On many (most?) college campuses, the person who is second in command after the President has one of two titles: Vice President for Academic Affairs or Provost. (Occasionally someone can hold both titles and in some cases, this position is a Dean or AVP, etc.) The titles denote very different responsibilities and even authority, but often seem to connote similar expectations for the position. Even on campuses where the second in command has only one job title (vice president or provost), she or he is expected to perform both sets of duties. Even if you don’t hold this position, you can likely start to see the challenges…
Academic Affairs, historically speaking, is the most powerful department on the college / university campus. After all, it’s not hard to argue that at one time the entire college experience was only about academics. You can see this in other countries which modeled their schools after the United States system, where far less money is dedicated to things outside of the academic arena. In recent years, things may have become more more convoluted for US institutions financially speaking, but the department still retains top status at most schools.
Leading Academic Affairs
We know that many VPAA’s started as faculty members and worked through the system possibly moving to Chair, Dean, and potentially other associate vice-presidential roles, before becoming the leader of teaching and learning at the institution. Like all leaders, some VPAA’s have a natural bent toward finance, some toward operations, others toward faculty development, and still others toward teaching and learning. Occasionally a school hits the lottery and finds that holistic, systems thinking, operationally minded, educational expert. But most people taking this position have gaps in knowledge (perhaps better described as blind spots) which require real and likely expedient learning, so that the school can move forward effectively. Add to all of that the “whirlwind” of daily responsibilities that can include working with faculty unions, faculty senate, grievance moderation, education technology management, accreditation oversight, remediation strategies, and so much more, and its not difficult to wonder why anyone would want such a role. But it gets harder still.
While the VPAA may indeed be the second in command, this does not always translate to authority. Like the first-chair violinist may be the person who takes over if the conductor is sick, she still has little oversight when it comes to the brass or percussion sections. Like the offensive coordinator may be the one to take over if the head coach is ejected, they likely have no say over the defensive coordinator’s decisions. Likewise, the VPAA may feel the sting of siloes as much as anyone in the organization.
Because of the historical context already noted, academic affairs has seen the lion’s share of accountability when it comes to everything from enrollment to retention to alumni affinity. That shift in responsibility (and accountability) did not start to move away from academic affairs until the for-profit universities started putting more emphasis, as well as more authority around enrollment management and alumni investment in the 90’s. Historically, students would come to a school if the academic reputation was good and alumni would donate if their academic experience had produced a lucrative career. Likewise, if students left an institution, it was an academic affairs issue, sometimes contextualized as a positive event which strengthened the school’s quality ranking and the academic success of students who were more likely to succeed or, more recently, seen negatively as a hit to the school’s bottom line. As higher education has transitioned from the worry of access to the worry of success, academic affairs role and visibility has shifted.
The New Academic Affairs
This relatively new context can lead to arguments between vice-presidents at the executive table, with the VPAA asking why admissions is letting so many un-prepared students into the school, while the President asks why so many students drop out or fail, leading to less alumni, donations, etc. And now that the government, news organizations, parents, and other “watch dog” groups are eyeing that 44% college completion rate, critics are everywhere. Yet leaders within academic affairs who have been around for a while know that the problems of higher education are convoluted and will require collaboration as much as new thinking, if those problems are to be fixed at scale.
A bevy of research over the past two decades has proven what many understood before: Classes, majors, and programs are only a part of the college story.
1. Non-cognitive factors can be more predictive than cognitive factors when it comes to student success, persistence, graduation, and even alumni networks.
2. Averagarianism (comparing 1 student against the average of all students) is deeply flawed.
3. People need connections to other people, choices (although not too many, but not too little), resources, and support.
4. Your students often miss the most basic support, system, and people resources which can single-handedly undermine their success.
5. And technology, when it works as promised and is implemented well, can help institutions transform themselves at scale, which is almost impossible to do with people alone.
Yet, despite having more knowledge of these important factors and more insight into how they might be operationalized, most VPAA’s struggle to collaborate across the executive table and meaningfully adopt multi-department, interdisciplinary strategies that will work. These initiatives might require resources and effort from student affairs, enrollment marketing, IT, institutional effectiveness, and other groups that may or may not work with you. At the same time, those groups have their own initiatives anyway, so giving them solutions to adopt is often met with skepticism and frustration, just as you would feel if they approached you in a similar fashion.
On top of that, if you have been around long enough, you know that while many initiatives move the needle slightly, the implementation woes of higher education see very few strategies, technologies, or solutions impact numbers meaningfully. While there is little measurement of ROI in the education sector, up front effort is always at the top of the list by staff (yours or other departments) as a reason to abandon an idea.
We Understand. (Seriously)
So why did we explain all of this? There are two important reasons. First, we wanted you to know that we understand your landscape. While not anywhere close to exhaustive, hopefully this blog will show you that we get the politics, histories, and real time struggles. We have experienced it first-hand.
But more importantly is context. If we, a provider of technology and services, understand that some vendors over-promise, and under-deliver; that you may or may not have budget for new solutions, but you are fearful of the implementation effort and time allocation; how most technology solutions actually encourage siloes instead of breaking them down, then we also have considered strategies and solutions for those things. We know that you don’t need a vendor, you need a partner. (We also understand that partnership requires interdependence. We both must have some skin in the game.) We know your students complain about the lack of mobile access at your campus, but that faculty and staff need laptop / desktop workflows. We know that you need solutions which build and iterate over time. We know that you need quick wins and short term gains to help allocate resources to any solution, but that ultimately you want significant uptick in measurable numbers to illustrate efficacy. (We also know the number of buzz words in this paragraph aren’t impressive unless they can be backed up…)
So, we hope you will contact us to see more, hear more, and ask all the questions you can think of. We have a solution that will help connect, help promote, help support, and help people succeed. We have a solution that works along side academic technologies and in support of academic success. We can connect faculty who have never met, staff who need insight into one another’s work, and students who need access to…well, everything. We want to talk about how we implemented this very solution at our own campuses before coming to work here. We want to talk about data and personalization and integration and community and communication. We want to walk through implementation and change management, ensuring that people are considered more than technology, which is just a resource helping you do what you need to at scale. We hope you will consider meeting with us to discuss enrollment improvement, retention increases, quality enhancement, and even alumni network success. We look forward to talking with you.
The Campus by Ucroo Team