Class deans Tim Cox and Brandon Morris discuss the importance of student advising, advocacy, and activism.
As the first time in College history that two African American deans are simultaneously serving in academic advisory roles, Cox and Morris are helping to advance support and advocacy for Black students at Lafayette. Their work is ensuring that students feel a greater sense of belonging and support within the Lafayette community as they share their thoughts on their role in advancing student success.
Cox: I describe my role as threefold. There’s the professional element that provides me with the platform to do my job and to uphold the mission of the College and the department. At the same time, I have the duty to ensure that the mission we strive toward meets the needs of today’s juniors and seniors. Then there’s the academic part, of course, where I assist students in planning out their educational goals. Perhaps the most important role of mine is the personal one. Academic advising is more than just helping students select their courses or processing a dean’s excuse—it’s truly about developing personal relationships so that students are connected not only to me, but to the College.
Morris: I would describe my role as one that pulls the puzzle pieces together regarding the academic well-being and health of our students. Although my work is situated in academics, I often will find myself utilizing information from campus partners to put together a full picture of a student. Advocating and serving as a liaison for students is a big part of the role as I seek to help our students understand their options and position themselves to make sound decisions regarding their academics. A significant part of my role is relationship building with our incoming students to develop a level of support and trust that can assist them in succeeding.
Cox: Similar to my previous answer, mentoring and relationship building are some of my favorite aspects … I see a lot of myself in these students, and so I tap into that former identity to connect with them. Within that connection, there are just as many heartbreaking moments as there are celebratory, but that’s what brings us closer together. Students need to know that they are understood, supported, and cared for.
Morris: As cliche as it may sound, I find my favorite part of this role to be helping students find their voice along their academic journey. I find it to be rewarding when I can help students understand what is available to them at Lafayette and help them take the steps to plan out their journey. College is about exploration, and I love that, in my role, I can do this with our first years. Helping students set goals and stand firm in their decisions about their academics is so important as students begin to find themselves at Lafayette.
Cox: The “movement to matter” has always existed. Student groups such as the Association of Black Collegians; NIA: A Support Group for Women of Color; the Lafayette African & Caribbean Students’ Association; and Brothers of Lafayette have always strived to create a place of equity and inclusion on campus. I think the awareness of BLM over the past few years, and especially the past few months, has heightened its presence on campus. I was happy to see the “Black Lives Matter” banner in Farinon early this year.
I must give credit to the @black.at.laf Instagram account, which really gave voice to the challenges students, alumni, faculty, and staff are facing. Since its start, I’ve seen several efforts from the administration and faculty to address institutional racism—a result of systemic racism—through the hiring of new staff members and the hosting of panels and forums to address issues across campus.
So now we’re in a space where, I believe, the entire campus community is aware of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues on campus. Awareness helps to a point. I’ve noticed how conversations shift to be more mindful of these issues. Our next step is to address the issues head on.
Morris: I personally believe that it has helped our students of color share more of their experiences on campus while also creating a brave space for them to do so. I believe it provides them with a platform to address racism and injustices that are happening in our community that we as administrators may not see. I also believe there is a certain level of allyship that has come from BLM with regard to our campus. I think that the conversations that are being had regarding policies and past practices have come from our students voicing their concerns and demanding change. I am very proud of our students for voicing their concerns and the response of our administration during these times to address the needs of our students.
Cox: It’s interesting. I’ve always had these conversations about the movement with our students, but now I am having the conversations with colleagues. It seems very clear to the Lafayette community that these issues can’t be ignored. Now, more than ever, I’ve been mindful of how we (Lafayette administration and faculty) contribute to the experiences of our students. Whether it’s saying ‘Hi’ when we see these students in person, taking the extra time to ensure that our students understand the material, inviting them to participate in research, or simply asking whether a student is OK these interactions shape their experiences.
Morris: I would say that it has not affected my role tremendously as I typically approach our students with a holistic approach. I do believe that conversations that I have been able to have during these times has helped students to process and take action for themselves with regard to everything. In my time at Lafayette, it has been apparent that those issues will not be ignored.
Morris: I do not believe the role has shifted, but the way that we do our work is something that I remain observant of. I love to meet with students face to face, but with the remote nature of things, this is not possible. Despite this challenge, I remain cognizant of student’s needs and what questions to ask to check in. I will not allow the fact that we cannot meet in person to stop the deep relationship building because I believe that trust is the most important part of my advisory role. In advocating for students, I think the remote nature has been helpful in some ways with regard to flexibility and the heightened attention we are all providing for our students.
Cox: I’d like to do more research on how our Black students are performing in the classroom and how they are being impacted by policies on campus. From my limited experience, however, I’ve seen that our students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students tend to have the biggest issues with financing their education and general living expenses. Perhaps we should look at expanding need-based institutional aid for students in these cohorts.
I’d also like to revisit some of the academic policies regarding course repeats, course sequencing, and grading. For example, if students need to repeat courses that are only offered once a year, and they have already maxed out their aid, they may have to leave the College without a degree.
Finally, but certainly not the least important of the three, we need to address the implicit and explicit racist acts on campus. I see that we have an updated ‘interim’ policy on equal opportunity, harassment and nondiscrimination. This is perhaps the most complex issue of them all, but the most necessary. We need to continue to hold people accountable for disrupting the inclusive community we are trying to create.
Cox: Actually, there are quite a few—but I must say that these successes do not come from my work alone. We have several dedicated faculty who reach out to join forces to help our students. Some examples include providing exceptions for students who were dealing with extenuating circumstances, inviting students out to eat/delivering food to their homes, getting students access to laptops and textbooks, supporting financial aid appeals, writing recommendations for graduate school, and pushing students to apply for competitive scholarships/fellowships.
The results? We’ve seen these students complete their courses despite adverse circumstances, cross the Commencement stage, get into amazing graduate programs, and be named top scholars in their disciplines.
I am not sure where the saying comes from, but it’s something along the lines of ‘Give students the tools they need to succeed, and they’ll get the job done.’ We try to do just that (with care).
A particular story comes to mind about a student whose grades did not meet the threshold to do an honors thesis, but worked extremely hard on campus. In their petition, the student was transparent about their experiences feeling marginalized on campus, but found a sense of connection with a faculty member who was also willing to support them in their endeavor. The petition was approved by everyone involved. Although we cannot change the student’s past, I hope the student sees that the College is vested in the student’s overall educational experience. This is what I mean about giving students the tools to succeed.
Morris: There are several success stories that have come from advocating for our students. The one common thread that I think they all have in common relates to what I mentioned earlier about helping students to find their voice during their academic journey. It is typical for a first-year student to be apprehensive or nervous about college. The entire experience is new and has a lot of unknowns. I often share with students that you have earned the right to be here, and from there it is up to you what you do with the opportunity.
In my particular role, I believe the work that we do in our office would not be able to be accomplished without the partnerships with faculty and other colleagues across the campus. I am also in a unique position with the opportunity to see how students do throughout their four years. Despite the fact that students change class deans, I have often remained connected with students well beyond their first year.
A recent graduate does come to mind with this question. During the student’s first year they were unsure about their major and if they made the right choice to come to Lafaytte. This particular student was experiencing some difficulty in courses and had trouble adjusting to the community. During our time together, it was important to help them understand that they were not isolated or alone in any of this. Through that we were able to connect with the department for their major and truly identify what they were passionate about. Once their major was solidified, they felt more confident and comfortable with their space on campus. They went on to become a resident assistant for their final three years, and they shared that this experience really helped them as they were helping students who were in the same position they were. As a student of color, they felt it was important to be represented as an RA for incoming students and felt it was important to use their voice to start conversations about inclusion. I truly believe that because this student had someone listen to them and advocate on their behalf, they made the decision to remain at Lafayette and ultimately leave a legacy doing things they never thought they would be doing when they entered the College.
Cox: I mentioned this in another interview, and I’ll say it again. It’s an interesting time to be at Lafayette. Change will not happen overnight, but I can say that my colleagues have been very supportive to me and our students, and we are ready to shake some tables. Glad to partner in this with Brandon, and the other team members in the Dean’s Office.
Morris: I think we are in a very unique space to make some significant changes and adjustments to policies that have been in place for years. Our student body is growing and is coming to us with a great deal of knowledge and life experiences. Things will take time, but I believe we are having the conversations now that will allow for us to be even better in the future.