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How to FAIL at Engaging Faculty and Staff in Student Success Efforts

by Isaac Rowlett

Monday, November 11th, 2013

This post was originally published on the Completion by Design blog. Completion by Design is a national initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that works with community colleges to significantly increase completion and graduation rates. Read more about our work with Completion by Design.

You’ve been there before: grading papers, wrapping up a student advising appointment, and trying to muster the energy to make it through another committee meeting. You glance at your screen - a new email from your president announcing a new initiative that will boost student success rates. Details are scarce, but you’re promised that specific information is forthcoming.

What exactly, you wonder, is this student-success initiative? Didn’t we try something like this already? Do we even have time for this?How will it impact me?

At Public Agenda we spend a lot of time helping college leaders to engage their colleagues in student success efforts. We’ve encountered the above scenario time and time again, and over the past decade we’ve learned a thing or two about the do’s and don’ts of fostering meaningful and collaborative change toward improved student outcomes.

But instead of simply listing what we’ve learned, we’ve had some fun creating an “anti” how-to guide. In other words, if your goal were to fail miserably, how would you carry out a student success effort at your campus? In what follows, you’ll find our top-ten tips for failure, followed by the implications of these disastrous moves for what actually helps the work succeed.

1. Plan without Practitioners

There’s no better time to seek out the expertise of your faculty and staff than right at the beginning. Bringing in as many perspectives as possible to examine student success challenges will result in a better understanding of the problems and shared ownership of the solutions.

2. Talk, Don’t Listen

Engagement is a two way street, and the benefits of engagement come from listening – to students, adjunct faculty, advisers – about how they perceive student success challenges and how to tackle them. The most effective leaders and “change agents” are those who know that listening first and listening deeply are essential to sustainable change on behalf of student success and completion.

3. Start with the Solution, but Pretend You’re Listening

If you’ve already made a decision without input from those who will be asked to implement the idea, be clear about where input actually matters. Better yet, don’t make critical decisions without meaningfully engaging those who are closest to students and those who will be asked to implement new policies and procedures. People can live with decisions they dislike, but they cannot abide the disrespect signaled by empty-gesture consultation. You can demonstrate respect and cooperation by engaging your colleagues around the problems instead of telling them the solutions. The ideas that emerge will be stronger and more effective because of the collective wisdom and experience that created them.

4. Approach Completion as a Technical Problem

If only we were so lucky. Inadequate facilities and LMS glitches are examples of technical problems, or problems that can be solved by experts and authority figures. Boosting student completion is an “adaptive” problem, or one that is messy, has no easy answers, and requires the cooperation of many. Check yourself every time you’re tempted to treat the problem like it has an ‘easy’ solution. Easy answers are almost never the right ones.

5. Hold a Traditional Town Hall-Style Meeting

It’s tempting to “do engagement” by bringing everyone together in a large room, deliver a Power Point presentation, and provide a few minutes for questions. The “town hall” meeting format, however, will not help you to generate a shared sense of purpose. In fact, this meeting format all too easily stokes hostilities and empowers the least constructive voices. Focus groups, stakeholder dialogues carefully designed to promote candid--yet respectful and deliberative— conversation, and respectful department meetings are better formats for action-oriented dialogue that will advance your efforts.

6. Don’t Use Data in Making the Case

Everyone is stretched thin in an environment of scare resources and increasing pressure from every direction, and therefore attention to thoughtful case-making is critical to creating a sense of shared ownership for problems. Quantitative and qualitative data are critical to making the case for change.

7. Treat Data as Though They Speak for Themselves

Quantitative and qualitative data are critical to making the case for change, but they can backfire when introduced in a unidirectional data dump. No matter how compelling your data are, attention needs to paid to how data are translated and used by different audiences. Ideally, practitioners at every level should be engaged as partners in making sense of data.

8. Use Data to Shame

Part of the power of data resides in its ability to shock and surprise us out of our complacency, but it is painful work to face bad news emerging from qualitative or quantitative research. Care must be taken to support institutional practioners as true co-owners of both failures and successes, and this means avoiding the use of data to shame.

9. Write off Resistance as the Result of Mere Laziness

There are many reasons why one might run into pushback, but laziness is probably not one of them. More common sources of opposition are fear of change, heavy workloads, initiative fatigue, disagreement about the nature of the problem, lack of clear and consistent information about the initiative, etc. Begin by figuring out which of these conditions apply, and then act accordingly.

10. Communicate Sporadically, Inconsistently and Make Sure You Don’t Follow Up

You will encounter many challenges when working toward increasing student success, so you don’t need to create new ones by dropping the ball on communication. Whether you use a graphic to describe all of your initiatives, an FAQ, a weekly newsletter, or a standing agenda item at department meetings, make sure to regularly provide clear and consistent information about your efforts. If you hold structured listening sessions, it is imperative that you take the time to ensure that participants are kept apprised of how their input is being used.

Completion by Design colleges have made tremendous progress over the past two and a half years by avoiding these common pitfalls and learning from their mistakes. Check out these resources for concrete tips and strategies about engaging your campus community in student completion.




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