By Ashoka Mukpo
The findings of this semester’s Student Satisfaction Survey were presented to the SIPA student body at a packed town hall meeting last Wednesday, with representatives of the Dean’s office offering their views on the results and their plans to address areas of student concern. Faculty representatives from a number of departments within SIPA also assured students that they will make attempts to improve in areas where they received relatively low marks.
Overall, SIPA received a 3.7 out of 5.0 regarding students’ “overall satisfaction with the program so far,” a number that Dean John Coatsworth described as “about a B+.” He stated his desire to see improvements by the next survey, and pledged to do “something, maybe a lot, to convince you that number is too low.”
Among areas where students were pleased with SIPA’s performance were the safety and security of campus facilities, availability of information on the curriculum and cost of SIPA prior to attendance, and the overall responsiveness of staff members in virtually all departments to student needs.
But from the consistently “B+” marking of many of SIPA’s academic and student service departments, it is apparent that students hoped to see improvement in their SIPA’s experience.
Senior Assistant Dean Caroline Kay from the Office of Student Affairs referred to the issue of student fellowships – a recurring area of concern, according to the findings – as requiring special attention. Throughout the survey, students described difficulties in understanding and completing the fellowship process. Kay stated that there will be a task force meeting in the spring composed of students, alums and faculty to discuss the fellowship application concerns, saying, “it’s our job to make the process easier.”
Students also gave mixed reviews to OCS. Meg Heenehan, executive director of the Office of Career Services, referred to the frequent “employer information sessions” offered at SIPA as an area in which her department received high marks, citing a 22 percent increase this year in employers visiting campus for information sessions.
Students were, however, fazed by the professional development courses that focus too heavily on skills that most students already have, such as how to conduct themselves during interviews and writing a resume. Heenehan countered by reminding students that employers still report receiving written communications from students that contain typos and that they occasionally appear unprepared for interviews, which forces her office to ensure that the course stresses the basics.
In the IT Department, many described accuracy and ease of use of the online SSOL billing system as a problem, with the IT Department Chair Harpreet Mahajan referring to comments on the survey regarding this issue as “colorful.” She hoped to post an SSOL tutorial on the Financial Aid web page in the near future that will contribute to easier navigation of the system.
To the issue of WiFi connectivity, which was cited as a frustration for many students, the receptive audience was told that SIPA has requested that CUIT place additional access points in dead zones on the 4th floor. Specifically, the IT department predicted that the spotty internet connection in rooms 413 and 404 should be addressed by the beginning of the Spring semester.
Citing a common student description of the chairs currently in use as uncomfortable, the Lehman library also announced that there will be a purchase of new chairs before the Spring semester.
Students question Dean Coatsworth
The interactive portion of the meeting offered students the opportunity to voice their concerns directly to faculty, and a number of issues were raised, including SIPA’s national ranking, lack of opportunity for MPA students to seek dual degrees with other programs at Columbia, and even in one case a flickering fluorescent lightbulb in a room on the 4th floor – a problem that the Dean’s office assured would be quickly taken care of, in what is perhaps the easiest of the steps they will be taking to address student concerns.
First-year MIA student and Human Rights concentrator Samuel Bonilla expressed his view that the Conceptual Foundations class was light on perspectives from the developing world, referring to his perception of a “bias toward the western view.” Dean Coatsworth agreed, describing the class as being taught from the perspective of the “North Atlantic developed view,” and promised to consider widening the scope in the future. Afterwards, Bonilla said he “felt that their interest to improve the curriculum is genuine but they definitely need more work.”
In addition to presenting the findings of the survey, Dean Coatsworth alluded to the controversy over the OCS Wikileaks email, saying that “It is not the view of the school that you should refrain from reading and discussing anything, in fact exactly the opposite,” and also announced that this year’s commencement speaker will be Kofi Annan.