Letter: How Salem State University is failing students and faculty

Edward Sullivan Building

To the editor:

“What are you taking this semester?” I asked my son, who was returning to college after a leave-of-absence that lasted several years.

“I haven’t heard anything about my readmission,” he responded.

“What!?” my voice betraying shock and anger.

“I haven’t heard anything,” he repeated.

“Classes start in less than two weeks,” I pointed out.

He shrugged that what-do-you-expect-from-Salem-State shrug.

I hesitated before asking, “Do you want me to do something?”

An expression of helplessness in the face of institutional bureaucracy accompanied his reply, “Yeah.”

Only total desperation would compel my son to ask me to intervene on his behalf. To better understand why you need to know more about him and a bit about me.

My son is on the autism spectrum and has a nonverbal learning disorder. For most of his K-8 school years, I fought to get this extremely bright boy the services he needed to succeed in school. Eventually, we found a school in Waltham that specialized in educating students with issues similar to those of my son. His last year of high school included taking courses at a community college with his school providing support services. He applied to and received an acceptance letter from Salem State. Although we live in Salem, he chose to live in a dorm to further his social skills and independence. He lasted a week. The room, designed for two, was assigned to four boys and my 6-foot-5-inch son arrived too late to claim a lower bunk. The claustrophobic room and roommate behavior (when his father and I helped pack up his belongings, my son’s bedding was coated in vomit — not his) were stressors my son did not need his first year of college, so he moved home. A fantastic adviser in Academic Advising, Alex Gordon, graciously helped my son navigate the bureaucratic morass that seems endemic to Salem State. However, a successful freshman year was not in the cards for my son, and he ended his second semester on academic probation. Less than a month into his first semester as a sophomore, my son told me that he needed to take a leave of absence, he needed a break from school, he didn’t know what he wanted to do, and he was sorry to disappoint me.

My son floundered for a few years doing this and that, growing and maturing. In 2017, my son attended Gloucester Biotech Academy and completed the one-year program. He is currently employed full-time as a lab tech with the company where he interned. This past spring, he surprised me with the announcement that he was going back to Salem State.

The journey to reach this point of independence and maturity has been a difficult one for my son. My parental pride at his accomplishment knows no bounds, but when an institution of higher education’s ineptness threatens to derail my son’s progress, I weep with frustration. My son wanted to return to college on his own without mom’s help. Asking me to intervene on his behalf shook his confidence in his ability to advocate for himself.

Who am I? I am a professor at Salem State University, where I have taught for 20 years. Initially, when my son asked for my help, I considered going directly to SSU President John Keenan. President Keenan is not a personal friend, but I have always found him to be personable, approachable and concerned, and I thought he would be horrified to learn how poorly his university treated a former, now returning, student, and he would fix my son’s admissions issues.

I chose to write a letter to the editor of The Salem News instead. Two reasons guided this decision. First, for the last three semesters, I have had a class canceled due to low enrollment numbers. The prevailing wisdom is that low enrollment is the wave of the future, and there is nothing we can do about it. I bought into this notion until my son shared with me his story about trying to get re-admitted to Salem State. Which brings me to my second reason for going public with something private: My son cannot be the only student who is dangling and helpless in the administrative negligence of whatever department is supposed to handle admissions. A quick review of my son’s correspondence with SSU shows that he has been in contact with at least three different offices trying to find out his student status. My son could ask me for help. What about all the other frustrated students? Are they going to different colleges because SSU could not get its act together and complete the admissions process? How many students might have enrolled at Salem State if the administration functioned smoothly? How many professors would be teaching their initially assigned classes if a smoothly working administration followed through with the application process?

In the interests of fairness, I sent an earlier version of this letter to President John Keenan before mailing it to The Salem News.

Sometimes personal failings are not the problem, too often institutions fail us. Salem State failed my son at this critical moment in his life. Salem State is failing every student when the institution does not make the application and registration process simple. Salem State is failing professors when institutional bureaucracy means fewer students to teach.

Postscript: President Keenan thanked me for bringing my son’s situation to his attention, empathized with my frustration, assured me that the admissions team wanted to assist all students, and asked for an opportunity to address the issues I raised before submitting this letter to The Salem News.

New postscript: I let President Keenan know that I would wait a week before submitting this letter and indicated that I did not know if it would be published. Meanwhile, my son phoned asking me where to find the registrar’s office (he went to the old location on North Campus). The registrar, Megan Miller (an administrator I admire), phoned my son to set up an appointment. I am guessing that President Keenan reached out to her to help my son. That evening, after expressing much appreciation for the registrar’s assistance, my son tentatively suggested that he might wait until to spring to return to Salem State. I understood. The frustration of the last few months and living with the uncertainty about his student status took their toll. My son needs to prepare intellectually for the transition back to undergraduate, and a week is not enough time. SSU finally came through just a little too late for my son to benefit in the Fall 2019 semester.

Gayle V. Fischer


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