Creating a Family Council – Reflections After Two Years of the Family Round Table

I will be the first to admit that I was not sure a family council was the correct course for Ohio State. How do you structure a group when you are trying to make it representative of over 45,000 undergraduate students’ families? Even if we can structure it appropriately, could we provide the level of staffing needed to support it? When our Parent and Family Relations Office was restructured in 2009, the question of having a family council or advisory board was a point of debate. The new office, with a renewed focus on fundraising, created the Parents Advancement Council (PAC), which has a focus on family engagement around fundraising and advancement. Beyond the specific work of the PAC, it was decided that dedicating resources into engaging all families versus concentrating resources into a selective family “advisory” council was the appropriate course of action. With a single staff member leading programming and communications for all families and an additional staff member leading fundraising and advancement efforts, this made strategic sense. For over 10 years the office found remarkable success providing communication and programming for all families while continuing to build on successes in family fundraising and advancement, WITHOUT a specific family advisory board. 

During the pandemic, as we know, family engagement increased exponentially. Whether you had students on campus, taking classes remotely, or potentially both, families were very invested in all aspects of campus life, including what steps the university was taking to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. Like many universities located in a major metropolitan area, Ohio State also saw a significant increase in crime in the off-campus area. On top of what we were doing about COVID, families demanded to know what was being done about safety in the campus area (for more on this specific aspect, visit The Task Force on Community Safety and Well-being).  Families also wanted a direct way to engage with university leadership around these topics. Because we did not have a family council, Ohio State did not have a vehicle through which we could guide interested families on this type of engagement. Guided by the support of new university leadership, we re-examined if the need for a family council had changed. Though I was hesitant to create a council for the reasons listed above, after two years including a pilot year, I would like to share that we have seen great benefits thus far. As I look back on our two years, I wanted to offer a few tips and pieces of advice for those who may be considering a family council. 

  • Make Sure You Have the Staff You Need – One of my greatest concerns was staff drain. Our Parent and Family Relations office was a one person show for many years. We added a second staff member in a part time role before the pandemic. We’ve since made that second role full time and added a temporary third position which we hope to make permanent. A family council is going to lead to a regular cadence of meetings. It is going to facilitate needing an agenda, speakers, and follow-up. You are going to see increases in communications from these families as they ask questions or seek advice. You may have working groups which may need additional support. Even if the work is beneficial, it is also just going to just be “more.”  I made the case to my supervisor that I thought we would need another FTE to maximize the potential of the group and to be sure its direction matched our vision of its benefits. Outline a plan and ask for the staff you need to make a council successful. If you do not, you can damage trust and relationships with families who will see your inability to prioritize their engagement as an indication of the lack of priority families have with your institution. 

  • Define Your Purpose but Be Willing to Evolve – When we created our first Family Round Table (we chose “Family Round Table” to avoid confusion with the aforementioned Parents Advancement Council), it was comprised of roughly twenty families, most of whom had been engaging the university around campus safety or COVID protocols. As this was the focus, our meetings were structured as such. Every meeting we heard from our Director of Public Safety. We had presentations from our Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement Office who were leading our Task Force on Community Safety and Well-being. Our director of our Counseling and Consultation Service attended to talk about mental health and the impacts of COVID-19.  For our pilot year, I had families tell me that they had no interest in discussing other topics and chose not to attend meetings if we planned to schedule other speakers. As we moved through COVID and addressed off campus safety concerns, we expanded the purpose of the Round Table to be a sounding board on a wide range of topics. Though safety will always be a focus, it is not the only concern that families had, and the group needed to change its direction to continue to be relevant. With an expansion of topics, unfortunately, only seven of our twenty families returned for the second year when all were asked to come back. 

  • Discuss How Your Group Will be Representative of Your Student Body – The make-up of our initial group was focused on families who were engaging with Ohio State based upon safety and COVID. We did not check the demographics of the group. And did not know their students’ majors, hometowns or class years. We did not diversify the group based upon gender identity, race, ethnicity or other demographic markers. We did not check to see if families were alumni of Ohio State or worked at the University. We engaged those who were engaging with us. As we moved into year two, we wanted to create a group that was representative of our undergraduate student body. These aforementioned demographic markers became priorities. You can diversify a group in so many ways so you need to decide which are the most important to your institutions so that you are amplifying all voices, especially those identities who may not be engaging with you otherwise. We also wanted to be sure we had in-state and out of state students, different class years and different majors. We also focused on having both alumni and non-alumni families and having some families who worked at Ohio State. Decide what is important and make selections accordingly. 

  • Makes Sure Expectations are Clear and Hold Families to Those Expectations – In year two, we wanted the Round Table to be no more than twenty-five families, all of whom would serve a maximum of a two-year term. We had families who attended every monthly meeting. We had others who attended the first meeting and then we saw them sporadically the rest of the year. We provided grace for those missing meetings. In some ways, we provided too much grace. To be selected from one hundred applicant families and then never to attend meetings is disrespectful to those families who were not chosen. As we move into year three, we will put an emphasis on reminding families about attendance requirements, which are included in the expectations of membership. We will also be more diligent on our follow-through for families who are not meeting those expectations. 

  • Educate Campus Partners on the Value of Family Feedback – Most of our Round Table meetings involved recognizing topical areas in which families may have a knowledge gap and identifying campus partners to present and help to fill this gap. We did this initially by surveying the families who were Round Table members and asking about their level of knowledge in a wide range of topical areas. We then based meetings agendas and speakers on this survey data. Our campus partners did GREAT presentations for the Round Table but often did not afford space where families could provide feedback on something. Where we will continue to focus is campus partners asking for feedback on their specific topic. Families want to feel their opinions are heard so we need to ensure that is included in what is shared with them. 

  • How to Replicate the Information for the Larger Family Audience – One benefit our Round Table families have identified is how well informed they feel about what is happening at Ohio State. They are hearing directly from offices and getting to ask questions to better understand resources and strategy. Though it is an expectation that they share this information with other families as they are able, the vast majority of families do not feel this same level of informed. We are also considering how we can replicate this level of informational engagement for ALL families. Is it a monthly online seminar series? Is it recording the Round Table meetings and making them accessible for all families? This is an opportunity moving forward. 

  • What is Next – Though we have defined expectations for our round table and a successful meeting structure of speakers and focus groups, we know we must continue to evolve. How can we make more colleagues aware of the round table as a sounding board? How can we engage the group outside of the monthly meeting? How do we continue to use their expertise and desire to be involved, to improve the students and family experience at Ohio State? How do we continue to engage both the PAC and the Round Table specific to their intended purposes without furthering the differences in the groups? 

My concerns about staffing and identifying a group that was truly representative of our families has been mitigated by the wonderful families we identified to be part of the round table this past year and the feedback they have provided. They have proven to be engaged and enthusiastic, focused on how to make the Ohio State student and family experience better. Is it more work? Absolutely. But the value of having a group, open to all families, is tremendous. It not only affords a pathway where you can direct families who do not believe the university is interested in family feedback but also allows Ohio State to dialogue on that feedback (and not rely on Facebook posts to see how people feel

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