Professor studying student success immerses himself in campus life
As an educator, engaging with students can be an integral part of a university professor’s role. Some faculty members take that responsibility one step further.
Lyle McKinney is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (DELPS). He is also one of six professors participating in the Faculty-in-Residence (FIR) program.
“I heard about the program through another colleague who had been a Faculty-in-Residence member,” McKinney said. “It’s an opportunity for me to serve as a mentor and a source of support for our residential undergraduate student population.”
On campus, for campus
McKinney’s career as an educator began when he received a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Florida. After teaching at a junior college in his home state of Georgia, McKinney came to UH so he could conduct his own research.
McKinney’s most recent research involves examining affordability and degree completion specifically for lower-income students and devising practical ways to revise educational policies so students can reach their academic goals.
Some of his work has contributed to changes in the FAFSA form, allowing students to apply for financial aid earlier than before.
“For what I study and what I care about — working with lower-income populations, students from diverse backgrounds, and my focus on community colleges — Houston is probably the best laboratory of practice,” McKinney said.
Anthony Rolle, DELPS chairperson, said that McKinney is well-respected by his colleagues, so much so that he has been named the director of the higher education program.
McKinney’s work is also bringing him attention outside of the College of Education.
“His research has commanded a lot of attention recently,” Rolle said. “In fact, he just gave a presidential address, as he was invited by President Khator to come talk about important issues of higher education that affected both the state of Texas generally and the University of Houston specifically.”
McKinney has also recently been elected to the Board of Directors of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges, a national project that provides research about academic success in community colleges to policy makers.
When McKinney is not tending to his research in the office, he returns to his on-campus home in Law Hall at the Quadrangle, where he has lived as a FIR since 2012.
The FIR program began in the fall of 2010 and offers six locations for faculty members to live among students and organize activities that bridge the gap between residential and academic life.
“The reason why we really wanted to do this is it’s such an awesome opportunity for students to have interactions with faculty outside the classroom,” said Lin Crowson, assistant director of Student Housing and Residential Life. “Students can connect with them whether they’re hosting programs or they’re doing laundry or in the dining hall, and it gives students a totally different perspective.”
FIR members are required to regularly schedule programs for students that could involve anything from a dinner to a night out at a local museum.
True role model
Political science sophomore Valerie Campos recently participated in one of these events.
“We had a political science professor come in and speak to us about the election and the importance of getting out and voting,” Campos said. “It was very enlightening to see how passionate he was about getting young people out to vote, and you could tell in the room it really spoke to a lot of people that were sitting with us.”
Other events McKinney has hosted include informational sessions on learning support services, study abroad opportunities and how to navigate the library.
“Getting to witness his connections throughout the University and seeing the different types of professors that we have and seeing how passionate they are about their jobs, it’s very heartwarming,” Campos said.
Rolle believes living on campus has given McKinney a more holistic perspective when it comes to his research. He is able to build connections with the students whom his research directly affects.
“Student relations actually provide some of the genesis of great ideas to be researched further and for older ideas that already are in existence to be revisited and sometimes revamped,” Rolle said. “Students tend to be the impetus of change and innovation of policies that have existed and need improvement.”
The nature of the program also places students in close proximity to professors who can serve as examples in their academic careers.
“It’s really great role-modeling for our students,” Crowson said. “These are people who have gone to school and can talk about their journeys, how they got there, what drives them and what their passion is. There’s a lot of organic mentorship opportunities that happen for students.”
As an administrator, Crowson sees the FIR program as a way to respond to common issues found in undergraduate students. For example, after evaluating the results of the MapWorks survey, which provides insight to the lives of first and second-year students, many students who admitted to struggling in their classes have also not met with their professors one-on-one.
“Our FIRs are going to come in really handy because we’re probably going to be looking at asking them to help us host some programs to talk to students about, ‘Hey, how do you approach a professor? Why do you go to office hours? What happens in office hours?’” Crowson said.
The program boasts benefits for both faculty and students.
“I try to go to a couple of football games every year, and I tailgate before the games,” McKinney said. “I use the (Campus Recreation and Wellness Center) all the time and I’m always bouncing around to one of the campus dining halls or restaurants and venues on campus. I’m fully integrated into campus life, that’s for sure.”
McKinney often travels to visit his 5-year-old son. Before coming to campus, he lived in the suburb of Pearland southeast of Houston. Among the other academic benefits of being a faculty-in-residence, he appreciated the convenience of having minimized driving distance.
“The fastest — I’ve timed myself — commute from the College of Education to Law Hall is less than three minutes,” McKinney said. “In Houston, you can’t beat that kind of commute time.”