Build a House: But we’re only giving you a hammer!

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Dr. Teresa McKinney, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, University of North Texas

December 20, 2017

A fundamental truth of leadership in higher education institutions holds that if we truly want to have an impact on our student’s, our community, and the global workforce, then we must ensure that our staff are equipped with the essential tools for the tasks at hand. If we ask them to build a house, i.e. to develop new programs and services, to launch new technologies, and to create cultures of assessment within student affairs, but provide little to no resources, then realistically, we must prepare for one of three outcomes from the fable, The Three Little Pigs: A House of Straw, A House of Sticks, or a House of Bricks.

Most assuredly, without a clearly articulated vision, delineated expectations or resource allocations, student affairs leaders should not expect the Taj Mahal when we’ve only provided a colloquial hammer. Instead, we should prepare ourselves for the house of straw or sticks. If we want to cultivate our teams, and to build a house of bricks, then our organizational cultures must be inoculated with the spirit of quality, a focus on data-driven decisions, predictive analytics, and a readiness to embrace innovative change. A selection of basic tools for the construction of a house of bricks has been included below:

  • Blueprint – Student affairs leadership must clearly articulate the mission, vision, and expectations for assessment throughout the division. Staff need assurance that assessment is a high priority (Upcraft and Schuh, 2001). As such, communication from leadership that assessment is everyone’s business, beginning with the vice president or chief student affairs officer (CSAO) is critical. Support for assessment can be demonstrated by the CSAO by attending workshops and becoming conversant in assessment, as well as by committing sufficient resources and incentives to the effort. For larger colleges and universities, assigning one individual to a division-wide assessment effort may yield minimal results. A commitment to hiring additional staff, including student employees, and assigning a budget for training materials and professional development activities is a useful tool.     
  • Concrete slab and bricks- a proper foundation and fortified support is essential when building a home. The same can be said when developing an assessment culture for student affairs. At its basic level, an organization would need to decide if the culture they want to create will be one focused on compliance or inquiry for continuous quality improvement. Through an evaluation of data, student affairs practitioners can use data to make program improvements to achieve better outcomes for students. This can be accomplished through the development of an assessment plan focused on both student learning and administrative outcomes. Further, given the complexity of higher education finances, we must maximize the use of existing data, subject matter experts, and assessment enthusiasts and advocates to move the culture change forward. Both the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Utah have excellent examples related to assessment teams and assessment liaisons or enthusiasts.
  • Screwdriver/Power Drill- It is important to drill down to determine our values and priorities and to create connections between our departments. Student affairs organizations may find it helpful to develop a common language, professional competencies, and a systematic schedule of assessment activities, including program reviews. A glossary of assessment terms, professional competencies, templates, etc. should be accessible for all staff. Examples of this work can be found at Florida Atlantic University and Portland State University. NASPA also provides professional competencies for student affairs professionals.        
  • Tape measure and level- There is a construction adage that states “measure twice and cut once.” Properly measuring is an important function of building an assessment culture. Once you measure or determine the current environment, then you adjust or leverage resource allocations appropriately through a leveling process. As you take a pulse of the changing landscape of higher education and its impact on our campus environments, there will undoubtedly be institutional priorities to which we must align our strategies, particularly as they relate to enrollment and retention efforts. Further, as we create the assessment infrastructure, training and development must be at the core of this initiative. An assessment training series, such as the Student Affairs Assessment 101 workshop at Indiana University is an example of this concept.
  • Closing documents- Perhaps the most stressful time of purchasing or building a home is at closing when all parties meticulously review and sign a variety of disclosures and other financial documents. Similarly, student affairs practitioners must review or analyze our data as well. This data should inform our decisions, direct our priorities, and align with our budget allocations in order to mediate challenges or reward high performing units that maximize student success.
  • House Warming – As we take on the construction of an assessment culture for student affairs we need to celebrate our success with recognition for the dedicated efforts of staff who stand on the front lines, serving students with a variety of needs, diverse backgrounds and experiences. These students are looking to us to remove barriers to their success and we must look to each other and our leaders to ensure that we have the necessary tools to support their journey. Student Affairs leadership should ensure that we celebrate, acknowledge and appreciate assessment efforts if nothing more than to reinforce our assertion that assessment is important, it is a priority, and that these reports are read and valued.

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