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Academic and Student Life Committee announces major updates to advising including centralized resource website

University administrators also presented a revised Engineering advising program to the Board

Shortcomings with the undergraduate advising system were discussed at the meeting.
Shortcomings with the undergraduate advising system were discussed at the meeting.

The Board of Visitors Academic and Student Life Committee discussed changes to undergraduate advising programs, faculty recruitment and research funding opportunities at its meeting Wednesday afternoon. Among the presented advising adjustments was an updated student resource website, new advising software and changes to the School of Engineering’s advising program. 

Katie Densberger, director of academic student support at the Georges Student Center, presented a revamped student resource homepage which provides concise yet detailed information about various aspects of student life. Densberger said she hopes the website will make it easier for students to access information, especially pertaining to academic requirements and degree programs.

The website intends to make information about the University more accessible to students by limiting jargon and explaining concepts in plain terms, according to Densberger. For example, rather than using the term CIOs — meaning Contracted Independent Organizations — the site refers to clubs as student organizations.  

“Some of our students come to us from communities and from families that don't have a lot of experience with large four-year universities,” Densberger said. “So whatever experiences and whatever ambitions those students come to us carrying, we have to be ready to connect them to the resources they need to pursue those goals and to develop new ones.”

Revamping undergraduate student advising has long been a focus of the Board and an important part of the University’s 2030 plan — a set of goals for the University that focus on a variety of long-term projects. 

An advising task force assigned to the issue produced a report in spring 2022 that gave recommendations of how to improve advising across Grounds, including communicating more effectively and efficiently with students and maintaining long-term relationships between students and advisors. 

The new student resource website site also has an automated chatbot feature — run by a higher education specific vendor called Ocelot — designed to filter general questions from students about that would otherwise require an email or a phone call. 

In addition to University-wide advising changes, Jennifer West, dean of the School of Engineering, said that the School of Engineering expanded its program of embedded advising  to last the entirety of a student’s first year. 

Under the program, first-year students are required to take a core engineering course taught by their academic advisor. This new program is similar to the optional COLA classes offered to first-year students in the College taught by their academic advisor, which provide first-years in the College a more intimate advising experience. 

The engineering courses implements career development and academic advising into its curriculum. Six faculty members completed training over the summer on advising to better understand degree programs and requirements in preparation to teach this course, according to West. 

West also said the School of Engineering will continue its program of embedded support — “embedded” support refers to the in-house resources that the School of Engineering provides for its students, including an assistant dean of students, two Counseling and Psychological Services counselors and an accessibility advisor.

“I think that both of these pieces together are really going to take what's been a pretty good advising system in [the School of Engineering] to one that has a really high impact on our students,” West said. 

Christa Acampora, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also discussed shortcomings with the College’s advising system. She said that specifically faculty members who advise undergraduates have little preparation for their responsibilities — there are no professional advising resources provided to faculty, and compensation is not tied to their performance as advisors. The College also has no key performance indicators or assessments for advising faculty members. 

“We know we need to do something, [but] the pathway forward is not entirely clear,” Acampora said. “And I'm open to hearing from the group that's advising me about a number of different ways that we might pursue this.”

In addition to improving faculty training, the University will implement a new advising software next fall called Stellic to supplement, but not replace, the current Student Information Service for all schools. This program — already used by other universities like Duke, University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins — is designed to make tracking degree progress and choosing classes easier for students. Denberger said the University landed on this program after holding two rounds of demos and hundreds of surveys for multiple software programs. 

Some key features include the ability for students to keep track of degree progress, select courses to plan schedules multiple semesters in advance and find courses that can fill requirements that align with their selected interests in a simpler, more user-friendly manner.

Board members were generally supportive of these initiatives following the presentations and Board member Babur Lateef said he would use his vote to support increased resources towards academic advising. 

“I would be happy to provide all the resources that the College [and Engineering] needs, and I think it's critical that we make these investments — it should be the highest of priorities,” Lateef said.

Also during the meeting, Provost Ian Baucom reviewed the University’s progress towards its strategic plan. He highlighted two initiatives — recruiting and retaining talented faculty as well as working to improve research at the University.

Baucom said the University has worked towards recruiting impressive faculty by committing $7 million each year for the next three years to a series of competitive fellowship programs, providing more resources through the PhD Plus program that is designed to set up PhD and postdoctoral students for long term success and implementing a common learning management system across schools.

The second part of the plan that Baucom highlighted was the importance of investing in research and infrastructure. Initiatives by the University include building a data analytics center and providing more grants and funding to faculty for research.

“Infrastructure is strategic,” Baucom said. “We have to invest in our infrastructure across all domains and we have to invest in our research infrastructure. We need to be not only excellent in certain areas, but also lift the entire research enterprise and this is what that's about.” 

During the meeting, Baucom did not touch on the recent turnover in Student Affairs — strengthening the “foundation” of the University through the support of diverse staff is one of the main pillars of the plan. Student Affairs has seen an unusually high rate of turnover in senior positions over the past few years — notably, Robyn Hadley, former dean of students and vice president for student affairs, left Charlottesville after only two years at the University.

At a recent Student Council meeting, student leaders focused on how to prepare for challenges due to turnover in Student Affairs administration, including how to best maintain relationships between students and the University. 

Baucom also did not address student housing — one of the goals of the 2030 plan includes housing all first and second year students on Grounds. 

The Board approved the addition of six professorships across McIntire, the School of Medicine, the College and the School of Nursing. They also approved the naming of the White Ruffin Byron Center for Real Estate — which will be within McIntire -— and approved a new degree program for a Doctor of Philosophy in Computational Biology in the School of Medicine.

The Board of Visitors will continue to meet Thursday and Friday. 


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