About Supporting Student Success

Tricia Seifert is an associate professor in the Adult & Higher Education program at Montana State University and maintains a faculty appointment the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She uses sociological theories and principles to examine issues related to postsecondary student learning and success. Her interest in understanding the organizational structure of student affairs and services divisions stems largely from her administrative background working in residence life, student leadership programs, and fraternity/sorority life. Having worked at both large and small postsecondary institutions, Tricia witnessed the interplay between formal and informal organizational structures and their influence on staff’s ability to support student success.

Supporting Students in Changing Times

Times they are a-changin’. As a kid, I was enamored with the music of the 1960s. I spent hours listening to my dad’s three-album set from Woodstock. I consumed the liner notes. I read every word and pondered every lyric. Although Dylan didn’t play Woodstock, I wanted to understand what it was about those times that were a-changin’.


Now I live in times that are rapidly changing – changing in ways that make supporting student success ever more essential. President Trump’s Executive Orders ban the issuing of visas to people holding passports from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days, ban refugee entrance into the U.S. for 120 days with the exception of Christian refugees, and fully halts Syrian refugee entrance until further notice. These directives have been issued from the highest office of the United States and send a message to the world.

People in the U.S. disagree with the content of that message. Some argue these directives secure American borders. Others argue they are illegal, unconstitutional, serve as a de-facto ban on Muslims, and are counter to American values. Irrespective of your political position, these Orders have real impacts on students, scholars, and their families.

I grew up in the U.S., lived in Germany during reunification, in Canada during the first Obama presidency and the Maple Spring in Quebec, and currently live in the U.S. Living abroad has provided me with a perspective of my home country that I would not have otherwise. Although I may have a different perspective, I am not alone in my concern for the safety and security of the more than 100,000 students from the Middle East and 17,000 from the banned countries who are studying in the United States, most of whom are Muslim. More than 7,000 U.S. faculty members have signed the petition, Academics Against Immigration Executive Order.

There is strength in the number of individuals who have spoken out. There is strength in national associations taking a stand.

I applaud the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities for their statement:

Our nation’s universities are enriched and strengthened by the talent, insight, and culture that international students, faculty, researchers, and staff bring. . . . We are also concerned that this decision adds great uncertainty to international students, researchers, and others who might consider coming to our campuses.”

I am heartened by Universities Canada’s statement, particularly given the fact that commenting on the executive orders of another country is highly atypical.

The executive order restricting travel into the U.S. affects research partnerships, international studies, academic conference participation, field visits and in some cases family relationships of our university students, faculty and staff. The new order is having an impact on Canadian campuses and communities that is real, immediate and profound. . . . Canada’s universities continue to welcome students, faculty and staff from around the world, including those seeking refuge from violence and hardship.”

I take comfort in these statements. But comfort is just that comfortable. More than anything, I must act.

I must act within my sphere of influence to support our international students, particularly those from the seven banned countries, as they may become targets of discrimination despite possessing a visa to study in the United States.

I must support Muslim students. I fear these Executive Orders may result in xenophobic actions. This is not an unwarranted fear given the number of hate crimes that have been registered since the U.S. Presidential election.

I must support American students of all faiths, religious traditions, and worldviews. Specifically, given my position as Head of the Department of Education and the department’s mandate to educate pre-service teachers, I must provide opportunities for our students to learn about the rich religious and worldview diversity that characterizes America.

I must support the young kids in elementary school whose parent traveled to present at an academic conference and are not permitted back in the U.S. because they hold a passport from one of the seven banned countries. How do we, as educators, support these kids?

I have to start somewhere. I have to give action to my “must support” statements. This is what I have chosen to do.

  1. I will affirm in my weekly communication to the Department’s students, staff, and faculty that we are a Department that values the humanity of each of our students. Part of honoring humanity is by listening to understand. Education is based on the premise that we bring an openness of mind to listen deeply, contribute thoughtfully, and respect unconditionally. I will provide information where to report any acts of discrimination, intimidation, and violence.
  2. I will create opportunities for our faculty, staff, and pre-service teachers to learn about different religious traditions and worldviews. Specifically, I am working to introduce our students to our local Islamic Center only a few blocks from campus. Additionally, there is a series available through NASPA that will focus on Hindu beliefs (live cast January 26 with recording available February 2) and Sikh beliefs (February 15). My goal is that by learning about other religious traditions and worldviews that our pre-service teachers, graduate students who are school and post-secondary leaders, staff, and faculty will be more prepared to support students from a variety of faith traditions.
  3. I will encourage our community to engage civically, not just every four years when there is an election but regularly. As educators, there are policies discussed on a nearly daily basis that affect our work. Educators need to know about and comment on public policy that affects their ability to support every student’s success, like President Trump’s recent seven-country immigration ban and refugee suspension. To that end, I am sharing information about legislative bills and policies currently under discussion and how to contact elected officials to register comment.

I recognize these actions only scratch the surface but I believe small actions can make a difference. To that end, I’d like to learn about the small or large actions you are doing to support international students, Muslim students, and students on your campus who could benefit from learning more about the world’s rich religious and worldview diversity. Please “leave a comment” and share your ideas. We are stronger together.

Tricia Seifert is Associate Professor and Department Head of Education at Montana State University. She also maintains a faculty appointment at the University of Toronto. She is the PI on the Supporting Student Success research study.

Do Faculty Subcultures Affect Campus Culture and Student Success?

Shared Responsibilitypicture1

Student success and learning is a shared responsibility among members of the campus
community. It is too large and too complex to be the purview of one individual or group in postsecondary education. Student affairs/services (SAS) professionals and faculty must work together and understand one another. As Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh and Whitt and Associates (2010) explain:

to achieve a positive organizational culture that supports students as a by-product of a good educational experience, the commitment and effort of all members of the academic community are needed”.

However, it can often be quite difficult to make the time to learn about one another. Luckily, this is where the Supporting Student Success research team comes in. We’re going to share what we’ve recently learned about how faculty members perceive institutional retention and student success efforts on their campuses.

Our goal here is provide a space to discuss how to better support one another. As SAS professionals, we have an opportunity to lead and educate about programs and services, how collaborations work, and the importance of these initiatives for students. In order to do this, we must first understand faculty colleagues’ perspectives and the subcultures that influence these perspectives.

Campus Subcultures


We know various subcultures exist within our institutions depending on the division/area one is working in, job title/position, and daily roles. The subculture(s) we belong to can influence how we make sense of events and actions (Kuh & Whitt, 1988). Kuh and Whitt (1988) note:

academics make up a complex set of subprofessions characterized by fragmentation and specialization”.

The notion of subprofessions, which may be viewed as subcultures, therefore inform this research. The influence that a subculture has on the behaviour of its members is facilitated by departmental and institutional contexts, mission/mandates, communication and leadership styles, and individuals’ experiences.

Subcultures exist for both SAS professionals and faculty members. For faculty members, this typically comes in the form of one’s rank, years employed, broad disciplinary area, and responsibilities. As such, we are interested in how faculty at various academic ranks (tenured/promoted, promotional, and non-promotional) differ in their perceptions of retention and student success. Although past research has examined campus culture and student success broadly, limited empirical research has been conducted on to what extent faculty members’ perceptions of campus culture and institutional retention efforts differ by academic rank.

Faculty Perceptions of Retention and Student Successpicture3

Our findings are based on survey data that was collected at twenty-four postsecondary institutions (seven community colleges and seventeen universities); respondents include both faculty and SAS professionals. Our initial analyses explored the relationship between faculty and staff members’ awareness and engagement with programs and services designed to support retention and student success. This post looks specifically at the faculty sample by academic rank.

Our sample consisted of 977 faculty (full- and part-time) who taught undergraduate students in the 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 academic years. The breakdown below shows the composition of the sample we analyzed by rank, years employed, and broad disciplinary area.


For our first set of analyses, a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to compare composite measures by faculty rank. Seven different outcome/composite measures were examined (three at the departmental level and four at the institutional level). Composite measures include the following:

  • Conveying to students that they can succeed and facilitating involvement,
  • Setting goals and objectives to helping students succeed,
  • Dedicating leadership and resources to promoting retention objectives, and
  • Relaying information about academic and personal support services.

These measures are crafted from individual survey items, for which respondents indicated the extent to which they agree or disagree based on declarative statements using a Likert scale. Respondents were required to answer 60% of the questions that made up each composite to be given a score for that outcome.


At the departmental level, the analysis revealed:

  • Tenured/Promoted (3.73) faculty have more positive perceptions of the degree to which their division conveys to students that they can succeed and facilitates involvement than Non-Promotional (3.55) (p<.05).

At the institutional level, the analysis revealed:

  • Promotional (3.05) faculty have more positive perceptions of leadership and resources dedicated to promoting retention objectives than Tenured/Promoted (2.85) (p<.05).
  • Tenured/Promoted (3.37) faculty have more positive perceptions of their institution’s efforts to relay information about academic and personal support services than Non-Promotional (3.13) (p<.01).

For our second set of analyses, we used block regression to examine how differences in the composite measures by academic rank may be explained by other potential explanations, like years employed, broad disciplinary area, respondents’ awareness of student support programs and services, and engagement with these programs and services in inter-divisional partnerships. This approach essentially entails adding different blocks of variables into a regression sequentially to see how the inclusion of those independent variables matter in explaining the dependent variable (the departmental and institutional composites), and how they impact the estimates of the other independent variables.



The analyses revealed several informative findings that can be used to modify policy and practice:

  • Tenured/Promoted faculty appeared to have more positive perceptions of the degree to which their department and institution conveys to students that they can succeed and facilitates involvement than Non-Promotional faculty. Tenured/Promoted faculty also appeared to have more positive perceptions of their institution’s efforts to relay information about academic and personal support services than Non-Promotional faculty. However, both of these differences became insignificant once additional blocks/covariates were added.

There is an opportunity for SAS professionals to connect with those who are in Non-Promotional roles and ensure that in their short- or long-term positions at our institutions they possess an understanding of retention objectives and are encouraged to participate. With the number of Non-Promotional faculty members (sessionals, adjuncts, and lecturers) increasing on our campuses, we need a proactive approach to reaching these critical members of our institution’s instructional team.

  • Faculty employed 0-4 years were found to have more positive perceptions than those employed 11+ years across departmental and institutional success measures (conveying to students that they can succeed and facilitating involvement, setting goals and objectives to helping students succeed, and dedicating leadership and resources to promoting retention objectives). This finding remained in the presence of the additional blocks/covariates.

Working with these younger faculty members is crucial, as they will be leading our institutions in the future and have the energy to transform them. They can function as allies in bridging existing academic and student services silos. Inviting them to be a part of SAS programming, making ourselves known to their students, and increasing two-way communication is imperative. In addition, reaching out to senior faculty by drawing upon their experiences and history at our institutions is valuable. It is time to reinvigorate these individuals! At this stage in their careers, the majority of faculty will have achieved tenure and as such may have more time to sit on committees, champion initiatives, and throw their support behind new innovative ventures.

  • Arts and Humanities faculty were found to have more positive perceptions of the degree to which their department conveys to students that they can succeed and facilitates involvement than Social Sciences/Education and Health Sciences faculty. However, Engineering faculty were found to have more positive perceptions than Arts and Humanities across institutional success measures. These findings remained in the presence of the additional blocks/covariates.

Developing orientation workshops and outreach materials to be dispersed throughout the academic year with regard to the role of SAS and available programming across all departments/disciplines may assist with these inconsistencies.

  • Awareness measures (prior familiarity with and frequency of learning about student support programs and services) were found to have a strong positive effect on perceptions of success. However, this effect became weaker when we added actual use (frequency of referral to services, communication, and collaboration with divisions across campus) of programs and services into the regression model. While knowing about student support services is valuable, it appears that actually using or engaging with student support programs and services is what matters most in positively influencing faculty members’ perceptions of department and institution retention efforts.

SAS professionals’ encouragement of positive faculty interactions with services is therefore of key importance, as when faculty are involved their perceptions of retention and student success are improved.

What’s Next?


We hope these findings are valuable and that we can continue this discussion in the future. Next steps for our research are to examine faculty members’ behaviour toward departmental and institutional retention efforts beyond perceptions.

Written by:

Christine Arnold (@ChristineA_MUN)

Kathleen Moore (@Kathleenmoore_)




Learning Like a First-Year

By @TriciaSeifert

I went back to school this year. Not literally but figuratively. On July 1, I began a new job as Head of the Department of Education at Montana State University (#montanastate). Ten days later I was in front of a classroom of new first-year students during summer orientation, doing what department heads do. I welcomed the students to MSU. I congratulated them on the brilliant choice to become a bobcat (the MSU mascot). I shared that becoming a teacher provides them a chance to leave a positive impression on the future students whose lives they will touch. I also confessed that I felt just like they looked.


Underneath my confident persona, I was scared. I don’t know what it means to be a department head. I’m not sure of my role. There are new acronyms every day; buildings that I’ve never stepped foot in; meetings that I’ve never been invited to. I’m facing situations never encountered and supervising a staff who two months ago helped me operate the copier. I’m a first-year student all over again.

So I shared my fear and trepidation with this group at orientation. I let them know that we will learn together. We will struggle together. We will make mistakes together. I’m part of the Class of 2016. (It seems much more logical to state the year one matriculates then graduates.)

And I also shared what I had learned in my brief time on the job.

Stated simply, there are amazing people on this campus (and yours too) who will drop everything to aid in their success.

Let me provide a couple of examples.

  1. When I didn’t know how to access the university’s secure computer network, I asked the department’s administrative associate. She painstakingly walked me through the multitude of pull down menus. This was helpful but I also searched “access secure network” from the university website and bookmarked the step-by-step instructions for connecting from my Mac.

When students don’t know how to access the institution’s Learning Management System or other technology platform, who do they go to? Is there an IT Help Desk somewhere centrally located? Are there step-by-step guides on the university website? Are these guides searchable using several different terms? Because let’s be honest, it’s possible (no, more like probable) that not all new students will know that D2L has been re-named Brightspace LE.

It’s helpful to have a person be a resource but it’s just important to develop our resourcefulness.

One more example . . . .

  1. In my first month, I hired several full-time staff members and navigated university policy and procedure for crafting letters of appointment for countless sessional instructors and Graduate Teaching Assistants. The College’s personnel officer has been patient and kind despite me asking the same question 100 times. I am grateful beyond words.

As I observed the personnel officer’s fortitude in answering my repeated questions, I was reminded of the patience and kindness that academic advisors, financial aid administrators, and folks in the Registrar’s Office show to students every year. With each new class, they answer the same question 1000 times. It’s probably why offices have developed Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) webpages. But beyond the technology, it’s the care and consideration shown to students through conversation that make the difference.

There is comfort in knowing that someone is there to help guide through the post-secondary process.

And at the end of the day, knowing that I don’t have to do it alone is what has mattered the most to me. As a new member of the “Department Head’s Roundtable,” I have met others from across campus who confront similar questions and face related challenges.


There’s a reason why protagonists in novels rarely go it alone. Rather, they are part of a “merry band of brothers” or the “sisterhood of the traveling pants.” There is strength in numbers and comfort in community.

As we begin this new academic year, I invite you to share how you found the community from which you gain strength and what you are doing to assist students in finding theirs. Please leave a reply so that we can learn how people are creating community on campus.

If you want to be part of the ongoing conversation, “follow” us @CdnStdntSuccess and “like” the Supporting Student Success Facebook page. We look forward to hearing from you.

BUILDing Well-being

By Crystal Hutchinson, Health Promotion Specialist, Simon Fraser University

While attending Supporting Student Success research team’s (@CdnStdntSuccess) presentation on “Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations” at CACUSS this summer, I was thrilled to see physical space emerge as a key area influencing organizational culture in higher education. My excitement was due to my role at Simon Fraser University (SFU), where I lead the Well-being through Physical Spaces project on behalf of the Health Promotion team (@SFUhealth_promo). This project aims to improve the well-being of SFU students by enhancing the physical campus environment. There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates a connection between built environments and mental, social and physical health. As a result, physical environments within higher education settings present a strategic opportunity for us to impact student learning, engagement and well-being.


SFU’s focus on well-being through physical spaces is innovative and leading within Canada. Although it was developed prior to the release of the WELL Building Standard (Delos Living LLC, 2015), it similarly focuses on considering psychosocial well-being in the design of built environments. Physical Spaces is one of six areas for action to impact student well-being in SFU’s Healthy Campus Community initiative which is informed by health promotion theory (World Health Organization, 2010; Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, 1986). The project also aligns with the Okanagan Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges (2015) that identifies creating supportive campus environments and working cross-departmentally to enhance student well-being.

About the Well-being through Physical Spaces Project

The Well-being through Physical Spaces Project was developed in 2013 through a literature review that indicated the quality of physical learning environments has a significant and measurable impact on student achievement, productivity, satisfaction and well-being (Earthman, 2002; Hill & Epps, 2010; Lippman, 2010; Whiteside, Brooks & Walker, 2010; Young, Green, Roehrich-Patrick, Joseph & Gibson, 2003). However, most research has been within corporate and health care sectors as well as in education at the elementary and secondary school level, suggesting that the interplay between the built environment, student well-being and learning within post-secondary settings is emergent. Data collected from focus groups and existing undergraduate surveys at SFU was also analyzed to inform the project and to explore how students perceived various physical spaces on campus in relation to their well-being.

SFU Health Promotion Physical Spaces Infographic_Page_1 Continue reading

We’re All in This Together: A Community Commitment to Student Success

It’s August and you can feel a change in the air. There is a bit more buzz on campus. School is just around the corner.

This was brought into sharp focus this morning as I stood in line for coffee in our campus library. Two women in front of me commented that the “students are coming.” After a moment discussing how parking gets tight when the students return, the barista behind the counter, who has been here for 20 years, replied that she couldn’t wait for the students to come back. “They’re the reason we’re here,” she said emphatically. She went on to say how much she enjoyed watching graduates go out into the world and make it a better place. One of the women waiting for her latte commented about how much it has meant to receive notes years later from students whose life she touched in some way.

None of the people I observed this morning teach students in the classroom. They teach students in a multitude of ways outside the formal classroom. As co-workers at the coffee shop, they educate students about customer service, punctuality, and doing a job well. They educate in the value of being involved on campus and contributing to one’s community. Watching this conversation unfold, I thought about my colleague and fellow University of Iowa alum, Jeremy Reed’s research on the campus custodian. Staff members across campus interact with students in ways that nurture students’ holistic development and success.

MONSTWH001Classroom instructors, guidance counselors, student affairs and services staff, custodians, baristas, and coaches – we’re all in this together. It takes an entire community’s commitment to foster student success. Great research and innovative practice is taking place all over the world in this respect. I invite you to share at the upcoming International Conference on Learning, Teaching, and Student Success this November 3-5 in Bozeman, Montana on the campus of Montana State University. Proposals are accepted through September 30 and the early bird registration rate is available through September 11, 2016.

Come be part of the community taking action to support student success!

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?


  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.


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.


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!




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.

So You Think You Can Write?

So you think you can write? I never thought the title would attract such a CACUSS (@cacusstweets) crowd! If someone told me that 50+ people would attend the session, I would have thought they were telling tales out of school. A HUGE thank you to those who came to the session, shared their writing ideas with a partner, asked great questions, and tweeted about developing a CACUSS Community of Practice to support those who are committed to telling the story about our work.

Below is a link to the slides I used which were updated from the ones Carney Strange developed for our first CACUSS presentation on this topic several years ago. The interest in getting a hold of this slide deck was a clear indication to me that people are hungry to write. They feel a need to share what we do with others in the field, with students, with faculty, with parents and community members.

So You Think You Can Write?  – CACUSS 2016

I find writing is a difficult thing to do in isolation. It’s so much better to write as part of a community. So in that spirit of community, leave a reply sharing your writing idea. Leave a reply stating the support you need to move from “wanting to write” to actually writing. Leave a reply to celebrate actually putting word to page.

Let this be the time where writing intentions translate into written articles. Let us fill the upcoming Communiqué with the excellent work of this field. I’m sure that Mitchell Miller (@McGillMitchell) would love to hear from you. My hope is that in ten years, no one laments,

“We simply don’t have the research or literature on that topic from the Canadian context.”