Tips for Better Faculty/Administrator Communication in Education Abroad

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communication1Perhaps like many of my colleagues, when I decided to enter the field of international education it was largely because of my love for learning across cultures and not necessarily out of my love for faculty members.  Ok, let’s be honest, none of my decision was based on that latter point (sorry faculty!)

But now that I find myself leading my university’s faculty-directed programs team, I’ve come to learn just how great it can be working alongside faculty to create meaningful education abroad programs.  I myself am a product of two faculty-directed programs, so in spite of their detractors I see great benefits to be derived from them. However, just as there are many highlights in working with faculty members there are a myriad of challenges.

At the base of it all could be this theory of it’s ‘us versus them.’  It’s the age-old separation of administration versus academia.  To be sure, there are many myths that exist about each side.  To some administration, faculty might be viewed as narrowly-focused disciplinarians incapable of handling the logistics of an international student program and integrating meaningful cultural experiences (I swear, this is not my personal viewpoint! )  To some faculty, administrators are just there to make their lives more difficult by implementing policy for policy’s sake.  There’s certainly a divide between the two camps—but there doesn’t have to be!

Though I entered the field thinking my most important role would be to help students negotiate differences across cultures, the fact is that in my current role as coordinator to faculty-directed programs, the most important skill sets I rely on are my abilities to effectively communicate and build relationships.  While possessing a certain level of intercultural competence and study abroad experience is important, the fact is that to be successful in helping faculty plan short-term education abroad programs, you’ve got to be a good communicator, plain and simple. Here are what I view as the three main aspects of communication that will help bridge the divide between administrator and faculty member.

1) Ensuring Transparency and Gaining Buy-In

As an administrator (and quite honestly, a Type A administrator) it’s no secret: I love my rules!  Rules help me to establish parameters for the work I do, to stay organized, and on a larger scale, to ensure that programs are meeting regulatory agencies’ standards and ensuring the safety of participants.  However, rules should not exist just for the sheer purpose of taking up space on the proverbial paper.  Rather, anytime administration are going to adopt a policy there should be a demonstrated need for that policy and that need should be communicated out to faculty if it will directly affect them or their programs.

In speaking with faculty colleagues from another institution where the study abroad office is not as large, there is the perception among their faculty that policies are continually created just to put absurd limitations on their programs.  Now, we have to believe that there is a reason behind these policies, but to not communicate that to the people that it will affect is a missed opportunity to build an effective, collaborative relationship.  Without transparency it is easy for a faculty member (or anyone for that matter) to feel that they have reverted back to that childlike state where they are just to do as they are told because that’s what mother or father said.

In addition to being transparent with why you are asking faculty members to do something a certain way, gaining buy-in from key faculty members and leadership is a critical strategy. Before implementing new procedures, consider reaching out to your ally faculty partners and pitch your idea to them.  What do they think?  What are they hearing from other faculty members?  What about the leadership of each of the academic units?  As an administrator, we have to realize that we are a bit removed from the day-to-day realities facing each department.  While there might be a very good reason for something we are trying to implement, without possessing the complete knowledge of how a particular unit might work we may miss out on important realities that make what we are trying to implement impossible for particular faculty members.  A good example is our Honors College—they award generous scholarships to their students in the fall.  Had I not checked with that College prior to setting a deadline, I might have inadvertently made it more difficult for their students to participate on study abroad programs because of a disconnect between their scholarship award date and our deadlines.

2. Promoting Understanding Across Different Roles

This is a huge one!  As I mentioned earlier, whether a vast overstatement or not, the fact remains that the work of an administrator and a faculty member is different. Coming from different sides of the institution means that we bring different expectations of roles to the table.  A faculty member who is inexperienced in budgeting and organizing the logistics of a trip might view the study abroad office’s main role as playing the part of a travel agent.  An administrator might view the role of a faculty member proposing to lead a program in China as being the main initiator and point of contact for all the partners needed to organize the trip.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution for every institution and therefore that is why it is critical that the study abroad office have a document that outlines the roles of the faculty directors of programs and the roles of the study abroad office.

But this document can’t just be on the website in the hopes that faculty will stumble across it.  Rather, when a faculty member approaches the study abroad office to lead a program, this document needs to be pulled out and reviewed so as to set norms and make sure everyone is on board.  Some faculty members might decide that leading a program is not what they thought it would be and you know what, that’s okay!  It’s much better for a faculty member to have a realistic expectation of their responsibilities up front than to go into the process thinking one thing and finding out the reality is another thing entirely.  It might scare some away but I always bring our 200+ page faculty-director handbook to my first meeting with a faculty member so that way they see just how seriously we take the job of leading one of these programs.

3. Massaging the Message

Lastly, and I don’t think this is a secret, faculty don’t like to hear the word ‘no.’

Ok, so I shouldn’t pick on faculty members here.  Really, no one likes to hear the word ‘no,’ but I’ve found this goes doubly true for the veteran faculty directors I work with.  For them, they’ve been leading their programs for years just fine and suddenly, now that the field is professionalizing and institutions are being asked to be accountable, they are finding themselves with less control than they might have had before.  This is where you have to find those creative ways to say ‘no,’ or as I like to call it, massage the message.

Related to this, administrators should always endeavor to be flexible so much as it is possible, but I realize there will be times when a policy just cannot be bent.  It’s at these times where you should try to be as solution-oriented as possible.  So maybe a faculty member cannot build the really awesome coral dive on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia into the budget because of insurance reasons.  Rather than just outright saying ‘No, you can’t do that!’ proposing instead the idea of making that an optional, non-program-affiliated excursion that students can opt into on their own might be a fair compromise.  Again, this isn’t anything groundbreaking—it’s human nature that people don’t want to be told ‘no.’  However, it’s a relatively simple communication tool that can have powerful ramifications in building that strong relationship.

So as I reflect upon my most successful working relationships with faculty, they were not a result of my knowledge of the French language and culture or of the D.I.E. cross-cultural learning model.  No…my successes thus far have stemmed from the simple recognition that after removing all of the politics and bureaucracy we are just people working with people.  It’s not earth-shattering but with as busy as things get sometimes I think this subject warrants a little attention, so hopefully you’ll keep some of these tips in mind next time you’re wanting to bang your head in the wall after talking to Faculty X about their inability to meet your deadline!

In case you are heading to NAFSA Region II conference in Bozeman, Montana next week and want to hear more on this subject, I’ll be presenting on Thursday, October 24th at 2:15.  Our panel will even have some living, breathing faculty members so can hopefully help us all understand how to collaborate more effectively with them!  Hope to see you there!

kyle1About the Author: Kyle Rausch leads the Faculty-Directed Programs unit within the Arizona State University Study Abroad Office.  He previously coordinated visas for outbound faculty and students, managed the Passport Acceptance Facility, and led student groups to Paris at Florida State University.  His passions are the French language, Paris, and pop music.