October 28 2021

Many institutions carefully monitor statistics like retention and graduation rates. Colleges and universities that are struggling in these metrics—or those that want to avoid those struggles—tend to hone in on specific problems. If academic success is suffering, perhaps the focus falls on academic advising. If retention is stagnating, residence life may be under the microscope.

This approach can temporarily solve an immediate problem, but such narrowly tailored solutions are almost never sustainable. Often, rectifying a specific issue in academic advising might interfere with a key initiative in another department, or an effort that could improve a metric in residence life may run counter to the institution's strategic plan.

A more successful and sustainable approach to overcoming these kinds of challenges is addressing the thread that connects all of them: campus culture. Through Moving the Needle, a partnership that engages the full campus community in developing, implementing, and enhancing the conditions, practices, systems, and solutions that foster student success and retention, Credo recognizes and provides the space and guidance institutions may need to take a broader, more holistic approach to campus culture change.

“Credo helped us think about integrating student success and retention into everything we do at UPIKE,” says Dr. Lori Werth, provost at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky. “Changing the culture and seeing the faculty and staff working together was new to the institution, and the MTN journey with Credo has helped us get to where we are today with openness and collaboration.”

The Case for Culture Change

Culture connects people in a system; those in transformative, inclusive cultures share and celebrate their commonalities and differences. An issue on many campuses is that, although most faculty and staff agree their highest goal is “student success,” each person's definition of that goal may vary widely. For example, during a recent Moving the Needle session, the Credo team asked the assembled faculty and staff of a university to summarize what student success meant to them. Each person in that room gave a different answer. Even if every person thought their team's efforts were “successful,” their students may feel differently. To them, the campus experience might feel disjointed, hard to navigate, or intimidating.

A holistic approach to campus culture change is particularly important when addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion on college and university campuses. The hard truth is that American higher education institutions were not originally designed to be inclusive. Today, many leaders at colleges and universities believe that structural inequities are not acceptable, and they want to engage in transformative change. Meaningful change requires all faculty and staff at every level to ask and answer tough questions; to understand their institution’s identity, consider what changes must be made to that identity, and determine how best to achieve the goals necessary to forge a new identity.

Student success, quite simply, goes beyond any one area of a college or university, and that’s a very different way of thinking and operating than campuses are used to. The key question shifts from How can I change a system in my office or program so my department can be successfulto “How does my office or program play a role in ensuring our students have a successful, cohesive experience on our campus?

Culture Change Takes Time and Middle Talent

As the adage goes, if culture change were easy, everyone would do it. But culture change requires time, reflection, and structure, three elements that are difficult to carve out in isolation or piecemeal. When our MTN teams go to a campus, a core practice in which we engage faculty, staff, leadership, and community members is to stop, reflect, and assess. That sounds simple, but let’s be honest: stopping isn’t something we can do on a campus without some intentionality, planning, and strategic motivation. Moving the Needle allows us together to create and hold space to stop and look not only at our own individual divisions, but also at the institution more broadly and connectedly.

Credo facilitators are intentional about creating cross-functional teams to stop, reflect, and assess together. These sessions are not centered around members of the president’s cabinet, but rather around who we call the institution’s middle talent: leaders among the faculty and staff who are directly involved in shaping and delivering student experiences. They may know each other, but they likely have never worked together in this capacity. Through gatherings facilitated by Credo core staff and affiliate consultants, these cross-functional teams can help identify individual and shared obstacles that may negatively impact the student experience. These meetings also provide opportunities to highlight the good things already happening on a campus, identifying institutional strengths, and uncovering successful initiatives that might otherwise fly under the radar.

Case StudIes In MTN & Culture Change  

Colleges and universities that participate in Moving the Needle emerge empowered to transform campus culture. Take Southeastern University (SEU) in Florida as an example.  SEU took part in Moving the Needle as part of a community-wide initiative to develop a pervasive and integrated student-centered culture. Three years after completing Moving the Needle,  SEU reports that the approach to building cross-departmental working groups to design an intentional student experience is still operating successfully, creating intra-institutional momentum in ways they had never been able to accomplish before.

In another example, Newberry College in South Carolina launched their new strategic plan to carry on the initial work of Moving the Needle, ensuring it reflected a student-first lens. Student success integrations are connected across planning levels, hierarchies on campus, and intra-divisionally to not only support student success, but also set up the entire campus for success in service to students.

As a result of MTN,  Methodist University is experiencing a culture shift. With a heightened sense of the realities of changing demographics and meeting their students where they are, the Methodist community established brand new positions that, with other individuals and initiatives on campus, will play key roles in catalyzing the campus culture. New positions include a Chief Diversity Officer and Director of Student Retention and Persistence Initiatives.

Having A Partner Supports Meaningful Change

The prospect of culture change can be daunting for any college or university. But through Moving the Needle, you and your institution will have a strong and proven partner. Applications for the spring 2022 cohort of Moving the Needle will open in January 2022, but you can learn more about the program right now.

Reflection Questions 

  1. How does the mission of your institution support the goal of improving student success?
  2. How does your current strategic plan align with the goals for improving student success?
  3. Consider your team: their longevity and their approach to strategic collaboration. How do academic and student affairs partner?

Additional Resources for Student Success

Moving The Needle is a campus partnership that engages your entire campus community around student success & retention.

Find out how you can catalyze your entire campus community around student success:

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