October 7, 2016

McLeod, W. &Young, J. (2005). A Chancellor’s Vision: Establishing an Institutional Culture of Student Success. New Directions for Institutional Research, 125. 73-85.

In this article a former chancellor outlines how he successfully transformed the culture of his campus to enhance retention and student success. When Willis B. McLeod first took his position as chancellor at Fayetteville State University (FSU), the university was suffering from poor rates of retention. He writes, “The more I reviewed the various data and student profiles, the more concerned I became that the university was like a revolving door for many of the students who enrolled each Fall” (pg.73). McLeod took this challenge seriously, and established a comprehensive program called the Freshman Year Initiative (FYI), which had a commitment to, “meet students where they are and help them get to where they need to be” (McLeod and Young pg.74).  He believed it was the role of a leader to establish the goals for the organization and to develop a climate for change. He also knew that if his proposed changes were to have any lasting impact, there would have to be, “a comprehensive revision of the institutional culture” (McLeod and Young pg.74).

McLeod and Young (2005) detail both the various components of the chancellor’s plan and the philosophy that informed its development. Perhaps most noteworthy was the commitment to approach this problem by taking a developmental view of students. According to McLeod and Young (2005), a developmental view is one that is, “grounded in the belief that all human beings are in a process of becoming, of realizing their full potential in all areas of their lives” (pg.74). This view requires us to see students not as fully formed adults, but as individuals at varying stages of maturity, who each possess the potential to achieve intellectual competence. The developmental view also requires a shift in assessment of institutional quality. Under this philosophy schools should be judged primarily by the knowledge students acquire during their educational experience rather than by the qualities students already possess upon entering the school. Also implicit in this philosophy is the idea that academic development is inseparable from personal and social development.

The program was implemented with a focus on helping students to understand their responsibilities as university students, while also encouraging them to utilize the various resources available on campus. Student responsibilities were clarified in the Bronco No-Fail Pledge, which was distributed on cards to all students, and which helped to focus their attention on their responsibility for ensuring their own academic success. A special emphasis was also placed on monitoring student progress and in creating an environment in which the students would feel connected to others in the community. The latter was accomplished in part by assigning the Freshman Seminar instructor as the advisor for each freshman.  This arrangement meant that students had regular access to a familiar person who could help to guide them through their university experience.

This program was ultimately a success because the chancellor chose to focus on the root causes of the disease rather than just treating the symptoms. By successfully changing the rhetoric used to discuss students, he was effective in making nearly everyone on campus culpable for the success of the whole. This strategy extended to both those who offered student services and to faculty, who were encouraged to change their instructional strategies to improve student success. At the core of this change in teaching strategies was the belief that, “effective teaching requires faculty members to set high and clear goals and expectations and then establish strategies and structures to help students meet these expectations” (McLeod and Young pg.81). The faculty were likewise supported through developmental workshops offered at the campus Teaching and Learning Center.

Because this article is designed as a narrative rather than a study, we must take the authors at face value when they describe the success of their program, which they measure in three ways. First is four-year graduation rates, which rose from 14 percent to 23 percent over two years. Second is the Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI), a survey developed by Noel-Levitz that was implemented to evaluate student satisfaction with the entire range of their first year experiences. McLeod and Young (2005) assert that, “FSU students expressed higher levels of satisfaction than students in the national sample” (pg.83). Because we are not given access to numerical data about the survey results, we can only hope that the reported findings are accurate. Finally McLeod and Young (2005) describe how the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) was conducted at their university, with positive results. The NSSE was developed to assess the extent to which university freshmen and senior engage in educational practices that are associated with high levels of student learning. As of 2005 the NSSE had been administered to nearly 400,000 students nationwide. According to McLeod and Young (2005) in the report issued by representatives of the NSSE about FSU, the university is a, “remarkably nurturing and supportive institution that takes seriously its responsibility for ‘total’ personal development” (pg.84).

As with all studies with a small sample size we must approach the chancellor’s report with open eyes. From what is claimed, it appears that the FYI was mostly a success. However, in the conclusion McLeod and Young (2005) note that they consider the FYI to be starting point as they have realized that many students need access to resources and support for the entirety of their university career. It is uncertain whether the success at FSU could be replicated at other institutions. We do not know, for example, what the prevailing organizational culture was before the chancellor enacted these changes. Perhaps to was a culture that was already flexible enough to be self-reflective and accepting of new ideas. This is not true at all universities. Nevertheless, it would be worthwhile for other universities to seriously consider this plan. Although many universities are currently experience a budget crisis, a plan like FYI should actually be seen as a positive investment. McLeod and Young (2005) point out that it costs far less to retain a student than it does to recruit new ones. Thus, changing the culture in this radical way is not only good for students, it also make sound fiscal sense for the university and its backers.

However, this is not a plan that can be done halfway. McLeod and Young (2005) note that success of a plan like this is dependent upon full institutional support. They say, “Institutional commitment, organizational structures, and a strategic plan will be useless if institutional resources are not provided to support the structures and implement the plan” (pg.85). To them the FYI has been worth the cost and effort because they believe that if institutions can make a difference, they are obliged to try to do so. It shouldn’t be, but this feels like a fairly revolutionary idea because it speaks to the notion that a university is not just a factory churning out graduates, but is instead an integral part of greater society. In this current age of recessions and budgets deficits, a change in organizational culture might be what is needed to ensure the success and survival of higher education.

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