As every academic leader can attest, the current generation of college students has been blessed with parents who remain highly invested in every aspect of their children’s education. It is not uncommon for parents of students to call the dean, provost, or even president to discuss a problem with a course. Occasionally even the parent of a graduate student will attempt to intervene in an academic issue affecting his or her child.
All of this energy and concern is wonderful, if only it can be directed to some productive purpose rather than be counterproductive to their children’s ability to solve their own problems and receive the quality of education that they deserve.
One way of approaching this challenge is to create a parents’ council. Parents’ councils can be created on behalf of an entire institution, or they may be sponsored by specific colleges or departments. Creating a parents’ council can effectively channel parents’ desire to help toward projects that institutions and their individual units actually need.
To achieve this goal, however, it is helpful to develop a charter that clearly specifies what the council does and does not do. Provide no restrictions on the responsibilities of a parents’ council, and it will soon try to advise you on matters such as which new programs you should develop, faculty members you should promote or terminate, and budgetary priorities you should set. Call the group a Parents’ Advisory Council, and it will proceed to advise you … even in areas for which you do not want their advice and in areas about which its members know very little.
The most desirable situation is to develop a charter for the group that specifies particular areas of concern for the council—such as recruitment and retention, advancement, and community relations—while clearly stating that other matters remain outside the purview of the council. Within the specified areas, however, a parent’s council can produce a great number of benefits.
Recruitment and retention
Members of a parent’s council can be wonderful representatives at college fairs, particularly at institutions where the admissions staff finds it difficult to attend all the programs that are available throughout the region. Parents can speak directly to parents of prospective students and discuss the benefits that an institution or its curriculum has had on their own children. They can host receptions for prospective students or, even better, for students in their area who have been admitted but who have not yet agreed to attend the school.
Because they have direct “buy in” to the mission of the institution, members of a parent’s council are more likely to contribute to a school’s annual fund themselves and to encourage others to do so. Rather than a letter from a dean or president asking parents to contribute to a school’s annual fund, a letter from another parent inviting the reader to “join me in giving” can provide a powerful appeal. At a meeting with a prospective donor, a parent can provide a perspective that an employee of the institution doesn’t have, and a parent’s voice is “purer” or less suspect than a statement made by a paid employee.
Parents of current students actively promote events that they feel will interest their friends and colleagues. They can provide word-of-mouth advertising for lecture series, travel programs, and special events that are hosted by an institution. For first-time parents of college students, they can offer a sympathetic ear for concerns and a supportive voice when advice is necessary. They can provide volunteer labor for printed or electronic newsletters, mass mailings, and email blasts. They can serve as greeters at campus events, reinforcing the campus’ reputation as a friendly and welcoming place, distribute flyers, and contact their local media when student achievements need to be highlighted. They can help smooth troubled town/gown relations, since they effectively have a foot in each of these “camps.”
As long as the group’s mission and areas of concern are carefully focused, the creation of a parents’ council can be an excellent approach to the challenge caused by parents who have a great desire to become involved in their children’s education but relatively little knowledge of the most effective way to achieve this goal.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Essential Department Chair: A Practical Guide to College Administration (2006), The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership (2007), and The Essential College Professor: A Practical Guide to an Academic Career (forthcoming). (All are published by Jossey-Bass.)
Excerpted from Creating a Parents’ Council, November 2008, Academic Leader.