In December 2020, Antonio Milane, then senior at Paloma Valley High School in California, was admitted to Stanford University. Milane, who can’t write because of his cerebral palsy, requested a scribe as an accommodation. He was told no. Administrators at Stanford called the accommodation––which he’d received throughout high school––a “personal preference” and said he’d have to pay for a scribe out of pocket (an additional $50k a year on top of tuition).
Milane took to the internet, explaining the situation in a video which went viral. Under pressure, Stanford committed to providing Milane a scribe, and Milane committed to the university. But when I spoke with him for an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2021, he still wasn’t sure that the issue was resolved. He said that the accommodations Stanford administrators had put in writing were “broad” and didn’t describe what he needed.
In stories like Milane’s, it’s easy to blame college administrators. Universities employ administrators in disability services specifically to provide accommodations to students like Milane. Other student-facing administrators, such as deans and university presidents, influence the college experience on every level through the writing and implementation of policy. In a country where the non-academic professional staff in universities has doubled in the last 25 years, a dizzying amount of the money universities spend per student goes to paying those salaries. This begs the question: Why aren’t they meeting students’ needs?
Unlike with lawyers or K-12 teachers, there is no licensing mechanism that implements standardized requirements for university administrators. And the qualifications that would make a great administrator are often under-prioritized or even unquantifiable when it comes to hiring and promotion.
Being a student-facing administrator can be a difficult and thankless task with responsibilities that expand far beyond the job description. Administrators’ degrees aren’t necessarily in subjects related to their jobs, and they are often pushed to be de facto therapists for students struggling with mental health issues, spokespeople for the university, or experts in any number of different fields including disability, racial equity, and curriculum development.
The pandemic has only exacerbated this. Since 2020, administrators have had to make unprecedented decisions about the way students learn during a mass disabling event while navigating new technologies in the classroom and pressure to address long-standing structural inequality. At the same time, enrollments are down, and many universities have made lasting, substantive budget cuts.
Additionally, administrators have competing incentives; what is best for a university’s image and the bottom line is often far from what’s best for students..
“College executives are worried about the economic costs of students who don’t enroll or who won’t pay for housing,” Ian Bogost wrote in an article for The Atlantic, before outlining myriad other factors that may go into administrators’ decisions. For public institutions, there’s state politics and funding to consider. For rural campuses, their college’s decisions early in the pandemic could have been make or break for the college towns they called home.
I don’t pretend to understand all the factors that go into these decisions, but as a student and a journalist who has reported on higher education since 2019, I’ve seen the harm administrators can do firsthand—even unintentionally. My alma mater, Yale University, has come under scrutiny in recent years for pushing students struggling with suicidal ideation to withdraw from school. In my reporting, I found incidents where administrators said horrific things to struggling students and that the policy did not follow mental health best practices.
In light of these things, raising or standardizing qualifications for student-facing administration roles seems to be common sense. If administrators are going to make mental health policies and interface with students in crisis, they should receive training to do so––whether that be through professional development or further education. But this in and of itself is not enough––you can have all the degrees in the world and still lack the empathy required to implement what students need, especially when it’s not intuitive. Given the current mental health crisis on college campuses, it wouldn’t just be high-level administrators who would need additional training.
“What job at the law school where I teach doesn’t have a mental health component?” said Ruth Colker, a Distinguished University Professor at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. Even bar support—people hired to help students prepare for the Bar Exam— often find themselves providing mental health support or disability accommodations for students as it relates to their ability to do well on the test.
And even if all administrators who interact with students had mandatory training about different issues, that’s no guarantee that things would change. Students, professors, and administrators alike are all required to do Title IX training every year, but the quality of that training is questionable, and it certainly hasn’t led to an instantaneous transformation on how people handle campus sexual harassment or other gender-based issues.
What we need is campus leadership that will look beyond the symptoms and proactively seek out student feedback and collaboration to get to the root of those problems.
“When students have mental health crises, the solution is always therapy,” said Colker. “Not, what did we do at the university level that induced anxiety to begin with? What are the things we could do to lessen student anxiety?”
For students with disabilities, university administrators ask “How can we modify classes and campus life to accommodate this student’s needs?” and not “How should we incorporate universal design principles into every aspect of campus life so that it is already accessible?”
The road to change isn’t easy. Maybe it means reimagining the hiring process to prioritize other skills like empathetic listening, collaborative problem-solving with students, or mental health first aid. Or perhaps, universities need to change incentives to make administrators more student-centered. Almost certainly, we should colleges should seek out administrators that look more like their students—–people who are racially diverse, visibly disabled, LGBTQ+, come from different parts of the world, and have varied socioeconomic backgrounds. At the very least, we should expect transparency in how decisions are made, and we should expect administrators to listen to experts––especially the ones on their own campuses––about best practices.
For campus administrators, four years can just be just a small part of a decades-long career where they learn, grow, and eventually do better. But for students, these years shape our careers, give us our most formative experiences, and can define the trajectories of our lives. We should expect better.
Serena Puang is a student at Yale University majoring in American Studies. She has contributed to The New York Times, NBC, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Teen Vogue, and others. You find more of her work at the Yale Daily News.