When you move your student to college in the coming weekends, you may be surprised to find who is there to help. 

Mike Robertson
Source: Mike Robertson

Every August at my university, faculty get emails, sent with high importance, urgently requesting faculty to help with move-in days. And every year, I hit “delete” but also squirm at just the thought of those messages.

The emails contain pleading, begging and even a little bribery, suggesting that if we do this, administrators will feed us, keep us hydrated and give us a great opportunity to meet new students on the campus. Yeah, you know what? Keep your bottled waters, Gatorade and turkey and veggie sandwiches. I prefer to wait to meet the new students in class.

It’s not just that the heat index is 112 in the shade here in South Carolina, or that I get the occasional twinge in my lower back at age 47, or that I recently had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and want to go easy on my wrists. It’s that faculty members really don’t belong with students’ stuff and in the dorms at move-in. Here’s why.

We’re at a crossroads in higher education. Going to college means much more than it used to, and it also means so much less than it ever did. We know that young people greatly decrease their chances of being in poverty if they attend and finish college. We know that more and more employers expect college degrees, even for jobs that never required one before. We know that college can be a transformative experience and that such a privilege should not belong to just a few people.

But we also know that, in recent years, we’ve started sending the masses to college, whether or not they want to be there, whether or not they are minimally prepared, and whether or not colleges and universities truly have the staff members, material resources, building facilities and infrastructure to support the range of academic and psychosocial needs that all those students bring.

At first glance, it seems like a gracious and generous gesture for faculty members to be on the front lines to meet and greet new students and parents at move-in and to personify all the ideals that many colleges and universities are trying to market: accessibility, low student-to-professor ratios, a nurturing family atmosphere, a place where everyone knows your name, a student-centered environment and heightened “customer service.” And on the surface, it raises the hip factor for parents to go back to their friends and say that a renowned math professor helped little Johnny or Susie move a television or box of clothes.

It’s a little like an initiative that some colleges have implemented whereby faculty members sign up to make “house calls” to students in their dorms, to check on how they are managing the transition to college, to bring them candy and to thank them for choosing that institution. (Read something like: thanks for choosing Hilton or Marriott. If there is anything we can do to make your stay more pleasurable, please do not hesitate to ask!) It reminds me of staying at a hotel and getting surprise knocks on the door from room service and housekeeping. Sure, chocolate-covered strawberries or a fresh supply of plush towels can be desirable, but I don’t want these unsolicited visits when my husband and I are feeling intimate. I imagine the students catching wind of this intrusive program and pretending to be away and not answering the door -- just as I do when I see door-to-door missionaries in the neighborhood.

On the surface, these administration-driven endeavors seem well intentioned and caring, and they may even strike some as smart moves to boost freshman retention, a universal goal in higher education.

But this ain’t summer camp. And faculty members aren’t managing a bed-and-breakfast, where the responsibility is to help new guests shlep in their worldly possessions. Oh, but maybe that’s what this is turning into, since, after all, come April, we’ll get the emails asking us to come cook and serve pancakes at 9 p.m. to hungry and stressed students before finals week.

How did this happen? How did we get to this point in higher education where faculty members are being asked to participate in all these consumer- and customer-oriented gimmicks?

Some people may say that those of us who resist seem pretentious or are not being good team players. It’s just that faculty responsibilities have expanded to include wearing so many hats on the campus, in the community and in one’s discipline, that there’s hardly room for adding bellhop and concierge to the job description.

These pleas exert tremendous pressure, particularly on tenure-track faculty who usually believe that they must acquiesce to anything and everything to be thought of highly at tenure and promotion time. Of course, it must also be noted that most of managing move-ins and getting adult children settled, and the “house calls” program to be sure everyone is OK, on top of coordinating pancake breakfasts, closely resemble many women’s sense of their responsibilities at home as well as many men’s beliefs about what is women’s work. For some then, extending these duties to the workplace adds an unwelcome maternal edge to what it means to be a professor. And, faculty members of color face additional responsibilities and burdens of representation on committees, at events and the like. And women of all races handle more of the emotional labor in interfacing with students than the vast majority of our male counterparts. We seriously don’t need a third shift.

Twenty-nine years ago, my parents helped me move into a dorm at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Some resident assistants and upperclassmen were helping to direct the flow of traffic -- the cars, the people and the dollies of stuff. Back then, class registration happened in person -- you had to run around that enormous campus to get signatures and scramble for desired classes and professors. When I got a seat in an extremely popular class, I felt like I had gotten backstage passes to hear a rock star. But I usually had to wait a few semesters to get the classes most in demand.

It wasn’t until the end of my college experience that the university transitioned to telephone registration, and it wasn’t until the past 20 years that institutions converted to online registration systems. So now students can get their classes in their underwear at 3 a.m. with much greater ease and far less effort. But what goes missing in that process is the sense of the prize: the cherished chance to learn and think and write alongside a great professor.

I would have found it preposterous if the professors who became my dearest mentors were helping me get settled in the dorms or had checked in on me on some cold evening in October. Their very leadership, authority, creativity and credibility would have been greatly undermined. Maybe it would have felt cool for a minute, but then it would feel like a parent coming in to get drunk or high with their adolescent children. It’s just not appropriate. And it also would have felt intrusive.

When professors are asked to help students move into dorms, the very nature of access, intimacy and community gets miscommunicated, distorted and mangled. Let’s not make higher education into a theater of the absurd. Instead, let’s raise the curtains on the first day of school, let the professors and students meet, and let the passion and magic unfold in those most wondrous moments that happen when faculty members do what they’re truly there to do: create an open, intimate, transformative learning community.

Note: A version of this article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed on August 8, 2017.

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