Exploring the Muddy Waters and Blue Skies of Supporting Student Success

By Jacqueline Beaulieu

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity of presenting alongside Tricia Seifert at the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services’ (CACUSS) Annual Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba (June 19-22, 2016). The theme of the conference, Muddy Waters, Blue Skies, supported conversations on the many challenges encountered when aiming to support student success as well as the blue skies of opportunity and possibilities of what could be for students, staff, faculty, and community members. In our presentation titled Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations, we examined how communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture are perceived as shaping the development of student-focused organizational approaches.

The current study was initially undertaken as part of a case study research methods course. Data from two institutions were analyzed as part of the class project; data from two additional institutions have since been analyzed to develop the broader set of findings presented at the CACUSS Conference. Data from an additional 1-2 institutions will be analyzed prior to presenting overall findings at an upcoming scholarly conference (to be determined). If you attended Tricia Seifert’s recent CACUSS presentation on publishing in student affairs, you likely recall her encouragement to “never let a good class paper go unpublished”. This blog post represents one of many ways to disseminate findings and concepts developed during course and work-related projects.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an overview of the study, current findings, and a working set of principles for creating student-focused postsecondary organizations derived from the findings. It will explore some of the “muddy waters” (challenges) of supporting student success as well as how communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture can come together and create “blue skies” (opportunities and possibilities) for all students.

About the Current Study

The findings in this study were derived from an analysis of data collected during the first phase of the Supporting Student Success study. During this phase, qualitative interviews and focus groups were conducted with nearly 300 student affairs and services staff from 9 universities and 5 colleges across Ontario. The purpose of the original study was to develop a more complete description of how Ontario’s post-secondary institutions are formally and informally structured as well as how staff perceive these structures as supporting and/or creating challenges for their ability to support student success.

This research focused on the larger research-intensive universities included in the broader sample given the range of centralized to decentralized organizational structures within this subsample and the range of stakeholders groups within each of the institutions and complexity of relationships between the many constituents.

Several theoretical frameworks including resource dependency theory (eg. Hillman, Withers, & Collins, 2009; Leslie & Slaughter, 1997; Tolbert, 1985), organizational ecology (eg. Carroll, 1984), and institutional logics informed the current study (eg. Thornton & Ocasio, 2008; Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). The current study tested propositions stemming from these frameworks as advanced by Pitcher, Cantwell, and Renn (2015).

Research Questions and Design

Central research question:

How do student affairs and services staff perceive their institution’s organizational structure and culture with respect to the development of a student-focused approach for program and service delivery?

Sub-questions:

  1. How are communication and resource allocation perceived as interacting with the development of student-focused organizational approaches?
  2. How do perceptions of communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture compare between more centralized and more decentralized organizational structures?

In terms of analysis, NVivo software was utilized to analyze interview and focus group transcripts as well as strategic planning documents. Open coding was utilized (Corbin & Strauss, 2014) followed by a theory-driven approach to collapse codes into categories. Themes within cases were identified by the researchers and then analyzed across cases. Pattern matching techniques (Yin, 2014) were utilized to examine if findings reflected perceived opportunities and challenges of centralized and decentralized organizational models as identified in the literature.

Institutions were placed along a continuum of organizational structures, ranging from more decentralized to more centralized, for the purposes of comparing findings across the institutions. Two of the institutions were categorized as highly centralized (Centralized University A and B) in which nearly all of the student affairs and service areas reported to the senior student affairs and services officer. An additional two institutions were identified as having a combination of centralized and decentralized features (Federated University A and B). Decentralized features may include units like career services that exist at both a university-wide and faculty-specific level. The number and nature of reporting lines as well as the distribution of student services determined degree of centralization.

Findings

Building Relationships and Communicating

At all of the institutions, participants perceived relationship building and communication as critical to one’s ability to support students. That being said, how informal networks developed varied in terms of:

Inward versus outward facing focus:

  • At the Centralized Universities and within centralized units at the Federated Universities, participants focused on internal communications with fellow centralized staff
  • At the Federated Universities, more examples were provided regarding relationship building and communication that was outward facing (eg. cross unit; with faculties)

Role of physical spaces and proximity of services:

  • Participants at the Centralized Universities as well as participants working in centralized units at the Federated Universities spoke of the importance of physical placements of services and how location influenced the development of relationships

Strategies utilized to foster positive relationships:

  • Participants at the Centralized Universities and Federated University A commented on the importance of forums, town halls, and socials
  • Participants at Federated University B described fewer campus-level initiatives, however, mentioned many meetings amongst staff working in the centralized unit

Interpreting the Relative Value of Resources

At all of the institutions, concerns were expressed regarding perceived declines in fiscal and human resources as well as subsequent impacts for students and staff.

Impact on relationship building and communication:

  • At Centralized University A and B as well as Federated University A, human resources were viewed as influencing the amount of available time for communicating with stakeholders and participating in socials

Impact of space and proximity of services on students and staff

  • At Centralized University A and Federated University A, participants discussed the appropriateness of types of spaces for programs/services offered, whether spaces were viewed as welcoming, and if proximity of locations supported informal relationship building

Viewing Students and the Role of Student Affairs and Services

At all of the institutions, providing the best possible support to students was considered a top priority. Yet, the focus of support varied. At Federated University B, students were often described as clients and customers and educating students regarding why and how to get involved was considered a strong emphasis of student affairs and services’ work. At Centralized University A and B and Federated University A, students were often described as co-facilitators and co-decision makers and students’ holistic development was prioritized.

Utilizing Strategic Planning to Offset Organizational Weaknesses

At Centralized University A, Federated University A, and Federated University B, strategic plans were described as providing clarity and direction regarding how the unit and institution would navigate critical issues. Strategic planning was also described as helping to mitigate tensions over resources by conveying priorities and creating fewer unknowns. At Centralized University B, participants referred less to strategic planning, however, staff members engaged in comparable levels of discussion related to departmental and institutional values as conveyed and fostered by senior leaders.

Implications

On that note, we have attempted to summarize our learning thus far in a working set of principles for student-focused postsecondary organizations.

Principles for Creating Student-Focused Postsecondary Organizations

As a student affairs unit,

  1. Strive towards achieving “optimal” balances of inward versus outward facing communication
  2. Enable and empower stakeholders to develop ongoing communication and relationships that support student success… and themselves! Support stakeholders towards feeling comfortable and confident in reaching out to one another.
  3. Consider how current space allocations and proximity of services influence communication, organizational culture, and student success.
  4. Use strategic planning processes and outcomes to augment organizational strengths and offset organizational weaknesses or gaps. Unify stakeholders, create conversations, bring clarity to change and in doing so, reduce tension and competition.
  5. Work as a community to define and co-create the learning environment that you aspire to become.
  6. Invite, listen to, and engage with the perspectives of faculty, students, and other community members.
  7. Foster individual and organizational resilience so that “when the going gets tough”, student success and learning remain paramount as organizational values and overall objectives.

Navigating the Muddy Waters, Blue Skies of Creating Student-Focused Postsecondary Organizations

Organizational shifts, not to mention organizational change, can be downright difficult. During the conference presentation, attendees discussed how to employ the principles outlined above in hypothetical case studies. When immersed in our own institutions, it may be challenging to see the possibility of the principles at work. Sometimes it is easier to think about organizational shift at a distance, which is precisely what case studies offer. We share the case studies, one situated at Centralized University and the other at Decentralized University here. With staff retreats just around the corner, we invite you to use these case studies with your staff. Having discussed the principles in the safety of a case study, it may open up the possibility to imagine applying these principles to your daily work and organization.

During the closing session of the conference, our Conference Weavers, Tricia Seifert and Neil Buddel provided an analysis of overall themes within conversations that unfolded during the week. Tricia and Neil encouraged conference participants to commit and take responsibility for creating change on our campuses and asked what we would commit ourselves to doing post-conference. In a similar spirit, I would like to close this blog post with a simple question:

What can you commit to doing to shift your postsecondary institution towards an increasingly student-focused approach?

One of my post-CACUSS commitments: writing this blog post with the hope that our findings will support colleagues in their efforts to support student success ☺. If you are willing, share your commitment(s) by “leaving a reply” in the space below or tweeting us @CdnStdntSuccess; we look forward to retweeting as many of these as possible!

Jacquie

 

References

Carroll, G. R. (1984). Organizational ecology. Annual Review of Sociology, 10(1), 71–93.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2014). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hillman, A. J., Withers, M. C., & Collins, B. J. (2009). Resource dependence theory: A review. Journal of Management, 35(6), 1404-1427.

Leslie, L. L., & Slaughter, S. A. (1997). The development and current status of market mechanisms in United States postsecondary education. Higher Education Policy, 10(3-4), 239-252.

Pitcher, E. N., Cantwell, B. J., & Renn, K. A. (2015, November). Inside access: Examining the promotion of student success through organizational perspectives. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Denver, CO.

Thornton, P. H., & Ocasio, W. (2008). Institutional logics. In R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, R. Suddaby, & K. Sahlin-Andersson (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational institutionalism (pp. 99–129). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Thornton, P. H., Ocasio, W., & Lounsbury, M. (2012). The institutional logics perspective. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

Tolbert, P. S. (1985). Institutional environments and resource dependence: Sources of administrative structure in institutions of higher education. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(1) 1-13.

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

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One thought on “Exploring the Muddy Waters and Blue Skies of Supporting Student Success

  1. Jacquie, thank you so much for this post and for the wonderful presentation that you and Dr. Seifert led at CACUSS in relation to this study. I am particularly interested in how physical space allocation as well as physical space design (in terms of whether or not it is welcoming) impacts organizational culture as well as student well-being and success. At Simon Fraser University, our Heath Promotion team is leading a project called Well-being through Physical Spaces. By way of this project, we are working collaboratively with key campus stakeholders, including Campus Planning and Development, to create environments that intentionally consider student well-being through strategic design. As a result, it was very exciting to see physical space emerge as an area of interest in the ‘Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations’ presentation. Thank you again to you and Tricia for your good work.

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