The University of “We have your back”
During the fall 2017 semester, the provost’s senior staff spent much of one entire weekend collaborating via skype and emails, considering some new ideas for President Wilson. As part of that work, we were brainstorming various phrases to capture the key ideas of what we hoped our university means to students. Among those phrases were, “If you’re admitted, we’re committed,” and “From Surviving to Thriving.” But I have to say that I really, really love the phrase that the New York Times used to describe us: The University of ‘We Have Your Back’
The idea of having our students’ backs as they do the hard work of learning in college captured perfectly the work that we’ve been doing together during the past several years in our student success initiative. And how thrilling to notice that our university is starting to receive the recognition that we deserve. Referring to our increase in graduation rates, the NYT called us “one of the nation’s fastest improvers.” That’s true. Our graduation rates have increased 21 percentage points over six years. Georgia State (also mentioned in the article and generally considered the gold standard for student success) took ten years to make the same progress. The article referred to us as a “turnaround” and asks why other universities don’t do the same.
We really have turned the university around into a very, very positive direction. And it wasn’t always easy and it involved all of you. The author, David Kirp, and I spent many hours on the phone over the past eight months discussing our campus efforts. The limited space in the Sunday Review section couldn’t possibly do justice to passion that this campus has shown in having our students backs.
Our academic advisors remain at the heart of our student success initiative. We can’t possibly thank enough the dedicated work of our professional advising community, who enable vulnerable undergraduates to realize that they’re not impostors, an idea David mentions as key. As you know, we hired 45 additional academic advisors over the past few years to expand the impact of our advising community, which was once far too small. David asked me if I thought we could have managed without those advisors by “working smarter” in some way. I was emphatic in my “NO.” As I travel across the country talking about our gains in student success, I feel so proud not only of our advisors, but of our university for having the courage to reallocate resources in difficult times to make this investment. Leaders from other universities express envy and admiration. When the article asks, “Why doesn’t every university make the same type of effort to help students succeed?” I can only think that not every university has the courage and determination we have had.
I wish also that their had been space to mention the terrific work of the Academic Advising Council and the Advisor Training Academy who in partnership with each other and with the support of Cheryl Kollin and Kate Bernas have forged a truly professional advising community who model beautifully the values of lifelong learning for our students. And the partnership with C&IT to provide a continuous stream of improvements to advising technology, from WAMS, to CHOMP, and now to AdvisingWorks, was worth mentioning. That is a partnership that I rarely hear about at other universities.
The last time I spoke to David on the phone was the day before our General Education Reform was passed by the WSU BoG, so that couldn’t make our way into the story. I believe that Gen Ed reform the single hardest change in higher education, so the fact that we accomplished this feat more evidence of our dedication and courage. What an honor to work so closely with Tom Fischer and the General Education Reform Committee to develop the framework for the new curriculum. And thanks to the General Education Oversight Committee and all of the GERC subcommittees for building on and improving the work of GERC, and to the Academic Senate, particularly the Curriculum and Instruction Committee and the Student Affairs Committee for their deep engagement with this work and the practical questions they asked that helped propel us toward an implementation.
David asked about faculty engagement in Student Success. He shared with me that Georgia State’s graduation rate has been “stuck” at 53-54% for several years and that they are turning to new pedagogies, especially flipped classrooms to get unstuck. In addition to Gen Ed Reform, I was happy to describe to him the expansion of our OTL, the work of the WIDER (and related) grants, the work that our Mathematics and English departments are doing in our Gateway Course Initiative, not to mention the dozens (hundreds?) of smaller curriculum revision and course redesign projects that are continuing across campus. I am optimistic that we will not be “stuck” in our growth in graduation rates anytime soon, because we are ahead of the game with all of this work — as well as that to come.
I was so delighted that the NYT mentioned our Learning Communities. Our learning communities are a great example of the common sense and human ways that we have our students backs. Thank you to all who make these learning communities happen and thank you, Amy Cooper, for our support of our LC coordinators and peer mentors. And thanks to all of the other activities that while not “official” learning communities, bring students, mentors, and faculty into closer relationships to foster learning and belongingness.
Marquita Chamblee, Leo Savala, and the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement, have together had a transformational impact on me and my work and have served as a catalyst for transforming our efforts to serve our students in thoughtful and inclusive ways. The Network and RISE learning communities are expanding rapidly to support Black male students and women students of color, respectively. The Inclusive Excellence Action team complements their work, by doing careful analysis of groups of students, especially students of color, who have not yet fully participated in our graduation rate gains. Their wise insights and advice have led to practical advice (and action) on how to serve our students better. The Warrior VIP (Vision and Impact Program) is a new coalition of many familiar programs across campus, including APEX Scholars, the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Students, the Transition to Independence Program, the Network, RISE, and so many more). With the leadership of Michelle Bruner and Kenya Swanson, these groups are engaging in collaboration, shared learning, and unified student progress monitoring, to support our students better. The entire student success team is reorganizing their practice to give VIP students the “concierge” service David mentions in the article. And I am so grateful for the dedication and leadership of the Black Faculty and Staff Association in supporting and strengthening all of this work.
When we started our Graduation Action Committee (now the Student Success Steering Committee) about four years ago, it was brand new idea for our campus and fairly new nationally, but they are increasingly common. While the work (and names!) of this committee has evolved over the years, its purpose has been constant: to monitor student progress to degree, to learn about the obstacles faced by students and then to take action — both individually and systemically. Without this group of dedicated college leadership, student success directors and other provost’s office leaders, I am certain we could not have made the progress that we have.
Like David Kirp, I’m finding that space limitations are preventing me from fully describing all of our work, so let me also mention and thank the APEX Scholars Program, the Student Disability Services, Academic Success Center, Federal TRIO Programs, Career Services, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programs, Office of Military and Veterans Academic Excellence, New Student Orientation, the Registrar’s Office, the Transfer Student Success Center, the whole Educational Outreach and International Students team, Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Office of New Student Financial Aid, the Student Services Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, Dean of Students Office, Housing and Residential Life, and the Library System each of whom has collaborated, evolved, re-invented themselves, or otherwise contributed significantly to moving our campus forward. I deeply appreciate the change leadership efforts of our Action Teams: Inclusive Excellence, Advising Excellence, Guided Pathways, Financial Optimization, Student Services, Student Communication, Barrier Mitigation, and Accessibility Initiatives, together with the Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Working Group. The deans and their schools and colleges are innovating and moving their programs forward. The clarity and support of our president and provost, together with the AMAZING senior staff team, have made all of our progress easier and more fun than I ever could have imagined.
I’m sure that a lot of this work has been “behind the scenes.” If you have questions about anything, ask in the comments and I’ll answer in another post.
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