Don’t Send Your Kid to Occidental College

A Parent’s Perspective by Glenn Detrick –

Focusing on the difference between objectives and outcomes is critical in life. In business, if one starts a company with the objective of making money, one is very likely to fail. If, on the other hand, one begins a business with the objective of serving a need and providing premium service to the customer, the business is likely, as an outcome, to make money.

In education, I would hypothesize that the vast majority of undergraduate students have as their primary objective to complete a college degree. A subordinated objective is to learn something useful and/or interesting while pursuing the degree. Most students are interested in “getting their ticket punched” (the degree) with learning and acquiring knowledge viewed as less important. I happen to have a kid whose primary objective is to learn; attaining the degree is secondary – and she has not been well served in pursuing this objective over the past two years at Occidental College.

Lest you think I am (just) some disgruntled “helicopter parent” who is upset because of injustices done to his kid, let me tell you a little about my background. Before retiring nearly five years ago, I spent 27 years in higher education as an associate dean at a “Top 20” national/international university (Washington University in St. Louis) and as an entrepreneur co-founding a business (Educational Benchmarking, Inc.) that works with 500 colleges (including Occidental’s Residential Life unit) supporting their continuous improvement efforts. I am currently on the editorial board of the Academy of Management publication “Learning and Education” and I served for the past four years on the Dean’s Advisory Council of a liberal arts college in North Carolina where my older daughter attended. I was asked at that institution to develop and teach a course titled “Self Discovery/Life Skills” for university juniors and seniors, which I did. For the past six years I have also taught as an adjunct professor at Washington University in St. Louis and I will be team teaching a course there next spring on “Positive Psychology” with the psychology department chairman. I believe I understand very well the challenges of managing a college in a way that attempts to optimize the experience of its students. I realize the difficulties associated with managing expectations – realistic and otherwise – of parents and students. Given this background, in August, 2005, I very enthusiastically sent my younger daughter to Occidental College.

I have now had two years of experience in dealing with this institution and my interactions have led me through a series of emotions from disappointment to disbelief to anger at the current state of the college, its management, its lack of faculty capacity and how, administratively, it treats its students. I do not believe that Occidental deals effectively with a student whose primary interest is in learning, not just getting their ticket punched.

While the problems my daughter has encountered are not atypical of the general issues faced by undergraduates at many colleges, the way in which she and the issues have been dealt with at Occidental has been less than satisfactory, particularly at an institution with a tuition of over $34,000 and an annual expense budget (tuition, room, board, books, etc.) of over $45,000 a year. At a state school with 20% of the cost, maybe one could partially understand or accept some of what has happened. But not at $45,000 a year.

It began poorly and has gone down hill from there. As a first term freshman my daughter had been very interested in taking an introductory geology course, but it was full and closed by the time she could register. Well, there will be other terms for this. At Convocation, introducing freshmen to the college before their first college class, Santana was the featured speaker/artist. Terrific! When the (Interim) president introduced him, he unfortunately did not know the name of Santana’s most famous work and he mispronounced it. The students booed. How embarrassing, but whatever. More problematic was the awarding at this session of the previous year’s Teacher of the Year Award. The recipient (Professor Quinn), in accepting the award, told the students how inept and incompetent were the college administration and board of trustees. Everyone in the room squirmed; I cannot imagine a worse introduction for naïve new students before their first class than to have an honored professor “piss on the cathedral wall”.

There were a number of issues at the college during my daughter’s freshman year (2005-06) but a new president came on board in the summer of 2006. Having been in the college continuous improvement business, I sent her a letter detailing eleven (four academic and seven administrative) issues I thought would be useful for her to be aware of – from a parent and former university administrator point of view. I also sent her an analysis of student housing survey data from Occidental’s seven years of participation with my former company in a 240 university comparative data project. The analysis highlighted some very positive feedback she might want to share with parents as well as several areas that seemed problematic and unattended to over a multi-year time period.

I received no response to this letter, so I resent it six weeks later. This time I received a response from an assistant in the president’s office saying “sorry for the delay in responding”, thanking me for the input and indicating that one of the eleven issues I had raised (problems with the Health Service) was being corrected. She hoped for progress on the other issues and encouraged me to be in further touch after school started. A month later I wrote asking for any further feedback about the additional issues I had raised. No response. A month later, I wrote again. The response was “I’m sorry that I didn’t get your previous email. Let me check around and see what I can report back to you.” That was October 24, 2006 – and I have heard nothing since.

In December, 2006, I received a solicitation from the Parents Fund at Occidental. I wrote the parent president of the association and indicated that I had set aside money for such support, but had decided to send the money to my other daughter’s college because of a lack of response from the university administration on issues that I had raised. Shortly thereafter I received a call from the Vice President of Development with an apology for the lack of response. Very nice guy, but not in a position to be of much help. He indicated that the Dean of Students would call me about the housing issues I had raised. The next day I received this call and was told that the residence hall staff “had been very busy” and had not had an opportunity to fully digest the seven years of data they had received each year from the multi-university study, but they would be studying it and she would let me know the outcome. That was the last I heard from her. I must say that I have never been impressed with the “we’ve been too busy to use data in planning” response, particularly seven years of data.

In April I wrote to the Development VP again (at least he had responded) indicating I had not had any further follow up from either the Dean or Students’ office or the President’s office. He thought the issues I had raised were substantive and urged me to re-contact the president’s office, which I did – with no response. In May I went back to the Development VP about the continuing non-response and received this message: “I did speak with (the president) again about what must appear to be our studied indifference to your concerns. I sent her, again, a copy of the email you sent her in mid-April. I look forward to hearing that there has been an institutional response to your concerns.” There was none. Zip. Nada. I called the Development VP again, to let him know of this further non-response. He did not return my call. I must say that Occidental has been consistent up to this point – they must think that sooner or later people will just go away if they are ignored long enough.

In June I received another solicitation from the Parent’s Fund, this time from the Dean of the College. On June 15 I wrote the Dean of the College indicating my frustration with the administration of Occidental College. I raised my additional frustration that my daughter and I had talked in April about 5 classes she wanted to take in fall of her junior year and her initial difficulty in deciding among the five. As it turns out, I need not have worried – she was able to get into NONE of the five; three (in her dual major fields) were full and closed by the time she could register, one that she initially got into was canceled over the summer when the professor left the college and one, the geology class, which she had again been closed out of when trying to register for it as a sophomore, was closed to her now because she was of junior standing and the class was only open to freshmen and sophomores! (I’m not making this up.) The dean did not respond to my email, so I called him. No response. I called him again and he finally returned my call.

The dean didn’t want to talk with me; he said he should be talking with my daughter about these issues. OK. He explained to my daughter that she had been the victim of a great deal of bad luck in not getting into ANY courses which she wanted to take. It was too bad, but there were other courses she could take to meet degree requirements. And here we are back to the importance of learning being the primary objective and the degree being only an outcome. If my daughter were just interested in the degree, fine; take whatever courses happen to be open and work toward specific degree requirements. But she is actually interested in learning in areas of her intellectual interest and so just taking courses to meet requirements is not acceptable. Well, too bad. By this time it was the end of the second week of classes and she had better get into something. The dean still does not seem to understand why any “something” does not meet my daughter’s educational needs. He responded that there is much to be learned from any/all classes at Occidental, even when students are forced to take classes not of their preference. I guess this is the “Occidental solution” to chronic understaffing in some areas – figure that students will learn something in any/all classes, and as long as students end up enrolled in something, what’s the problem? Specific intellectual interest and curiosity for particular subject matter be damned.

So what about the geology course that my daughter was closed out of twice in her freshman and sophomore years? Evidently there are “pedagogical reasons” to limit enrollment to freshmen and sophomores, though this was not indicated to my daughter by her advisor during her first two years, nor does the course description in the 2006-2007 catalogue say anything about it. The faculty member for this course, however, ultimately did let several juniors into the class (my daughter who, after going to the first several class sessions hoping to be let in, had the “bad luck” of not drawing the short straw for the last seats in the class, with so many students trying to get in). When this whole issue (of not getting any of the classes she desired) was raised with the dean over the summer, he could have very easily signed her into the class, but he chose not to. Once freshmen arrived and took up the last available seats, it was too late. Having been a dean for 16 years, I really do not understand this lack of assistance to a student who obviously had been screwed over by “the system” multiple times in multiple ways. Freshmen (and parents) beware: the “Occidental answer” every time you do not get into a class at registration is to have you go to the first class and see if someone drops. The problem is that since understaffing is so severe in some areas, this is likely to happen frequently – and by the end of the second week of classes you are expected to have filtered into classes that are not full, thus “solving” the lack of capacity problem from the administration’s point of view.

There is one other unfortunate example of administrative problems at Occidental, related to a student’s primary interest in learning. Occidental has an arrangement with the Art Center College of Design (ACCD) whereby Oxy students may take classes at ACCD when space is available. My daughter signed up for such a course last Spring, on an overload basis. She took the class and did all of the assignments – but she did not turn in some form to the Occidental Registrar’s office. When she found this out at the end of the term, she turned in the form, but was told there would be a late fee. OK, what is it, $25, $50? No, it was $390 – for not turning in a form. My daughter told the Registrar she would not pay such an exorbitant late fee and the registrar’s office said, fine, she wouldn’t get credit for the course. Since she had been primarily interested in learning the material, and given all of her experience with the college administration, she walked out of the registrar’s office and chalked it up as one more example of how Occidental’s administration responds to its students – and less three credits that she had actually earned.

Given all of her enrollment frustrations, my daughter was considering dropping out of school this term. She’s still here because she had made a year long off-campus housing commitment. She’s now enrolled in four classes and I received this email message from her yesterday, “Please do not agonize over Occidental. I will tough it out…grit my teeth and go to classes I dislike immensely. I really don’t care anymore.” From the administration’s point of view the courses my daughter ended up getting into do work toward her degree requirements, so I guess they think her issues are resolved. I do not. How do you stifle a student’s energy and enthusiasm for learning? Send them to Occidental College. — 9/07