by Andrew Shryock
Last Thursday, the Union Executive Committee concluded four consecutive weeks of Union-initiated discussion with College administration on topics related to barriers to student success at Berklee. The Union requested these meetings because many faculty report that their students have needs in the areas of access and support. Specific topics included universal access to physical facilities (Jan. 31), learning support programs (Feb. 7), psychological support programs (Feb. 14), and the Early Alert system (Feb. 21). The image that emerges reveals sustained and substantive investment of physical, financial, and human resources. Yet challenges persist. Hiccups, too.
Physical barriers that prevent universal access to Health and Wellness (32 Fenway) and Counseling Services (54 Fenway) prompted the first meeting. Administration presented a summary of recent efforts to modernize facilities, ranging from comparatively minor alterations across the campus, such as sidewalk alterations and chair lift installations, to major renovations and new construction, for which the Americans with Disabilities Act served as a cornerstone of architectural design. While Administration stated that all Berklee facilities are fully compliant with local, state, and federal regulations, several faculty suggested common sense should also prevail. For example, it was a curious decision to situate – in a distant corner of campus, in buildings effectively inaccessible for some (e.g., steep staircases at entrances) – offices and staff charged with overseeing community wellbeing and serving as a first point of contact in moments of need. Union Executive Committee members also expressed concern about updating Braille signage, accessibility of the new keycard readers at entrances to buildings, and handicapped parking spaces.
The meeting on learning support programs (Feb. 7) focused largely on the Assistive Music Technology for Visually Impaired Musicians program, led by Assistant Professor Chi Kim. Kim spoke at length about the lab, which has been assisting visually-impaired students at Berklee since 2010. He concluded with a call for the College to commit additional funding, in response to the recent loss of significant external support which led to the loss of a lab assistant position. Discussion then shifted to broader concerns related to Disability Services. Union President Jackson Schultz summarized a written statement which included concerns expressed by a member of the Student Government Association. Among these are a call for increased visibility for students of the Disability Services Office, and a desire to replace the current accommodations procedure, in which students renew accommodations each semester, with a less onerous model.
On February 14, the topic of discussion was psychological support programs, specifically Health and Wellness and Counseling Services. Administration acknowledged an impact caused by transition and structural change (i.e., a turn toward a blend of electronic and online resources, outside partners, and Berklee staff) exacerbated by high turnover of staff (75% have been here less than 5 months). Further, these changes occurred amid a period of extremely high demand: counseling activity in the fall semester exceeded 1,000 individual meetings with students in addition to other activities, such as group counseling, after-hours on-call counseling, faculty and staff consultation, and outreach programming. This confluence of factors led to the implementation of a triage system in Fall 2018. Discomfort seems to be temporary, though, and also a product of growing pains: students may now schedule as many as 12 counseling sessions per year, up from 12 sessions across their entire Berklee career.
At all meetings, faculty emphasized the need for increased and ongoing outreach by Disability Services, Health and Wellness, and Counseling Services. Students, faculty, and staff should not struggle to identify the location of – or services provided by – these departments. Counterintuitive websites, labyrinthine automated telephone directories, and physically inaccessible (or very distant) spaces all constitute barriers to access. Everyone agreed an ongoing campaign to educate – and regularly refresh our collective memory – would be a worthwhile investment. Along these lines, the College will distribute “business cards” with essential offices and contact information. Collaborative efforts with Marketing and Communications are also being pursued, with the intent of implementing additional strategies for effective communication. And though a one-stop drop-in center located at the geographic center of campus may not accord with best practices and may not be feasible given our physical campus layout, as Administration observed, perhaps it is also worth considering a “virtual help center.” A webpage with a simple address and text in plain English could chaperone visitors via links to departments and staff best suited to specific need(s). As luck would have it, www.berklee.edu/help is still available.
The final meeting (Feb. 21) focused on the Early Alert system. “Managing high demand” and “increasing awareness” were familiar talking points at this stage. Demand on this program has increased more than 100% in three years, approaching nearly 500 alerts per semester, and this number will increase considerably once the Conservatory’s midterm warning policy is integrated. If faculty are concerned about the progress of an alert they have submitted, they are invited to follow up via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In conclusion, four weeks of discussion proved instructive in many respects. The Union and faculty representatives received updates on new structures, personnel, and procedures of many departments. We offered feedback on upcoming projects and initiatives. We shared student views and suggestions. And although limited resources, high demand, and moments of cognitive dissonance persist – for example, a space may by legally accessible yet remain effectively inaccessible – the Union pursues these discussions as part of a larger effort to improve conditions for faculty and, by extension, for those who rely on us for instruction, mentoring, and increasingly, support beyond the walls of our studios and classrooms.
In case you need them …
Public Safety (https://www.berklee.edu/public-safety)
Counseling Services (https://www.berklee.edu/counseling)
Disability Services (https://www.berklee.edu/disability-services)
Health and Wellness (https://www.berklee.edu/health-and-wellness)