Advising system could use some guidance

For some lucky freshmen, academic advising at Yale is everything it should be. By chance, they are assigned a faculty mentor knowledgeable not just about their own discipline, but about the rest of Yale College. Their freshmen counselors are well-versed in distributional requirements and application deadlines. From the first day of classes, these freshmen know they can make their own choices about academics — but they also have someone who they can ask for guidance.

And then there are the rest of us — the ones placed with advisers who offer little more than a signature once a semester. Some of these advisers are well-meaning, but simply don’t have the knowledge to provide much useful information. Others do not have the desire or time to provide much more than assembly-line-style mentoring. The result: At worst, neither students nor professors have any sense of what an adviser should be doing, leaving students with the mistaken impression that someone is looking out for them when no one is.

The sorry state of advising at Yale is no secret: The academic review committee said it received more complaints about advising than any other issue. But while the review offered some worthwhile suggestions — such as requiring all assigned freshman advisers to be teaching faculty and creating a new administrative position to coordinate advising across campus — we are still waiting to see significant changes. As Yale looks to fill a new position overseeing freshmen affairs, we hope a new administrator can jumpstart the process of reforming academic advising.

In the meantime, Yale should work to strengthen academic resources for freshmen beyond their designated faculty advisers. One idea is requiring each residential college to create a core group of upperclassmen to serve as official “student advisers.” In contrast to freshmen counselors, these students would be responsible for sharing detailed knowledge about specific departments and classes, helping to translate the Blue Book for new students.

Second, the University should provide better guidelines for advising after freshman year. Many students don’t know what to look for in a mentor and are left unsure about whom or how to ask for help with choosing a major and fulfilling graduation requirements. Meanwhile, those who do find mentors they like are often forced to work instead with Directors of Undergraduate Studies or others designated by their department, an arrangement that discourages the familiarity that makes advising worthwhile.

Finally, professors should be evaluated by students on the basis of their advising as well as their teaching. Something is wrong with a system under which Yale assigns mediocre — or even worse, uninterested — advisers year after year without getting any formal feedback on their performances. An evaluation system would allow Yale to identify the top advisers, who could help compile best practices and teach workshops for their peers. And if professors receive low marks, Yale should both offer them training and let them know that a half-hearted approach to advising is simply unacceptable.

Yale offers a remarkable range of academic opportunities to its undergraduates. But you shouldn’t need to be lucky to figure out how to take advantage of them.