Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Dec. 15, 1995

Did Succeeding With Students succeed? (longer version)

by Diana Pounds

Last month, approximately 3,900 faculty and staff gathered in small groups to discuss higher education issues and ways Iowa State can better serve students. They were part of a learning exercise (developed by the Ohio firm Root Learning) that heretofore had been used at corporations rather than campuses.

In this interview with Inside, President Martin Jischke and Steve Richardson, who led the Succeeding With Students steering committee, discuss the learning exercise.

Did Succeeding With Students succeed?Jischke: Yes. We engaged nearly two-thirds of the full-time employees at Iowa State in a serious discussion of issues facing the university and higher education. In that sense, it succeeded. I'm pleased.

Richardson: It has succeeded so far, but the goal was to start people talking and a measure of success will be how long that conversation continues and what comes out of it. We have high hopes for continued success, but time will tell.

What prompted the Succeeding With Students exercise?Jischke: It was my hope that we could stimulate a campus-wide discussion of the changes in higher education and the impact of that on Iowa State and our students. The hope was that people would come away with a better understanding, that there would be more common understanding, and that it would begin to foster ideas, suggestions and proposals to help us try to adapt and do a better job of educating students.

There are issues facing Iowa State that can only be addressed by the entire community. There are many factors that play a role in the success of students at Iowa State -- experiences within class, experiences outside of class. From some anecdotes I've heard, it's clear that people who you wouldn't initially think play a role in the success of students can. I've heard stories about custodians who are almost mentor- like people for students, about clerical employees who play an absolutely pivotal role in the life and culture of departments. Creating an educational environment in which large numbers of students succeed is a community issue. And this effort was an attempt to have a community, all of the employees of the university, talk about these matters.

Will it elicit a community response? It remains to be seen. But it's part of an effort to begin to think as a community, as a university community, about these issues. We all have a stake in it.

Many ideas came out of these meetings. Where will they go?Richardson: Those ideas that pertain directly to central university issues will be shared with the president and the president's staff, the provost and others. Ideas that pertain to a particular college will be forwarded to the deans and faculty of that college.

Jischke: Part of the exercise was to write down some things that one might do personally. It remains to be seen whether people will follow up. The steering committee is going to look at all these suggestions and I'm hoping that we will find a way to discuss them, not just within the steering committee, but across the university. It would be wonderful if there are some things that we could come to agreement on and say, "Hey, this is worth doing." Second, I hope as a result of this exercise, that individuals will think, as they carry out their day-to-day responsibilities, about how they affect some of these issues that are impinging on the university and more specifically, the success of our students. It will be difficult to count that, but I truly hope it happens.

Are we too focused on seeing something concrete come out of this exercise?Jischke: It's not unlike discussions about what is the value of education. For a number of our students, the value of education arises when they get a job, when they find out that they're going to make a living. Those are tangible outcomes. But the long-term impact of a first-rate education is helping people learn, to develop the ability to think critically, to be able to continue to learn.

I hope there will be some tangible things in this exercise that we can point to, that ideas will emerge that we can attribute to Succeeding With Students. But I hope that's not the only thing that happens. I hope that, as a result of this, people will begin to think more broadly about what's happening to the institution, what's happening to our students, what sort of change is about us, and begin to think more carefully about how we could do a better job.

What was the rationale for separating some administrators from faculty and staff for group discussions?Jischke: We thought it was important for administrators to participate initially to signal to the university community that this was a serious project and one administrators were going to participate in as well. This was not something for others. It was something for all of us.

Richardson: We also felt that by having administrators go early, they could go back to their units and answer questions, helping to increase participation. Another reason was concern that some staff and faculty might have been intimidated by an administrative presence in the small groups.

Some discussion groups had students, but most didn't. Why?Richardson: We tried very hard to get students in every group. It was a busy time, just before Thanksgiving vacation; students had a lot of assignments. A lot of students agreed to come and they didn't show. It was disappointing.

Some have suggested that Succeeding With Students was a way to prepare university faculty and staff for cutbacks. True?Jischke: No. The purpose of this is quite open and, in some sense, rather simple. We're trying to create a common understanding of some larger issues facing the university -- to try to engage everyone in the university in thinking about these issues and finding ways to help us deal with them.

There was no prescribed agenda or outcome. I am concerned about student success at Iowa State. I am concerned about retention rates. Those are important issues for the university. I'm concerned about our having a common understanding of the circumstances that affect those issues. In that sense, this was education. It was to engage people.

Some participants said they felt some figures and graphs used in the discussions were misleading. What was the source of the figures?Richardson: All figures came from public documents. All the budgetary figures and figures on number of staff, whatever, came from the ISU Fact Book. Figures from outside the university, we pulled from the U.S. Department of Education.

We agonized over the best way to present data and that was one of the reasons we had faculty, staff, and students groups test early versions of the maps. In some cases, we were faced with hard decisions among several different ways of presenting things, none of which would have been acceptable to everyone. We just chose what we thought would work best.

Why the title "Succeeding With Students"?Richardson: The steering committee that put together the exercise wanted to emphasize that students are at the center of the university, its reason for being here. We looked for a title that would convey simultaneously our desire to have students succeed and our desire for the university to succeed, on behalf of students.

Now, the other half of the question is: "Why the stuff other than that on Map 3? Why the higher education and the budget information?" Because we felt right from the beginning that issues related to the overall setting of higher education and budget matters are central to how we deal with student- oriented issues. We can't just talk about students as students. We have to talk about how we can serve students, what our resources are, what happens if we get pinched, who cares -- all those issues.

Jischke: The first two maps also are part of trying to engage a discussion about change in higher education -- the fact that the reality of the university and the environment it operates in with students is changing and evolving. It has consequences for our students and for how we educate our students.

Succeeding With Students has been characterized as an experiment. What did we learn from this experiment?Jischke: I think we have learned a somewhat more common language and common understanding of what is happening at the university. I think we have debunked some of the myths of the university, as to how we finance it, for example. I think those of use who participated in these groups have learned there are an amazing variety of ways individuals contribute to the university. A student in my group is a senior in sociology with three children who transferred from a community college in Council Bluffs. It was quite remarkable to see what this young woman was accomplishing. She was working to support herself and her family. She was raising three children. She was a full-time student at Iowa State. And yet, she had enough time to participate in a dialogue about the university. I really enjoyed that.

Richardson: We learned that the small group around the table is a successful way to communicate. We got definite personal involvement, which was one of our primary goals. There were communication issues that, if we had it to do over again, we might change. At the detail level, there are things that we'd do differently, in hindsight. But I think we learned that it is possible to bring a large number of people together in a very short period of time to talk about common issues. That was rather remarkable from a mechanical point of view.

Are there any Succeeding With Students exercises in Iowa State's future?Jischke: Perhaps. I think we need to continue this process of assessment of the suggestions and to continue to try to find out: Did we benefit institutionally? Did we learn? Are there other subjects like this that we ought to consider for another community-wide dialogue?Richardson: There are ways that we might use this same method in a different setting -- for example, in orientation for new students or new faculty.


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