In recent years, the challenges facing higher education have been described as “unprecedented,” “disruptive,” a “crisis.” As academic leaders we focus on reinforcing the great work being done by faculty, staff, and students on our campuses, but that isn’t always easy during tough times. So last year as I contemplated the key message of my annual address to the university and how to reinforce the great work being done on my campus in spite of these unprecedented challenges, I revisited the article “Fostering Student Success in Hard Times”(Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh & Whitt, 2011) discussed below.
George D. Kuh and his research team (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh & Whitt, 2011) profiled 20 colleges and universities in a study focused on fostering and maintaining student engagement and success. They found four common key conditions for sustaining good work in hard times, the first being that positive restlessness permeated these campuses. Essentially, these successful institutions were rarely satisfied with their performance and engaged in ongoing efforts to improve. This I decided would be the focus of my presentation because despite budget cuts, furloughs, no salary increases, and increases in retirement and health insurance costs, faculty and staff were continuing to do amazing work. I concluded that positive restlessness was in our DNA.
The second key condition was that data about students and their success were used in deliberations and decisions regarding curriculum and other institutional priorities. These high-performing colleges used evidence to guide changes designed to improve student engagement, learning, and persistence.
The third key condition was that academic and student affairs staff collaborated to foster student success. As someone who focuses on breaking down silos, I would argue that we all need to collaborate to promote student success. Learning occurs in and outside the classroom, so teachable moments abound. Therefore, everyone on campus, including students, faculty, and staff across all divisions, makes a difference in the lives of students, in their disciplines, for the university, and in their communities.
The final condition was focused on campus leaders working to increase the number of faculty and staff who understand and are committed to student success. The successful institutions had influential campus leaders who unequivocally endorsed and promoted student success.
The colleges and universities that were unusually effective in fostering student engagement and success possessed a deep and abiding commitment to critical reflection (Kuh et al, 2011). As academic leaders, our finding the time for critical reflection can itself be a challenge. So including breakout sessions as an essential component of my annual presentation provided individuals from across campus the opportunity to come together at the beginning of the academic year to reflect on what we were doing, where we were going, and what we needed to do to get there. Last year, we talked about how to move our work with LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), inclusive excellence, work-life balance, and student success to the next level. We also discussed new academic programs and models of delivery and had an open-ended session on overall improvements for the university. This year, our breakout sessions focused on innovation in all areas.
To further critical reflection, collaboration, and ongoing continuous improvement and advance our LEAP work, we bring together students, faculty, and staff for a two-day workshop over winterim break. During this time they work together in teams to develop both short-term and long-term action plans related to a project of their choosing. They reconvene in May for another two-day workshop, and the teams then work the entire next academic year to implement their improvement plans. This year our workshops will focus on inclusive excellence and innovation.
Based on our campus experiences, these are a few basic tips for promoting positive restlessness:
- Be intentional about bringing people together. We need to create space for people to reflect, collaborate, and be innovative.
- Break down silos. There is power in synergy.
- Everyone makes a difference. The gestalt is greater than the sum of its parts, so be inclusive and include students, faculty, and staff.
- Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement. Take every opportunity you have to reinforce good work, especially during tough times.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk about the importance of positive restlessness, collaboration, student success, and other strategic priorities, and then listen carefully to what others have to say.
- Use your data. Include a review of data when you are discussing and making decisions about key issues.
- Share your own comfort level in terms of risk taking and failure. People need to know the consequences of trying new things.
- Examine what your allocation of resources says about your priorities. People notice.
The challenges we face in higher education are unprecedented, but if we break down silos, work together, and engage in positive restlessness, the rewards are plentiful. Advancing student success, endorsing continuous improvement, and fostering life-long learning constitute who we all are and define what we all do. Even during tough times our positive restlessness continues because it is in our DNA.
Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H., & Whitt, E.J. (2011, July-August). “Fostering Student Success in Hard Times.” Change
, Philadelphia, PA.: Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.
Beverly Kopper is the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater.