On the first floor of the Ferre Building, a nameplate next to room 121 reads “Steve Ralph, Director, Student Services.” But the door is locked, and, after more than 24 years working in the department of international studies (INS) as a beloved student adviser and staff administrator, Steve Ralph is not there.
“I never envisioned going out of the University of Miami like this,” he said. “This may be the worst month of my life.”
In an effort to centralize advising in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), Ralph’s position was eliminated, and a new general adviser was hired. Students and faculty of INS are reeling over the change and calling for Ralph’s reinstatement, saying that it was a colossal mistake on the part of Dean of Arts and Sciences Leonidas Bachas and his staff.
Bachas was unable to comment because it is against university policy to discuss personnel matters, but he did issue a statement about advising.
“The College of Arts and Sciences has traditionally used a hybrid model to advise its students,” the statement read. “In that regard, the college uses both faculty advisers and professional staff advisers. Recently, the college has made a strategic move to expand and centralize academic advising by hiring additional professional advisers whose sole responsibility is to help students successfully complete their degree requirements and find jobs post-graduation.”
While small departments typically use faculty advisers – professors who also advise – larger departments like biology and INS tend to use full time administrators like Ralph who are dedicated solely to advising and administration.
For Ralph, the hiring of new advisers meant his position was reclassified, and INS undergraduate students now see a centralized adviser in the Ashe Building.
Calls to departments within CAS revealed that the majority have not been impacted by centralization, and the administrative positions in biology and psychology have not been eliminated. However, a faculty member in the English department said that composition professors who were advisers for undeclared students are no longer doing so.
Steven Green, biology professor and a former chair of the Faculty Senate, said that a similar attempt was made to centralize biology advising several years ago.
“They tried to centralize a few years ago and it was a disaster,” he said. “The central people had no clue.”
For INS faculty, the centralization of advising raises more questions than it answers. Some worry that it will mean an impersonal experience with advisers who don’t know the ins and outs of the department. Others wonder why Ralph wasn’t included in plans to centralize, or given the opportunity to apply to the new advising position.
“To me, the whole idea that they’re going to improve the advising process by depriving the department of the person who has been key for 24 years doesn’t pass muster,” said INS professor William Smith.
Bruce Bagley, who was the chair of INS at the time, said he was told in March that CAS was considering reorganizing, but heard nothing more until Ralph came back from the dean’s office on July 31 with the news that he would no longer be advising students.
“He was aghast, and so was I,” Bagley said. “None of us had been informed about this. They didn’t consult with me as chair, and I both resent that and resent the way that Steve was treated. I am adamantly opposed to this.”
Ralph said he was told by the director of human resources for CAS that he had two weeks to decide whether to accept an administrative assistant position at a 14 percent pay cut or leave UM with severance pay.
Ralph said he never considered taking the position, because he saw it as a clear demotion.
“They stripped away working with students,” he said. “That was the core of everything I’d done at the university. I knew I couldn’t accept that job.”
Students who had Ralph as an adviser painted him both as an expert on the academic side of things, and as a mentor who had a knack for helping them find their interests and went above and beyond to show he cared.
“He would always get back to you, no matter what,” said Mariah Roche, a senior majoring in international studies and political science. “You knew that you could always go in and talk to him about anything.”
As INS chair, Bagley directly supervised Ralph for 10 years and wrote evaluations of his work. He said his reviews of Ralph have been stellar, and Ralph was considered an indispensable asset.
Ralph, who received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from UM, said he was told that the decision didn’t have to do with his performance.
Green said that in his experience, CAS does not normally make decisions that are so at odds with department faculty.
While CAS is not required to consult the department, he said, “clearly best practices means that you don’t eliminate staff individuals or positions without gathering all the evidence you can as to the effect on the welfare of the faculty, students and university as a whole.”
Following the decision, several INS faculty wrote to the dean to say losing Ralph would have a negative impact on the department.
By Wednesday night, a petition on change.org calling for the reinstatement of Ralph had roughly 450 signatures and more than 100 personal statements from undergraduates, graduates, alumni, parents and colleagues who worked with Ralph.
“The main reason I have praised UM was because of Steve’s treatment to us students,” read one statement. “I have never received advisement with such sincerity about how much work I could handle, my personal and professional goals, my situation of being an international student living alone in the U.S. for the first time, and I thought this was what made UM different, that people actually cared.”
Thomas Boswell, a geography professor who has known Ralph for 26 years, also circulated his own petition, which garnered roughly 30 signatures. Boswell said all but one of the tenured INS faculty signed.
On Wednesday, Boswell and several INS students hand-delivered petitions and two letters to Bachas’ office. If Bachas does not respond, Boswell said some faculty will approach the Faculty Senate, the legislative body for UM faculty that shares in university governance.
“The senate would only take on such a specific case regarding staff,” Green said, “if it determined that it affected the general welfare of the university.”
Ralph said that his unexpected departure from UM has been psychologically and emotionally painful for him and his family. He is looking for another job, but worries that, at 54 years-old, it will be difficult.
His wife, Doris Ralph, said that it came as a complete shock.
“It was like a bomb,” she said. “In the beginning, it was difficult to see him … he didn’t sleep.”
Guiding students, especially students who don’t fit into a cookie cutter model or are feeling a little lost as they traverse college, is a passion Ralph isn’t ready to let go of.
“It wasn’t just about academic advising,” Ralph said. “It was about making them feel welcome and part of something … This was absolutely the thing that drove me all these years, it was absolutely the best job I ever had.”