equity, Regional Comprehensive

Supporting the Mission

On August 12, Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, announced a series of funding opportunities for minority-serving institutions. In launching this new grant program he noted: “It’s a cruel irony that institutions that serve the most students with the most to gain from a college degree have the fewest resources to invest in student success.”  Amen!

He goes on to say, “Too often our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps to opportunity for all Americans,” said Cardona. “Stop conflating selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege. We must embrace a new vision of college excellence.” (Inside Higher Ed, August 12, 2022). Amen, again!

So, what is this new vision? For the Secretary of Education, it appears to be about investing in the public colleges and universities that serve the majority of college-going students (73% according to educationdata.org) such that those colleges and universities have the funds necessary to adequately support their students. While he is focused on minority-serving institutions right now (and given their chronic underfunding, this is appropriate), the trajectory of this initiative should reach all campuses charged with teaching the students for whom education will be the most transformative: you know, public higher education. This is anti-racist policy-making at its best. It focuses on a structural problem that disproportionately impacts students of color, first-generation college students, and low income students from all backgrounds.

Having insufficient funds to support students impacts everything: retention, pace to graduation, and graduation. Insufficient funding undermines the transformative power of education, because that lack of investment generally translates into lack of completion. We know this at WCSU, and we work hard to invest what we can in supporting all of our students. But, despite the level of state support we receive (not an insignificant investment), sometimes the timing of funding and student needs are not aligned and we miss the opportunity to adapt quickly.

For example, there is ample evidence that wrap-around advising structures (a social work approach to advising) is very effective in getting students the support they need when they need it. Investing in wrap-around advising is expensive, and investing in it all at once is too big a financial challenge for most public universities. We can’t afford to make the big leap, so we tend to focus on smaller, more incremental approaches, which take longer to yield results.

Research suggests that emergency funds can make the difference between a student stopping out or completing a degree. These are generally small grants that make a big difference in students lives. At WCSU, we have done a good job of prioritizing these funds in recent years, but to really make this strategy work requires more funds for emergencies, and an advising program that helps us know when to step in.

We work with the tools that we have to solve our problems, tools that don’t require too much investment. We have the capacity to look at our own data to determine scheduling problems, pass rates in gateway courses, and the variables that predict student success, or lack thereof. Examining the data is helpful and points to next steps, but those next steps often require investment. Making those investments in a timely way is often impossible.

The need for robust student support services at a regional public is much more pronounced than it is at an elite university. We welcome students who have varied needs and we want to meet each one with the appropriate strategies for success. Yet the resources to respond to these needs are much higher at the elite university. This is an imbalance that must be addressed. I think this is part of Cardona’s point.

Cardona’s words made me feel optimistic. After years of thinking that universities like WCSU were all but invisible, someone has finally acknowledged the importance of what we do. I anticipate that we will see more such announcements as Cardona continues to look at the structural issues that are clear in the data. Things need to change and his early steps acknowledge that need.

Reflecting on the Cardona’s words have made me think about our mission.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

That single sentence represents such powerful goals. We strive to change lives and we see evidence of our impact every day. We are the best path to social mobility because we are inclusive by design. We are the best path to self-advocacy because we recognize the role we play in helping our students learn to ask for the opportunities they deserve. We are the heart of a society that strives for equality because we are committed to creating opportunities for all students, not just the lucky few. We want to be that part of the higher education landscape that makes the most difference in the majority of students’ lives.

It is exhilarating to recognize the scope of our ambition. I am inspired to live up to those lofty goals because they are goals that matter. We are essential.

I’m looking forward to next steps from Secretary Cardona, but for today, I feel seen.

Community

Belonging

It is late August and we are all gearing up for another year. Students will join us on Friday, classes will start next Monday, and I am sure that faculty are putting finishing touches on their syllabi. It’s that exhilarating rush of new beginnings and the optimism that comes from the chance to start fresh every fall.

There has not been much downtime for us at WCSU this summer. We have been collaborating on projects that we hope will re-shape our future. I am grateful for all of the hard work that took place, and the ways in which it brought together members from all areas of the university to think things through together. What comes of all of that hard work will be discovered as we review that summer work, but it is that sense of community and belonging that I am thinking about today.

There is a lot of research coming out right now about how important it is for our students to feel a sense of belonging. It is directly related to retention, it is directly related to the success of our students of color, our first-generation students, and our students who sometimes struggle to find their fit. Spring 2022 saw reports from faculty and student affairs professionals all over the country about students feeling at sea, disengaged, and wobbly about being in college. It is showing up in classrooms, mental health offices, and retention rates.

In Reimagining the Student Experience, a recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are lots of good observations about steps we can take to help students see themselves as members of our community. Here’s a short list.

  1. Everyone needs a group of friends, but building these friendships is not easy for everyone. Commuter students don’t have activities created by our Residential Staff, working students don’t have time for many campus activities, and many students find initiating conversations challenging. The best place to overcome some of these barriers to friendships is to build social connections in classes. Most of us initiate connections between students with icebreakers and introductions. We need to do it throughout the semester in intentional ways.
  2. Help students create a buddy system so they have someone to contact about notes, etc., when they have to be absent. This is so obvious, but it is hard for some students to ask.
  3. Try to schedule some office hours adjacent to your teaching time. For many students (especially commuters) it is easiest to ask their questions right before or after class. Even with all of our remote access for advising, which is probably the best outcome of COVID-19, the immediate conversation is still incredibly valuable.
  4. Demonstrate interest in students’ lives outside of class by participating in or attending some of the events that they value. See their shows or games, go to their fundraisers or service events, participate in a co-curricular activity. Faculty and staff can’t do it all, they have lives too, but a little bit goes a very long way.

These are good ideas, ideas that I know many of us have been doing for years. I enjoy the low-tech, simplicity of it all. If this will help our students feel they belong, let’s do it.

As I write this, though, I am thinking more about the people here who have been working all summer. Faculty, staff, and administration are trying to understand the path to a stronger university, together. People we once knew via email are now people with whom we have had long and passionate conversations. Strategies for student success that have been supported in one area, are now known by people in other areas who are trying to do the same thing. People who were struggling alone to try to solve problems, now know that others are interested in those same goals. In other words, I think our summer work has created a better path to a sense of belonging for all of us.

In that report about Reimagining the Student Experience, Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues that “Students– and indeed, people generally– are motivated by the feeling of being part of a team tackling a shared problem.” It is that common effort that makes us feel connected and valued. Certainly, this offers insights on creating a more connected campus community and a more connected student body.

But in that same report, Flower Darby asks us to think not just about belonging, but about the value of the learning experience, something many students have been questioning. Darby says, “[T]hink about the value that students get from spending time with you, the instructor….The benefit of taking your class is taking it with you.” Wow! That’s a reframing that I needed to read. I’d like to take it beyond the classroom: What is the value that our campus community gets from spending time with you, our colleague… the benefit of interacting with you is you!

This is a provocative and exciting observation. Instead of focusing on seeing the best in others (an effort that shouldn’t be ignored of course), it asks us to think about how we bring a unique perspective and vision to our roles and responsibilities. This question encourages us to see our value and it might even help us narrow our focus and hone that thing we are really great at. I hope so. What I am certain of, though, is that the question gives me a new way to think about this year. It’s a fresh start once again.

Growth Mindset, Resilience

Endings Are Beginnings

It is the end of the spring semester and for the first time in ten years I am enjoying the wrap up of teaching a class. It has been fun to have the immediacy of contact with students for a change. Although I do participate in student events, the routine conversations that faculty can have in class, are outside of my usual experiences. It is just a matter of hours in the day, not a lack of interest. Serving as a last-minute replacement has allowed me to re-engage those routine conversations. I’ve learned a lot from the students in my class. I always do.

Now we’re up to final presentations and final grades. As I take on the evaluation of the students, I know I am really evaluating myself. What could I have done better? How might I have structured my assignments for a more thorough development of the key concepts in the course? How might I have changed my behavior to better inspire punctuality and commitment to the material? What assignments or readings might have better conveyed the value of what the students are learning? Should I have considered a few applications outside of class to build commitment to the quality of work? The list goes on.

Yes, final grades matter to students and their futures, but for me they have always been about reflective teaching. As tedious as the last round of grading can be, it has always inspired me to think about how I might do better work. This is when I build a summer reading list focused on the discipline and on pedagogy. People are always surprised that those readings are a source of relaxation for me, but they are. They always inspire.

This semester’s visit to the classroom has reminded me how much excitement I feel by the endings each year. I don’t want to let that pass unnoticed, so, I am wondering how to capture it in my administrative duties.

Well, in some ways I always do. This is the season of annual reports and evaluations. I have the pleasure of reading about so many accomplishments each year – new programs, new awards, new research – and they never fail to inspire. I also read about the less wonderful stuff – enrollment challenges, retention challenges, or gaps in funding that might keep a good idea from moving forward. Those are less fun to read about. Still, they are an opportunity for me to think about how I can do better. In that spirit, I am transforming the questions I ask of my teaching as follows:

  • How do I better communicate the value of the initiatives that start in Academic Affairs? Do I need more data? Do I need to distribute readings? Do we need more workshops? Do I need to visit all governance bodies to discuss each initiative? Do I need to visit all departments?
  • How do I better support and coordinate the initiatives that do not start in Academic Affairs? The majority of the efforts that I have been involved in over the years did not actually start with me. Teaching faculty, administrative faculty, student leaders, governance bodies, and the facilities team, are usually the inspiration for projects of all kinds. Sometimes they come to me directly, sometimes I learn about them later. This gap in timing may be an indication of a coordination problem that can undermine a perfectly good idea. How do I help these initiatives thrive?
  • How do I structure our activities in ways that better connect the university community to each other? To the community? Can I find a way to help strengthen those connections and inspire more follow through on the activities we host and the next steps they inspire?
  • What might I eliminate from our long list of priorities to allow for greater attention to the most important things? It is easy to keep adding to a syllabus or a list of goals, but that always leads to too many tasks, initiatives, and ideas. How do I shrink the to-do list so we can focus our efforts productively? How do I prioritize effectively?
  • How do I set deadlines that are achievable?

Yes, it is the end of the semester and I will grade final projects and evaluate the work of all that we do in the academic programs. The pile of things to read is tall (metaphorically, of course, things are all digital now) and the learning opportunities are vast. I am excited to get started because I always end up feeling inspired by the work completed, and, yes, a little worried about what did not get done. But inspired wins every time.

I love the endings. They bear a tinge of sadness and a feeling of loss as another year ends and another group of students graduates. But endings also inspire hope for the future, providing a perfect opportunity for reflection, and a chance to do better next year. I am grateful that education is built on this cycle. It is a cycle that builds optimism, and optimism is the best foundation for beginnings.

Community, Higher Education, Resilience

A Plan of Action

We are going to have a retreat. Yes, that is the next step for WCSU, a retreat to help us sort through what we are doing now and determine opportunities for a better future. As I made the announcement, I could hear both the collective groan and the impatient calls for a concrete strategy for improvement. We have had retreats before, and strategic plans, and discussions about curriculum, or advising, or even branding, but we keep ending up in the same place. That same place is characterized by small, isolated moves that do not transform the whole. We need to transform the whole.

I understand the collective sigh about the notion of a retreat. From the perspective of the campus community the retreats are not leading to action. That is not quite true. There has been action attached to both the Strategic Plan and the Budget Retreat that occurred just before the pandemic. For my own sanity, I must list a few of those actions.

Goal one of the Strategic Plan asked us to grow our support for a diverse community of learners. To that end we’ve solidified the FY program, added a peer mentor program, and transformed our Education Access Program. These moves positively impacted our graduation rates (pre-COVID) and showed signs of supporting better retention. We hope to see a larger impact now that we are fully operational again.

The other component of that diverse community of learners was a focus on adults. We have done a lot around graduate programs and most recently received approval from our accreditor to expand our online offerings. This will strengthen the opportunities we have available for returning undergraduates. We plan to launch options for that group in the fall.

Goal two asked us to focus on our processes and services for a diverse community of learners. COVID-19 helped us accelerate this work tremendously. Students can now access most services remotely, thus allowing them to get support at the time they need it, instead of between 8:00-4:30. Digital forms & signatures, remote access to advising, tutoring, career support, registration, and financial services all make our students’ lives better.

One other component of goal two (and part of goal one), focused on career education. We improved the offerings in our Career Success Center, with new technologies, trainings, and access to remote internships. We also added career education courses (on a pilot basis), as we had planned in the strategic plan action steps. Evaluation of their impact is next.

Goal three focused on community pride. Several efforts occurred that should be acknowledged. First, we did increase weekend events for our residential students, and we offered more social events for faculty and staff pre-pandemic. We hope to bring them back soon. And the long awaited decision about a new mascot is now complete. Go Wolves!

Goal four focused on branding. We took some initial steps with the help of a consultant, which resulted in new colors and some improved consistency in materials. The recent hiring of new Director of Marketing and Communication should jumpstart this initiative. I can already see an impact on our website.

Goal five focused on creating a self-sustaining financial model. We made some strides in evaluating a limited number of academic programs, but everything else stalled on this one. More focused action must take place now.

There was a budget retreat (pre-pandemic) that included representatives from all campus constituencies. That meeting confirmed much of what the Strategic Plan had outlined. There was general agreement that we should grow graduate programs, focus on adult learners, focus on supporting some of our students who meet admission requirements but need extra attention, find a way to re-imagine summer, and work on become an HSI. It also focused on some cost-cutting measures, but the ideas in that category were few and far between. The items focusing on graduate and adult learners have been underway. The rest has stalled.

I recount all of this because I recognize just how exhausting the notion of a retreat without action sounds. The truth is that there has been action, but the impetuses behind that action and the results have not been well communicated. That is something that is going to have to change this time around. The commitment to action is of the utmost importance for us. Everyone will need to play a part, and everyone will need to be on the same page as to what is happening when.

So, for this retreat, the goal is to establish a plan of action for WCSU. We will first take the time to review the realities of our position. We’ll examine the costs and results of all that we do and, I hope, come to a full understanding of our place in the higher education context right now. Then we will get to work. That work will involve focused conversations about what we can grow and what we should stop doing. We will need to reimagine how we function as an organization and where we might change our structures to improve that function and/or gain efficiencies and reduce costs. We will try to determine a campus focus that helps us carve out our own special place in the higher education ecology of our region. It will be a very busy two days.

The result of this retreat must not be a report. It must be a plan of action that will move us forward together. It must include a clarity of purpose and definitive steps to achieve that purpose. It must describe a path first to stability and then to prosperity. The full community must endorse the plan so that we can move forward together. The retreat is necessary for the development of this plan. The action is necessary for our survival.

Inclusion, Resilience

Award Season Reimagined

It is mid-April and the time for awards is upon us. Students have worked hard, and faculty are eager to recognize them. We have department awards for outstanding work in the discipline. There are honor societies for top students in the major. There are research awards to dole out at our annual event – Western Research Day. Students are vying for scholarships for the coming year and the selection of commencement speakers from the student body is now complete. These are really fun days.

But I must admit there are some nagging thoughts in my mind. As wonderful as it is to recognize the hard work of our most accomplished students, these students usually win multiple awards. The criteria for recognition focus on things like GPA, great projects/performances, or dedicated service to our community. Students who are able to do this generally come to us with strong study skills and habits for success in the classroom and/or without the need to work 30 or more hours per week. When you peruse the list of winners each year, most are also in our Honors Program, which usually means this is not their first scholarship or award, but one of several. I’m exceedingly proud of them; they are a wonderful group of students. Still, I worry about all of the efforts and accomplishments that go unrecognized.

Just before the start of the pandemic, our university established a fund for emergencies. This is a pool of money for books, transportation (flat tires), food, and other miscellaneous items that trip up our neediest students and keep them from success. This initiative is so important because so many students disappear for small dollar gaps. Big scholarships are wonderful, and they provide access to education that is so important for a fair and equitable society, but there do not usually address moments when students have to choose between class and work, course materials and food, studying and housing. It is these choices that jeopardize semester or degree. This fund relies on donations and it there is always a need for just a little more. As I think about places for our investments, the short-term awards for those in need, I know this one has high value.

When I consider the availability of emergency funds, I also consider what those students on the financial margins are juggling. I have written before about how work demands can undermine classwork. What about the rest of it? You can’t spend much time in clubs if you have to work all the time. There is no time to volunteer if you are struggling to make ends meet. It is a challenge to do outstanding research, when you’re just trying to get through your classes in the face of external challenges. And don’t get me started about unpaid internships. I’m sorry, this award system is rigged.

So, after we build up a robust fund for emergency funding gaps, I think it might be a good idea to focus on a few more awards for the students who are usually overlooked during awards season. Here are my suggestions:

The We Believe in You Award: This award is for students with GPAs of 2.0 or higher who have earned 15 credits in a semester. So many of our students drop courses to salvage their GPAs, but if there was a reward for persisting, perhaps they’d stay enrolled in that course they are just barely going to pass. Fifteen credits a semester is the right pace to graduate in four years, and getting it done in a timely manner will save students money overall. I say we reward this achievement with $500 dollars off of the next semester’s tuition every time a student meets this standard. It recognizes hard work and might help us keep a few more students on track for a four-year degree.

The You Can Do it Award: This award is for students who manage to get off probation after a rough semester. This award is not dependent on the number of credits because sometimes students have to slow down to get off probation. But after that success, we will award the student one free class during the summer or intersession to catch up on some of the credits lost during their recovery semester. The great thing about this is, if the student sustains their recovery, they can then qualify for the We Believe in You Award the next semester. It is double encouragement to get back on track and stay there.

The Amazing Juggler Award: This award is for students who managed to work nearly full-time, stay on track with at least 12 credits a semester, stay off probation, and still participate in one co-curricular club or department initiative. In this case, a $500 cash award is in order. These students deserve a week off.

Don’t worry, I still want to reward those students who meet the traditional criteria for outstanding. Top GPAs, impressive research and service should still get their due. The students in this category have worked hard and contributed much to our community. We rely on them for their talents, insights, and engagement with life at WCSU. They are peer mentors, service leaders, and often recipients of prestigious external awards like the Fulbright. Excellence deserves to be recognized.

Improving and succeeding in the face of very difficult challenges also deserves to be recognized. Whether those challenges are driven by financial constraints or by uncertainty about college overall, the fact that students overcome them should be recognized and celebrated. This isn’t an “everybody gets a trophy” scheme; it is an equity scheme that recognizes that students are facing very different conditions for learning.

We have big dreams for all of our students, but the most important one of all is that they reap the benefits of earning their degrees. These additional awards might just help a few more of them get there.