When Parents Come Calling: Tips for Academic Leaders

An increasing part of any academic dean’s week is fielding calls (and sometimes unannounced visits) from concerned parents. These so-called “helicopter parents” are well-known to student life professionals. In the past, they’ve called to try and influence the admissions process, to negotiate improved housing assignments, and to manage the personal lives of their children.

Today, they’re as likely to call an academic dean as they are to call the dean of student affairs. They call to complain about substandard teaching, to protest an obviously unfair grade, or to demand a new course schedule.

We make a mistake by refusing to acknowledge these grievances, whether real or imagined, and our administrative role demands that we find ways of incorporating parental energies into a transparent problem-solving strategy.

It’s helpful to remember why these parents are so involved in the lives of their supposedly independent children.

Accountability. Their vigorous engagement reflects their belief that a college education is an investment, that in their minds we offer a service for a fee and that, therefore, we should be accountable. In part, they’re right.

A dean can be the institutional voice of accountability. Simply ignoring the parent or “handling” the complaint provokes the parent into more aggressive tactics, causing the dean to spend even more time on the issue.

In short, deans should think about the ways in which they can respond to questions of accountability, shaping responses that both address the immediate concern and provide education for the parents.

Cultural Anxiety. Parental concerns often reflect wider cultural concerns: economic anxiety, campus safety, volatile job market, escalating student debt. A dean needs to listen carefully to each individual call, to resist the temptation of assigning each call to a generic pigeon-hole, and to develop a sensitivity to the underlying and unspoken worry.

Often, the problem is not an immediate one; but an empathetic listener can guide the parent through a number of broad anxieties and help to solve the student issue.

Poor Life Skills. A call to the dean often suggests that neither parent nor student is fully attuned to the nuances of the academic culture. After 20 years, I’ve become so accustomed to my environment that I need to remember how alien it might appear to an outsider. Again, the phone call may provide an opportunity to educate the callers and to channel their energies in a more productive and appropriate way.

This last example is becoming more and more common. In some ways, institutions have not made their workings, their expectations, or their policies transparent. In addition, we inherit high school seniors who lack essential life skills: the ability to negotiate, critical listening skills, self-sufficiency, and conflict resolution strategies.

These deficiencies may provoke deans to collaborate with their student affairs colleagues and to find ways of educating both parent and child in a more holistic way, recognizing that in order to be successful a student needs to harness evolving life skills with a broadening intellectual maturity.

Scripted Response. As soon as possible, a dean should try to establish two goals: a clear narrative timetable and a statement of desired outcomes. Often, parents will recognize that their opportunity to speak is the desired outcome. At other times, parents will discover that the outcome they want is either unreasonable or unattainable.

In those cases where a desired outcome is defined, deans can then focus their energies on the identifiable resolution and not be sidetracked by competing voices. At the very beginning of the process, then, ask parents to state their desired outcomes. Of course, deans need to provide the same authentic opportunity for all involved faculty and staff.

Focused Collaboration. Academic deans must partner with student affairs professionals to design strategies that fully engage parents of the millennial generation. These strategies may include separate orientation sessions for parents and the distribution of material (print and Web-based) that makes explicit the expectations and workings of the institution.

Professional Development. The role of the department chair is becoming more and more involved, and the majority of these incidents begin in the department. Deans need to provide faculty with as comprehensive an orientation to the role of chair as possible; consequently, chairs need a protocol for responding to parental complaints. Such an orientation needs to cover the need to respect legal rights and process, to maintain the integrity of the faculty-student relationship, and to focus on outcomes as well as process.

Transparency. Above all, the dean needs to be as transparent as possible with all the stakeholders. While a dean may identify with faculty and staff, parents need to feel that the process is both open and being applied in an even-handed way. Parents should not feel “handled” nor should they feel that they are hearing only selected highlights of the administrative process.

Michael McDonough is dean of liberal arts at Monroe Community College.

Excerpted from Parents and the Role of the Academic Dean, Academic Leader, March 2008.