Introduction

Is U of T really listening?

Is U of T really listening?

You know, a friend asked me a very interesting question the other day: “You’re always so chipper about the university in your blog posts; aren’t you just paid to be “rah rah U of T!” every week?”

I laugh because that’s barely a question, but she did make me think about my experience here.

I wanted to tell you about two surveys (National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Globe and Mail’s University Report Card) that the university is asking more than 40,000 undergrads to participate in starting from now until the end of March, but before I do, join me in a little digression.

To answer her question, it’s true I get paid to do this every week, but seriously, I can hardly BS 800+ words of cheerful happiness every week for more than two years if I didn’t believe in what I was saying. You, dear readers, would smell it a mile away.

Not everybody likes it here. Some hate it. It’s true. I hated my first year at U of T. You’ve heard it all before – U of T is big, the classes are huge, it’s hard to make friends, etc. These are all valid, and I shared all of those sentiments.

But working behind the scenes (apart from blogging, I interned at Student Life two summers ago and interned at the Office of Advancement last summer) has given me a unique perspective into the student experience.

To say that U of T doesn’t care is simply not true.

It’s the little things, like watching the staff develop Web 2.0 strategies to make the online experience more interactive and engaging for students, or listening to staff/faculty conversations and hearing them championing for different student bodies.

It’s my overall experience of working with administrators from two of the three campuses, and professors and staff from the different departments in Arts and Science and Engineering that culminates in my assessment. If I did shout-outs to each person who I think is making a difference here at the University, I can probably fill the length of another blog post.

What is true though is that U of T is a very big university that functions through layers of bureaucracy. It takes ages to get anything approved or passed. For example, most of us realize the limitations of UTORmail. The University knows too. I was part of the committee to decide what to do about it. The issue was identified in 2009. I was in that committee last year. The plans are being implemented this year. It’s amazing the sheer magnitude of considerations that need to be deliberated before the university can go ahead with anything.

This is hardly breaking news. Anybody in any sort of executive position in a student group can probably tell you this. A snail can probably crawl a marathon on the Varsity Centre tracks before something major gets changed here.

This is probably why most students I’ve talked to feel like they are just a number at U of T. Your voice feels lost, and you feel like it’s impossible for your thoughts to be heard even if you tried voicing them.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – you think you’re not going to be heard, you don’t voice your opinion, nothing changes, and you go, “aha, nobody listens.”

The university has been participating in NSSE since 2004 to get student feedback. So I talked to Melinda Scott, Coordinator of Assessment & Special Projects at Student Life, and asked her what the university has done since. “Based on the 2008 results,” she said, “we interviewed close to 400 students in focus groups to understand how we can make U of T better. This feedback has helped us form working groups to address specific student concerns, like mentorship, orientation and transition, communication, co-curricular participation, and the quality of student-faculty interaction.”

This is why I wanted to ramble a bit about my experience with the back end of the university before telling you that you should respond if you get the email invitation to either of the two surveys. It’s easy to see the posters around campus that say “your opinions matter” and that “U of T is listening” and scoff at it, because you don’t see the instantaneous change and improvements we’re used to with technology. (I bought an iPhone app last week, emailed the developers a suggestion, and not only did I get an email back, my suggestion was implemented into the next update.)

At such a large institution, change can’t happen over night. Change is a process. So you know what? With what I’ve seen working at the University, when I read the posters that say that U of T is listening and that my opinions matter, I believe it.

– Cynthia

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