and well-appointed facilities. The students may, on average, have higher family incomes and social status than the faculty. Professors should recognize that these students still have psychosocial problems, including depression, which are relevant to their learning. (And to teach them is the faculty’s job.) Yet professors can reasonably conclude that students’ problems are mainly someone else’s business.
  3. A large, research-oriented university with impressive graduate programs, labs, and libraries. Its students probably face personal and psychosocial problems at rates approaching those at the metropolitan public university, and the institution’s support per/student is probably scanty. But faculty have legitimate reasons not to make addressing their students’ needs a high priority. Professors don’t conduct research and train PhD students just for the prestige and grant money or for self-indulgent reasons. They are trying to cure HIV/AIDS, save migratory birds, preserve the heritage of the Renaissance, or understand the relationship between freedom and prosperity (to name just a few examples). These are idealistic goals, requiring a degree of commitment and even self-sacrifice. When faculty weigh an extra hour trying to cure cancer versus an hour caring about undergraduates’ depression, I think they have legitimate reasons to stay in the lab.
  4. A teaching-oriented liberal arts college in a small town. In this case, the implicit agreement holds that the college will take care of the “whole student.” That is pretty obviously what all the faculty and staff are employed to do. Besides, the students may represent a substantial proportion of the town’s population, so they are neighbors and fellow citizens as well as “customers.” The college may not have highly impressive labs or libraries, and its students may be some of its most important assets. So this is a case where holistic concern for the student is obligatory.

Because students at all four kinds of institutions bring problems and assets from outside of academia, we should pay more attention to their whole lives. I think there are ways to integrate concern for the “whole student” into all kinds of courses and programs. But we shouldn’t pretend that this is easy or free of tradeoffs and legitimate concerns.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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