The Story Behind the College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College

How broad institutional support, strategic partnerships, and opportunistic student affairs professionals launched the only research centre focused on student success – at a 2-year or 4-year institution – in Canada.

By Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College who also leads the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC).

To the best of my knowledge, the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC) at Mohawk College (in Hamilton, Ontario) is one-of-a-kind. We have had a great deal of success in a relatively short period. Since 2015, we have received external funding for 7 research projects totaling 1.7 million, and we were just recently awarded the Program Innovation Award from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), which is an association similar to NASPA and ACPA. And, as a community college offering primarily 1-, 2- and 3-year credentials, our graduation rates have steadily risen from 60% to 65% since 2012, a rate of improvement unmatched by our key comparator colleges.

I have been asked many times in recent months how we got to this point, and truthfully, it is difficult to distill our journey down into a couple of key determining factors. There are a few things that I continuously point to including: 1) unbridled institutional support, 2) a host of key partners, and finally, 3) the unique ability of our Student Affairs team to see and respond to potential student success research opportunities. At every single stage of our work over the last seven years, each of these three elements has played a critical role in paving the way for the CSSIC to become a reality.

The purpose of this article, with the invitation from Tricia Seifert, is to share the lessons we have learned that could be useful for others wishing to put more energy into Student Affairs and student success assessment or research. As Student Affairs professionals, our strength is our focus on students and day-to-day practice, which means we also do not naturally celebrate or share our successes publicly. We are humble practitioners by nature. This creates a scenario where our institutions could forget how core Student Affairs work is to the academic mission, which in times of fiscal restraint (such as what is occurring in Ontario right now, which is another story and blog altogether), we risk diminishing resources that could increase barriers and reduce support for our students. With those caveats, here are three foundations of our College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College.

Broad Institutional Support

I am not entirely sure where this research centre had its true beginnings, but since I joined Mohawk in 2012, a few important things occurred. Perhaps one of those items was the creation of my role at that time – Director of Student Success Initiatives – which was designed to coordinate new campus-wide efforts to improve student outcomes. Around that time, our then President made a public call to action, challenging all faculty and staff to work harder to improve student persistence and graduation rates.

In 2014, we launched our first Student Success Plan to guide our institution on this journey. As part of this work, we committed to more purposeful data capture activities, which was more than just counting participation rates; it was our way of starting on an important assessment, evaluation, and research journey. This included introducing and using new advising software and dedicating a lot of energy toward supporting our staff with training as they evolved their practice and reporting.

Institutional support in these efforts spanned all traditional college silos. We had committees that included membership from academic, student, and corporate services. We had – and still have – a strong relationship with our Mohawk Students’ Association, too. With these close partnerships, requests for data with our corporate partners in the Institutional Research office were easy to navigate, and collaborations with faculty, our Deans, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning also proved to be quite natural, especially when we began our work with HEQCO’s Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium later in 2017.

In 2016, with a new President, we doubled down on our commitments to students in a few meaningful ways. First, our new Strategic Plan included pillars such as student success and graduate success. Second, our new Strategic Mandate Agreement (a process directed by our provincial government) included a pitch for a new provincial student success innovation and research centre to build off the momentum we had gained over the last few years. Each of these institutional commitments, pillars, and ideas created a strong foundation of support to allow our team to take risks, say yes to new opportunities, and start to build the collective experience in student success research that we have today.

Strategic Partnerships

The first partnership we formed, which is still a critical partnership today, was with Dr. Ross Finnie at the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI). Dr. Finnie and his team of researchers helped ‘mine’ some of our data to help us learn more about our students. Seven reports were produced between 2012 and 2014, including the first drafts of a predictive model that would later be critical to our early research efforts.

Many interesting partnership opportunities presented themselves to us during this time, including participating in the Supporting Student Success research, and some additional projects with EPRI. For each, we simply offered our support ‘in-kind’ and received no payments. Much of this work was done off the side of my desk and those of my Institutional Research colleagues. In other words, as new additional work that was not formally planned in annual work plans, we fit it in wherever we could. With Dr. Finnie, for example, he brought in partners from Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada (both federal government agencies), for what eventually resulted in some fascinating research about the labour market outcomes of Canadian students. We also needed to develop data sharing, transfer, and privacy agreements, and go through the research ethics process. These experiences helped us learn even more about our students, our institution, and how the research process should work at the community college level. Understanding how to structure partnership and data sharing agreements also became an essential element of future collaborative research with other institutions and our local school boards.

Our partnership with EPRI included participation in HEQCO’s first Access and Retention Consortium, and a number of publications, including one on a new approach to proactive advising. As an aside, HEQCO’s approach to funding research through participation in consortiums has been a tremendously productive practice, fostering a network of partnerships across the province. HEQCO has been our largest funder and an enormously supportive partner for many years. Our success would not occur without the funding opportunities or the partners we met through them. For example, we met a number of incredible researchers through HEQCO, who we then joined forces with when HEQCO launched their second Access and Retention Consortium. This resulted in new Online Goal Setting interventions for our students, based on the work of Dr. Patrick Gaudreau at the University of Ottawa, and a new, ‘psychologically attuned’ way to communicate to students on probation implemented with the expertise of Dr. Shannon Brady at Wake Forest University. New publications with both Dr. Gaudreau and Dr. Brady via HEQCO are forthcoming later this summer or early in the fall.

The largest partnership we are a part of today, however, is one that we are leading with funding from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities in Ontario. With EPRI as a research analytics partner, we are replicating our proactive advising study from 2015 at Humber College, Centennial College, and Fleming College. In doing so, we are trying to support them in their student success research in much the same way that we have received support in the past from HEQCO and so many others.

An Opportunistic Student Affairs Team

Every time an opportunity to participate in research presented itself – one that provided the chance to learn more about student success – we said yes. This would not be possible without broad institutional support, or strong partnerships inside and outside of the college; however, this also required a willingness to work extremely hard (often off the side of our desks) to complete the work. While research was envisioned within the Director role when I started in it, the projects were often not a part of our regular operational work plans. So, I needed to find ways to make it happen.

One of my early approaches was to create a new part-time staff positon in my department to support the operations of the projects. I cobbled together funds from within my budgets, secured small amounts from our Vice President’s contingency fund, and built in staffing dollars into funding proposals. I also pitched this new role as a support for divisional assessment, evaluation, and special projects to have a more current and tangible set of outputs. In many ways, this staff position and the projects themselves were like a set of pilot projects. And, due to the success of the research and the local assessment projects, I was able to propose and secure this as a full-time permanent role. We used a similar approach to create our Learning Outcomes Assessment Consultant role just this past spring.

We have continued to build an incredible research team, for which I am grateful to work with every day. These wonderful people include faculty and Student Affairs professionals alike. Each person and each role contribute to the work of the centre in important ways.


The formal launch of the CSSIC was only a year and a half ago, but we had been on the research path for quite some time before that. This started with the College investing in new and strategic leadership roles. Some of the next critical milestones included the investment in external reports to understand our students better. Then, we invested time and resources into data capture initiatives and staff development. We started to support external researchers who were doing research on student success, and provided them with access to our data and student population. Through all of this, we learned many critical lessons, and forged partnerships that prepared us to apply for research funding. The opportunities continued to present themselves, and we continued to apply (to receive funding) and re-invested in more roles on campus and with more partners. This was the point when the Ministry funded our Centre, and we have continued our momentum since then. Some of it still happens off the side of our desk, too, but we are passionate about understanding ‘what works’ in our student success programming.

There are two final reflections that I think are important. First, while the Centre is led by Student Affairs, the vision was one that was collectively endorsed and has been continuously supported across our institution. Faculty and our partnerships with Ideaworks (our Applied Research department), the Institutional Research Office, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning continue to play an increasingly important role.

Second, there are no shortage of articles and books that express the role of institutional culture on the outcomes of students. Project Deep and the work of George Kuh immediately come to mind. The idea that there is a pervasive student success ideology and approach on campus that everyone understands that ‘this is the way we do things here’ has been shown to be a defining factor of institutions that have strong student outcomes relative to others.

So, on that note, last month when I was cleaning out some old files in my office, I came across a 2007 concept paper from a large committee on campus titled, The Centre of Excellence for Students, Access, and Success. Perhaps our Centre really isn’t so much of a new idea. Leading in student success is part of our ethos at Mohawk – and I suspect it will continue.

How will the #TaxBill affect me?

Since learning about the US House of Representatives proposal to tax tuition benefits as earned income, I have been worried about graduate students. And I’m not alone.

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Taxing tuition benefits is one of the most profound ways I can think to disincentivize smart, ambitious, motivated students from pursuing graduate study. Amanda Grannas, Associate Vice Provost for Research at Villanova University, calls this a “death blow to graduate education.”

I predict this policy will have long term consequences for our nation in terms of future scientists, engineers, nurses, educators, historians, to name a few. The proposed tax policy will result in a missing generation of research and development; a missing generation of social, scientific, and economic advancement.

When the House-led GOP bill passed, I immediately printed two 1040EZs and began filling them out under the current and the newly passed House tax proposal. On the face of it, the new tax brackets may appear a boon to graduate students. For those graduate students attending the few state institutions that have maintained tuition at a relatively low cost ($4500-7000 annually), their marginal income will be taxed at 12% rather than 15%. But then we must remember that graduate students’ taxable income may double (and in some cases triple) AND the students will not have seen one cent of that income for even one minute. For a student earning $20,000 as a graduate assistant and $40,000 in tuition benefits, their income will be taxed at $60,000. Quite simply, this is more “earned income” that yields far less “take home” pay.

Using the University of Washington as a case study, this graphic from the Council of Graduate Schools Tax Reform Resource website tells the story. UoW_example

Soon after the Senate Tax Bill passed in the hours of Saturday, I began receiving questions from graduate students who I employ. They wanted to know how this will affect them directly and what they can do.

This pressed me in new ways as a leader. Although I know how to help students deal with interpersonal conflicts and feel comfortable discussing the benefits of major and career exploration, I have far less training in supporting students to navigate and advocate on issues concerning politics-saturated public policy. And let’s be honest, this is political. The GOP-led House and GOP-led Senate bill passed without a single Democrat voting for the measures.

I looked to my Twitter feed (@TriciaSeifert) for advice and counsel. During the #COLLEGESTRIKE that left nearly half a million college students in Ontario, Canada out of class for over five weeks this fall, I persistently asked how folks were supporting students during this difficult time. I figured I could draw from their lessons learned to guide me. One of the most important pieces of advice was to communicate with students openly and transparently in as many forums as possible.

So that’s what I did.

Open and transparent communication with students is not rocket science. This tip isn’t novel but is often easier said than done. I took the call to action to heart and responded. First, I got on social media and posted to our graduate club on Facebook:

“I think it may be of value for a group of graduate students to work together in preparing their tax documents under the 2016 tax plan and how these change under the new tax plan. Gathering folks together to work on this might be an opportunity for DEGS [Department of Education Graduate Student group].

The House and Senate bills have yet to be reconciled. It may be useful for our state’s elected officials (Rep. Greg Gianforte, Senator Jon Tester, and Senator Steve Daines) to know the implications of the new tax plan on actual tax filings of graduate students who are their constituents.”

Yesterday was my weekly email communication that goes to all departmental students, staff, and faculty. This is what I shared.

Policy Update: Opportunities for civic engagement – VERY TIME SENSITIVE! 

Part of being an educator and professional is to be aware and engaged with public policy relevant to your work and daily practice. This section of the Monday Minutes is designed to share public policy and legislation that pertains to our work as educators.

From a National perspective:

The US Senate passed a separate version of the Tax Bill this past Saturday morning. It differs from the House bill in that it does not tax tuition benefits. Like the House bill, it eliminates the ability for people to deduct student loan interest. You can learn more about how the bills compare here.

The two bills now begin the process of reconciliation through committee. At this point, it is unclear which portions of which bill will make the final tax proposal that will be voted on in an “up or down” vote by Congress. What we do know is that Congress will likely act quickly in advancing a tax bill to President Trump for signature.

Few students will not be impacted by the higher education-related provisions in the proposed tax bill. I invite you to share your support or opposition with our Congressional delegation. You can reach the Montana delegation at:

Senator Jon Tester:

Senator Steve Daines:

Representative Greg Gianforte:

Or if you are from a state other than Montana, please look up your Congressional representatives at:

My goal was not to tell students what to think or how to respond but rather provide information from a news source that included hyperlinks to the text of both bills. Please feel free to copy/paste and edit in sharing with your students and colleagues.

I believe it is important for academic leaders to focus our efforts on inviting people to engage as concerned citizens. Civic engagement is what distinguishes a democracy from an autocracy.

Open, transparent, and timely – that was my communication. It was from a desire to make public policy known. However, for knowledge to truly be power, it must also spur action. Now is the time to act!

Contact your elected leaders today . . . and tomorrow . . . and the next day. Share your position on matters influencing your country. Canvass for those running for political office whose positions you support. Run for elected office. VOTE! #MakeYourVoiceHeard

Authored by @TriciaSeifert, PI of the Supporting Student Success research project.

Times They are A-Changin’

By Tricia Seifert (@TriciaSeifert)

It has been five months since I posted about the changing political times and their influence on post-secondary education in the United States. In the interim, several courts have ruled against President Trump’s ban on travel for people from six predominantly Muslim nations. But just yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States allowed for the travel ban to be enforced provided that the travelers from these six nations do not have a “bona fide” relationship to the US. The Court’s ruling has been interpreted as permitting those from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen to attend a university or deliver a speech as having “a credible claim” of a relationship with a person or entity in the US. Students and scholars from these countries may travel to the US. But in an ever-changing political climate of what constitutes “bona fide”, these students and scholars may feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or most importantly, unsafe to do so. International students and scholars who are not from the banned countries may also question travel to the US and decide against it.

When the executive order was signed, I was worried that students from one of the six countries who had gone home might not be able to return to their studies. I was concerned that parents who are graduate students from one of the six countries presenting at a conference might not be able to come home to their children. I live fairly close to the Canadian border and could not help but think about the possible grad student from Iran who went to present an academic paper at a conference in Calgary being prevented to cross back into the US. I was thinking especially of their children and the extent to which the student teachers from Montana State University are prepared to support these international kids in their classrooms.

Five months ago, President Trump’s attempt to ban people from predominantly Muslim countries moved me to think about how to bring discussions of diversity and public policy to the forefront in my work with students, staff, and faculty. Today, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold parts of the travel ban, particularly as it pertains to limiting refugees from war-torn countries, has me thinking about how educators support students to understand different religious, spiritual, and worldview perspectives.

Taking Action

Like so many, I felt and feel a bit paralyzed by what I can do. With everything that calls for my daily attention, what actions can I take? What is within my sphere of influence?

[I want to note that I wrote this blog post on Saturday, June 24. The US government’s enforcement of the executive order travel bans has changed tremendously in the last 24 hours and I have updated to reflect the day-by-day changes that Americans and others from around the world are experiencing with respect to US policy. What I share is what I have done in the five months since the initial executive orders were announced. The US Supreme Court’s actions in the last day have only strengthened my resolve.]

Examining Religious, Spiritual, & Worldview Diversity

Because the travel bans are focused on countries with predominantly Muslim populations, I feel it is important to begin by acknowledging the religious diversity of today’s college campus. I knew I needed to take advantage of the good work that already being done in this arena and not re-invent the wheel.

In February, I tapped into the NASPA live webinar series that focused on supporting Sikh and Hindu students. This was a useful starting point as the series was timely and because it is not uncommon for Sikh and Hindu students to be mistaken for Muslim students. It is noteworthy how few students know the difference between these religious faith traditions, despite the nearly two billion people around the world who practice these traditions.


I was grateful for the insight provided by Dr. Simran Jeet Singh (@SikhProf), Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity University and senior religion fellow with the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights advocacy group for the Sikh community and Cody Nielsen (@campminmatters) who interviewed Dr. Singh.

Over the course of an hour, Montana State University Department of Education students, staff, and faculty learned about the basic values of the Sikh religion and the outwardly physical characteristics displayed by Sikhs. You probably have seen the long, uncut hair often wore tucked up in a turban. But beyond the outward signs, I was struck by the similarity of Sikh values to Christianity and other world religions.

Dr. Singh spoke about Sikhs service to God, which manifests in serving the world, selflessly inspired by love. He also spoke about remembrance and the pillars of engaging in one’s community, the concept of oneness of God, and the ideal of love. Thinking about the Christian lessons from my childhood, I noted how in the Sikh faith suffering results from failing to recognize the oneness and divinity in each being. To me, this spoke to my Sunday school lesson of loving one another.

I was motivated to provide this opportunity to learn about other religions because so few students, staff, and faculty (outside those in the Religious Studies department) know about the values and principles that guide faith traditions outside their own. Faith, religion, and worldview is a key dimension of our students’ identities; it often shapes students’ behavior and how they interact with others. Think about how people from different faith traditions extend greetings, whether it is appropriate to make eye contact, and how and how often they pray. And yet, it is not uncommon for people to have no knowledge of the principles and values of the religion, faith tradition, or worldview that guide these behaviors and interactions.

Stated simply, if our college and universities are to prepare teachers and leaders to support all students, they need to understand their students’ religious, spiritual, and worldviews.

Yesterday, I shared my interest in creating a Worldviews Passport program with our student government president and Office of Activities & Engagement staff. The program would introduce students to the principles and values of a host of faith communities and invite passport holders to reflect on how understanding that worldview will enable them to interact inclusively in work and community settings. As we talked, the student affairs staff got excited about partnering with student clubs and working together to connect with the community.


Changing Times and Greater Resolve

I was excited with possibility. Then I came back to my computer and learned about the Supreme Court decision.

The need for people to understand different religious, spiritual, and worldview perspectives has never been greater. These actions taken by the US government have only strengthened my resolve that the safety, security, and future of nations lies with educators who invite students into the great wonder that is learning about ideas that differ from your own.

Only once we understand the other can we be understood.

Next week I will share the second small action I took as a result of President Trump’s executive order banning travel from six predominantly Muslim countries. My mantra is “small actions yield small wins.”

I want to hear from you. We are part of a worldwide community of educators. In light of the changing political times, how are you supporting students? As always, I invite you to be part of the conversation by leaving a comment.


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?

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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.

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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_)




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.