The Administrative Role in Dealing with Difficult Students: A Look at the Literature
Community college administrators are responsible for many areas of the institutions they serve. Presidents, directors of student services, those in academic support, and deans and chairs of academic units are all charged with managing institution resources, administrating mandates from legislation, and responding to internal and external constituencies. Much of the scholarly literature that discusses community college administration focuses on those elements.
Higher education and community college administrators are also faced with the tedious and delicate challenges of managing difficult students with effective policy and protocol that are also sensitive to the needs of the students while creating a safe scholarly environment. Whatever student difficulty is exhibited, the administration is tasked with creating and evolving policies that address and serve the needs of the students. Although working with difficult students is one of those many areas that administrators are assigned as a responsibility, a definitive role for administrators appears to be elusive in the scholarly literature. What the literature does reveal are some broad categories of difficulty and suggestions to administrators for how to work with students who exhibit difficulty in those areas. The following is a summary of those findings and our suggestions of the administrative roles we found to be most prevalent.
The initial search of literature on community college administrators working with students revealed three broad categories in which students exhibited or experienced difficulty: (a) academic ability and performance, (b) behavior and conduct, and (c) mental/physical health and safety.
Academic ability and performance
For this category of difficulty, the recommendations focused on the nonacademic and personal factors that impact academic achievement. The administration should offer a systematic program of guidance and advisement, match content delivery of curriculum with student needs, and provide fiscal support. Administrators must ensure that the advising center is up to date, accessible, and friendly. Advising must be more than selecting the right courses; it must include particular knowledge of financial aid and other support services. Additional nonacademic factors such as mission and culture also appear to have an impact on student achievement. If students perceive an agreement of mission and a consistency with which a college delivers programs in line with the stated mission, administration can most positively impact academic achievement. The administrative roles we derived for this category of difficulty were that of supporter and collaborator. The administration should work with faculty to develop mechanisms that support faculty in the classroom, and provide an environment that supports the stated mission of the institution.
Behavior and conduct
Most of the recommendations are focused on middle and high school grade levels, but one can infer recommendations that would pertain to college and university administrators.
Administrators should maintain an environment where students feel safe, and where there are few disciplinary infractions, because an environment where students feel safe is conducive to better student achievement. Administrators should model desired behaviors for faculty, and faculty should model desired behaviors for students. Behavior should be exemplary of both the academic and nonacademic moral and behavioral values the institution wishes to instill in students. The modeling of integrity by administrators and faculty will create an environment where students are less likely to engage in unethical behavior. The literature reveals that graduate students do not perceive a link between unethical behaviors as a student and as a citizen. Modeling ethical behaviors both in and out of the classroom will address this issue.
Administrators must create a stable environment by minimizing faculty and staff turnover. Efforts to improve student success must focus on faculty, because the action of faculty toward their students and the management of their classrooms impact students more than any other factors related to student success. Administrators are ultimately responsible for student safety and security; therefore, they must focus efforts on these areas. It is apparent that the institutional administration is ultimately responsible for the behavior and conduct of students. Administrators must review and maintain campus safety and security, act ethically, hire ethical and engaged faculty and staff, and provide faculty and staff with a secure work environment conducive to retention. Administrators must expect classrooms to be managed ethically to encourage exemplary student behavior.
Mental/physical health and safety
Recommendations in this area focus on protecting the physical and mental health of adult learners on college campuses. Most recommendations are geared toward the university but are applicable to community and smaller four-year colleges. Health and safety issues are related to topics such as alcohol/substance abuse, sexual violence, depression, and violent behavior. The administrator must be trained in prevention, intervention, and dissemination of information to all students, faculty, and staff. Administrators must have individualized institutional plans to combat health and safety issues, especially violence, as each institution is unique and assailants at the college/university level differ in their motivations and in what types of intervention are appropriate.
Administrators must not let fear catalyze the implementation of unrealistic policies and procedures, but must work toward important and impactful changes in mental health services on their campuses. Mental health services should be in place to combat not only potential violence on campus, but also the more prevalent and higher-risk concerns such as (but not limited to) alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and sexual violence.
Administrators should ensure that mental health facilities on campus are adequately staffed. Evaluating programs in place at other institutions, and emulating those that are successful, should be a paramount focus, both because it is important to the health of students and because adequate mental health services help colleges retain students. It is obvious that administrators must focus efforts on providing adequate mental health facilities for students, and they must develop individualized plans for maintaining the mental and physical health of students.
Administrators are agents of organizational change. Michael Fullen, writing in Educational Leadership, stated, “Leaders have a deeper and more lasting influence on organizations and provide more comprehensive leadership if their focus extends beyond maintaining high standards” and that leaders must be able to undertake “deep, lasting reforms implemented by executive leaders, who establish conditions for enduring greatness.” Administrators should take a collaborative role with faculty and staff, and work to create the climate and culture desired by the organization. Administrators can use their positions to shape the mission and culture of an organization, and then work to perpetuate that culture through the hiring and retention of personnel who will maintain the desired environment, and through the development of policies and procedures to implement that environment as well. More research is needed considering this topic at the higher education level, in order to understand and define difficult students and the role(s) administration should take when dealing with those students and the situations they create.
Elizabeth Pack is an associate dean for the College of Adult and Distance Education at Gardner-Webb University.
Shannon Haney Landrum received her BS in biology at UNC-Charlotte and her M.S. in fisheries and wildlife science at North Carolina State University. She has served students as a biology instructor in the community college systems of North Carolina and Alabama.
Kenneth Adams is a statistical analyst in financial crimes analytics with Wells Fargo Bank.
All three authors are doctoral candidates at North Carolina State University in adult and community college education.