Dr. Andrew Flagel, PhD, President and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area and Visiting Senior Scholar at The George Washington University, has worked in higher education for 30+ years.
You wouldn’t know that Dr. Flagel intended to become an attorney. His mother, a school teacher and community activist, founded one of the largest economic development programs in the country – and Dr. Flagel thought he would follow in similar footsteps. But when he got on campus, his perspective changed.
“I found myself really engaged in the life of the university and its interaction with the community and that led me to, much to my parents’ dismay, turn down law school to decide that I would spend my career in education,” says Dr. Flagel.
Immersed in the Campus Community
While an undergraduate student at George Washington University, Dr. Flagel worked three jobs to overcome financial hardship. At the same time, he enjoyed every opportunity he was afforded, including being a part of the radio station, taking on leadership roles, working for the university, and receiving mentorship from the university’s president.
During this time, he started to consider “new ways of thinking about access to colleges and universities,” an interest that really propelled the rest of his career. After completing his masters, Dr. Flagel took the regional director of admissions role at his alma mater.
“I had no idea I’d be doing this for the next four decades,” says Dr. Flagel, who went on to earn his PhD in Education from Michigan State University.
Dr. Flagel has worked in enrollment, marketing, public relations, student affairs, among other areas. For seven years, he worked as the Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment at Brandeis University, where he oversaw various departments, including sexual assault services and prevention, the health and counseling centers, athletics, housing, financial aid, and many others.
“It’s such a tremendous sense of responsibility when you wake up every morning, feeling like these lives are in your hands and knowing that you can't save them all,” he says. “I don’t have a great solution for those who are in it every day,” but he understands that the work these campus leaders are doing is essential.
This is, in part, why he enjoys his current role, in which he gets to support those on the ground, providing them with resources and tools to develop more student health and well-being initiatives.
Removing Barriers to Care in a Post-COVID World
The mental health challenges affecting students have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting an enormous stress on the campus and its community.
“Anyone working in student affairs or education understands that there has been a rising tide of anxiety and other disorders in students at the elementary, middle school, and early-college level,” says Dr. Flagel. While older adults have started to move on, the younger generations are still recovering, Dr. Flagel explains. “That wave was heading towards us before the pandemic. With the pandemic, we’ve seen this incredible surge in anxiety, self-harm, and other mental health conditions.”
The pandemic has had cascading effects on the students, but also the faculty and staff who are working long hours, often with few resources, to meet the ever-increasing demand for support. If the staff are experiencing anxiety, how are they supporting students? If the counseling center is overwhelmed, how are they meeting rising demand? What about the student health center? These are questions Dr. Flagel is working to solve as he focuses on campus- and community-wide initiatives.
One of the biggest barriers to care, he knows, is based on socioeconomic factors. Students are battling financial instability, food insecurity, and housing concerns, but also societal problems, like gun violence and the opioid epidemic.
Creating Better Solutions for Holistic Health
While there are many challenges to addressing student health and well-being, Dr. Flagel has found that building partnerships across the campus and community provides tremendous value. During the pandemic, for instance, the Consortium received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and worked with AU and Gallaudet to expand access to COVID-19 testing. Other initiatives include partnering with the Capital Area Food Bank to address food insecurity on campus, and working on a massive project to bring affordable housing to students.
Additionally, over 100 faculty members, from across 18 institutions across the Consortium, are working collaboratively to develop the best possible recommendations for practical and actionable approaches to reducing gun violence, Dr. Flagel explains. And next year, he’d like to tackle the opioid epidemic and increase campus access to Narcan.
One of the biggest challenges is recognizing the fact that the structure of higher education doesn’t really support big complex initiatives. Each campus is designed to be autonomous and separate. Even internally, collaboration is difficult to achieve, which is why Dr. Flagel suggests creating new mechanisms for collaboration.
“We’ve siloed, in bizarre ways, student wellness from approaches to student success,” Dr. Flagel suggests. “A strategic approach to wellness starts with an equity approach. We know these challenges are significantly greater in the lowest income brackets and among populations that are significantly underserved. How do we make sure that we're not losing students because of housing, lack of access to food, lack of access to appropriate health care, and how do we do that proactively?”
At Georgia State University, for example, micro-grants are now being offered to students who are nearing graduation and falling short financially. At Denison University, President Adam Weinberg has invested in a new wellness center that combines medical, counseling, and wellness, to create a whole person approach to health.
The most expensive visit is the emergency room, Dr. Flagel explains. Rather than waiting for students to reach a state of distress, why aren’t we thinking more proactively? And how can we track outcomes? Rather than tracking visits, how do we figure out metrics? If we’re not measuring and disaggregating that data, we’re failing to determine programs and initiatives that are most successful, he says.
“It’s a critical time to think about the health of our community, but it requires a team effort and a kind of visionary strategic approach. Everything matters, from insurance to providers to access,” says Dr. Flagel.
Photo credit: Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area