Getting Heard at SIPA: Students Campaign to Improve SIPA’s Curriculum

By: Sean Hansen

Last December, The Morningside Post – under the leadership and guidance of Ali Feldhausen – created and administered a survey to gauge student feedback on SIPA’s professional development offerings. The results were telling: 42% of students gave the professional development (PD) course a “poor” rating, while only a combined 8% described the same class as “Excellent” or “Very Good.”

With a sample of 117 students, the survey’s findings confirmed a significant deal of discontent within the student body over SIPA’s Office of Career Services (OCS) offerings – and particularly with SIPA’s required PD course. For those of us who have taken PD, these results likely don’t come as a surprise at all – many Seeples have commiserated about the overly simplified curriculum and lack of depth that SIPA’s required PD course exemplifies.

So What?

Yet what is surprising, and should bother students even more, is the response – or lack of response – by the SIPA administration. In reaction to the survey, OCS Executive Director Meg Heenehan acknowledged that OCS “appreciates the candid feedback,” “takes the results of the survey very seriously,” and invited students to share their ideas and concerns. Yet in a follow-up meeting with Heenehan, Dean Toomey, and former TMP President Ali Feldhausen, administrators indicated that the survey itself is not driving any changes within SIPA’s professional development curriculum. 

In meeting notes and emails provided to me by Feldhausen, she underscored that instead of having a productive conversation on the results of the survey, Heenehan sought to discredit the survey by pointing out incongruencies with their own internal findings. She critiqued the questions in the TMP survey as “vague,” (despite the fact that several questions incorporated feedback from OCS) and protested the framing of the survey results as overtly negative.

After the meeting, Feldhausen relayed how disheartened she was by the administration’s response, explaining that, “The meeting wasn’t great. I was hoping to learn about how student input had helped improve the professional development programming, but instead, it became an indictment of my methodology and presentation.” Feldhausen’s experience highlights a central question that many students face at SIPA: how do we make our voices heard?

Within a two-year program, SIPA students have a narrow window to enact meaningful, long-term change. Working within a system that obstructs or hinders these efforts makes change all the more unlikely. Moreover, an administration guided by intransigent policies will struggle to keep pace with dynamic student visions: such as eliminating single-use plastics; incorporating empathetic leadership; or installing sleep-pods in Lehman (okay, that last one might be my own…).

Zooming Out to SIPA’s Core Curriculum:

But despite the difficulty of working within the SIPA bureaucracy, there is cause for optimism. Although OCS leadership confirmed that no changes to the SIPA PD curriculum were made as a direct result of survey findings, they did verify several changes to the curriculum that are underway. One such change is the (expected) roll out of a two-track PD course, which would help distinguish between seasoned professionals and students with limited work history. While potentially positive, this begs the question: would the revised courses reflect student feedback in its curriculum, or simply expand an already unpopular class? Another – and perhaps more welcome change – is the elimination of the $20 fee to purchase the PD course textbook from OCS, which is set to take effect this Fall.

Another encouraging change is Professor Yumi Shimabukuro’s Global Leadership Workshop Series. Although not directly affiliated with OCS, this series provides students with exactly what the TMP survey found they want most: more professional development workshops.*

Looking beyond SIPA’s professional development offerings, the findings of the TMP survey appear to betray broader student dissatisfaction with current curriculum mandates at SIPA. At a school which prides itself on providing “students with the necessary skills and perspectives to become responsible leaders”, many have lamented SIPA’s outdated core curriculum -- from dull and inadequate management classes to a dearth of leadership courses.

Tapping into this sentiment, the Education Collaborative partnered with SIPASA’s Academic Chairs to launch a new survey that more broadly assesses student satisfaction with SIPA’s entire core curriculum. While the survey is still underway, both groups are scheduled to meet with faculty on SIPA’s Curriculum Committee later this week.

While it’s too early to know what will come of the new SIPA Core Survey, I am concerned that the outcome may mirror Feldhausen’s experience. I join my peers in asking SIPA administrators to not just listen to the concerns of the student body, but to work collaboratively to improve upon SIPA’s curriculum. There is no doubt that OCS and SIPA’s Administration work hard on our behalf. As students, we seek to be included in that process, and to play an active role in improving the curriculum that will define our time in Morningside Heights.


*Note – I was recently informed that this workshop series has been suspended, and am awaiting further clarity from Professor Shimabukuro.