Many universities, especially larger public ones, have organized their academic structures so that there is a dedicated division that focuses on aspects of undergraduate academic success that span disciplines and majors. These units may contain such programs as first-year academic advising and first-year seminars, tutoring and academic coaching, undergraduate research and honors programs, niche academic majors (such as interdisciplinary studies), career services, and, perhaps, new student orientation. These units are variously named: University College, School of Undergraduate Education, Division of Student Success, Student Success Center, Undergraduate Studies. And the individuals who lead them also have a range of titles: associate provost for undergraduate education, undergraduate vice provost, vice provost for academic innovation and student achievement, dean of undergraduate education, dean of undergraduate studies and University College, associate provost for undergraduate studies, and dean of University College. These units are also notable by the fluidity of their structures. During difficult budgetary times, they may be vulnerable to being cut; when campuses are anxious about retention rates and enrollment levels, these units may see additional responsibilities added to their portfolios.
While the range of structures, portfolio components, and titles certainly results in part from local cultures, the question I want to consider is the impact of the name of a unit and its leader on how it functions on campus and how it supports undergraduate students. Specifically, what are the implications of creating a university college as opposed to a division of undergraduate studies?
In 2010, Organizing for Student Success: The University College Model was published as a joint project of the Association of Deans and Directors of University College and Undergraduate Studies and the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition (NRC). It was built upon the foundation laid by Diane W. Strommer and her collaborators in Portals of Entry: University Colleges and Undergraduate Divisions (1993). Both volumes present discussions of the structures on some specific campuses, and both also present the results of national surveys of university colleges and undergraduate studies units.
The research in these two volumes does not draw any distinction between university colleges and divisions of undergraduate studies or suggest that there are any implications for effectiveness between units overseen by an associate (or vice) provost or a dean. Nonetheless, we know that language matters. Words create webs of associations and connotations that shape how these units are perceived on their campuses and the kinds of authority and influence their leaders are accorded.
Part of what makes it complicated to talk about these units is the difficulty of establishing a foundational definition. In their introduction to Organizing for Success, Scott E. Evenbeck and Dorothy Ward describe the principles that, they hold, underlie university colleges and undergraduate studies units:
The fundamental focus is on establishing a locus of responsibility for attending to the needs of the undergraduate students who enter the university, especially during their first year of enrollment. And as Evenbeck and Ward wisely state: if focusing on undergraduate students’ success is not someone’s particularly assigned responsibility, then no one is held accountable for this work. Still, when a dean rather than an associate provost is assigned that responsibility, a different kind of accountability is possible; I would also argue that as the university college or undergraduate studies unit matures, the opportunities to support student success evolve differently under a dean than they do under an associate provost.
(Full disclosure: I am currently a dean of a university college, and at my previous institution, I was not only the associate provost for undergraduate studies but also the founding—and only—director of a university college that was dismantled as I was leaving the institution. I am deeply invested in the value of these administrative structures.)
The difference, I think, is a distinction between community and policy. Under a dean, the unit will be able to focus more easily on establishing communities of support for students; under an associate provost, the emphasis will move toward enacting and enforcing policies that support student success. I understand that the distinction I am making is somewhat reductive, but at its root it is appropriate because it speaks to the relationship between the unit’s leader and the constituencies they serve. Hierarchically speaking, a dean’s primary orientation is downward, toward their faculty, staff, and students; an associate or vice provost’s focus is directed upward, toward the provost whose vision and direction they are enacting. Of course, a dean must also answer to their provost, but they are likely to have greater budgetary autonomy as well as a larger number of faculty and administrative professionals who report directly to (or at one remove from) them. And because they have line authority over a significant number of units and individuals, they can exercise more direct authority to create programs that support students—such as tutoring, student mentoring, and focused advising programs—than an associate provost, who must exercise more suasive authority over professionals who may be spread across campus. An associate provost for undergraduate studies, for instance, can urge faculty across campus to complete early alert grade reporting for struggling students; a university college dean, by contrast, can mandate that their faculty submit such reports.
An associate provost, however, is more likely to be deeply connected to the web of committees that create a university’s shared governance structure. They may, for instance, chair university curriculum committees and oversee the enforcement of academic policies. They may thus be better positioned to identify needed policy revisions and advance academic policies that respond to student needs (such as, for instance, changing the date by which a student must request a pass-fail grading option).
Take, for example, this statement about the responsibilities of the associate provost for undergraduate studies at Goucher College: “Among the responsibilities of the associate provost is to provide support and counsel to students on academic matters; develop and enforce academic policies; determine academic standing; assess academic appeals and petitions; coordinate the Academic Honor Board; and oversee faculty advising.” While academic advising is one of the associate provost’s responsibilities, it is listed only after a series of items that highlight policies, academic rules, and standards.
That description might be contrasted with how Ohio University describes its University College: “University College advances the mission of Ohio University by providing institutional leadership across colleges in order to promote student success. The college provides a number of university-wide services and is home to key units such as the Academic Achievement Center, First-Year and Student Transitions, the Center for Campus and Community Engagement, and Student Accessibility Services that help all undergraduates attain academic success.”
The difference between the two descriptions is instructive of the range of approaches campuses may take to developing structures intended to enhance undergraduate success and improve retention. Ideally, of course, all universities will give the same attention to providing resources to the campus communities that will support students as they do to strengthening the academic policies needed to promote student retention and timely graduation. Whether the structure is a university college or a division of undergraduate studies, it is essential that the administration maintains a clear understanding of the purpose of the unit and empowers its dean or associate provost to advance the equitable education of all undergraduates.
Evenbeck, S. E., & Ward, D. (2010). Introduction. In B. Jackson, D. Ward, M. Smith, & S. E. Evenbeck (Eds.), Organizing for student success: The university college model (pp. xiii–xviii). Stylus.
Strommer, D. W. (Ed.) (1993). Portals of entry: University colleges and undergraduate divisions. University of South Carolina. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED367215.pdf
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.