Task force calls for changes to college system

First year at university is a critical one for new students. Getting involved and feeling connected can make all the difference to their social and academic success. And York’s colleges should do more to engage frosh during their transition to university, suggests a college task force.

“First year is critical to establishing a sense of connectedness,” says the Task Force on the Colleges in the executive summary of its report, Strengthening York’s Neighbourhoods, released this week.

The report makes 28 recommendations primarily aimed at improving the quality of the student experience and providing events and activities that expand students’ understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of York’s academic programs.

The task force recommended creating a single college council, focusing more on cocurricular and cultural programming, bolstering the Fellows system, involving colleges more in recruitment and orientation, reviewing college-Faculty affiliations and the number of colleges, improving communication with students, hiring full-time residence life coordinators so masters can concentrate on programming, and changing the reporting hierarchy so that masters report to deans.

President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden calls the report “thoughtful and thorough” and strongly endorses most recommendations. In her executive response, she advises implementing them right away, beginning with creating the college council this month. And she says don’t wait until 2009-2010 but start in 2007-2008 to assess how effective the recommended changes are.

The task force was established a year ago by Marsden and Rob Tiffin, vice-president students, at the request of college masters, to review the role of York’s Keele campus colleges. Made up of students, faculty, staff and alumni, it held public forums and gathered written submissions from members of the York community. The final report was submitted two weeks ago.

The title, Strengthening York’s Neighbourhoods, reflects a common theme that surfaced during presentations. Colleges are neighbourhoods within a larger academic city where students have a chance to engage with faculty, staff and fellow students.

The task force said colleges should focus primarily on new first-year and transfer students. Through contact with faculty, graduate students, alumni and fellow students at college-sponsored lectures, events and intramural athletics, new students come to know their community in a comfortable, social setting. The task force argued that the benefits of establishing close relationships between students and the University would be enhanced retention and greater participation in campus and, later, alumni activities.

The task force concluded that: “For too long colleges have been isolated to create and deliver their programs without the full benefit of professional and financial support.”

In her executive response, Marsden underlined the need to pay closer attention to the student experience inside and outside the classroom. She said two documents present York with such goals and timetables to achieve them – York’s University Academic Plan and the province’s Multi-Year Accountability Agreement with York. While York delivers academic support, it could offer more non-academic programs beyond the existing sports and recreation activities and student clubs, she suggested.

“The needs of students and especially first-year students and commuter students go well beyond this. The colleges are the best and most comprehensive institutions for providing opportunities, a supportive environment and measuring results on a consistent basis,” said Marsden in her executive response. “The goal, captured well in the recommendations from this task force, is to provide the conditions for the colleges to perform this essential role,” she said.

Highlights of the task force recommendations are:

  • a Council of College Communities be created to oversee cocurricular programming, strategic planning and budget allocation for the college system. Members would include deans, masters, students, residence life coordinators, Student Community & Leadership Development, and the vice-president students;
  • colleges focus primarily on cocurricular programming and enhancing the cultural experience of new students; and get more money to do so;
  • colleges recruit faculty and grad students as Fellows and junior Fellows to participate in college life and be available to meet undergraduates;
  • colleges be active participants in admission-conversion programming and orientation activities, and be included in convocation activities;
  • college-Faculty affiliations and the number of colleges be reviewed;
  • colleges use electronic means (Webinars, e-mail, e-chats and Web site) to promote college activities and encourage interaction with students;
  • college masters report to affiliated academic deans instead of the VP students, beginning May 2007;
  • residence life coordinator positions become full time;
  • Pond Road Residence be affiliated with a college to be determined;
  • college and Faculty academic advisers work more closely together;
  • student spaces on campus be accessible, inviting and meet student needs.

For links to the task force’s executive summary and full report, and the president’s response, see “What’s New” on the Office of the Vice-President Students Web site.