Reflections from our Transformation Advisory Group: Insights for Transformation

By AASCU Intermediary Leads Dr. Jacquelyn Jones and Melissa Welker

In October 2019, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) launched the Transformation Advisory Group (TAG), a peer-learning group of campus exemplars composed of mid-level student success leaders from AASCU’s six Frontier Set institutions. The focus on mid-level leaders was born from observing their understanding of the why and how of institutional transformation. TAG is anchored on the goal of generating actionable insights about the nature of student-focused, equity-conscious, whole-institution reform being pursued by AASCU institutions.

TAG co-created a learning agenda focused on sharing insights across very different contexts and lifting up insights for the wider field. The goal was to build a new kind of learning collaborative, aimed at shedding light on the complex work facing mid-level leaders of access-oriented universities. The group’s first collaborative learning endeavor focused on harvesting crosscutting lessons about the nature of institutional transformation by examining a discrete change effort undertaken by each institution. The individual case studies covered a wide range of topics, including remediation/placement reform, faculty development around high-impact teaching practices, institutional policies around financial challenges facing students, and implementation of math pathways. As TAG members explored each other’s case studies, five crosscutting themes emerged despite the diversity of topics.

When we look across the five themes, a single thread weaves through: the deeply adaptive nature of student-focused problem-solving.

Each theme illustrates the complex nature of the problems facing colleges and universities seeking to remake themselves in service of better outcomes for their students. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. and threw colleges and universities into an unprecedented crisis, the group revisited the five themes to explore their relevance during the crisis—and they found the crosscutting themes not only remain relevant in a COVID world but are also perhaps even more important to understand now.

Five Themes: Insights for Transformation

  1. Even seemingly simple problems live in multiple places across an institution. Solving them requires new forms of collaboration across a wide range of long-standing silos of professional practice, each with its own culture and imperatives. Silo-spanning skills are perhaps the most important skills for systemic problem-solving.
  2. Accessing, translating, and using data is an evolving practice at institutions. Data-informed decision-making and the practices that imbues vary by institution. The quality and accessibility of the data, and the data-literacy skills needed to integrate it into practice, are challenges mid-level leaders are faced with navigating across positional levels, with them often acting as the advocate for data systems to be continually developed and used.
  3. In contrast to the traditional view that equates “leadership” with the work of the most senior administrators, problems negatively affecting students can only be addressed with the insights of frontline faculty and staff, and through the development and exercise of leadership from the middle.
  4. Each discrete problem that is identified and solved by an institution reveals a host of other policies and practices that are raising barriers to student success, particularly for historically marginalized populations of students. This “Hydra” challenge shows the pervasiveness of obstacles facing institutions determined to remake policies and practices at scale for more equitable student outcomes.
  5. While institutional transformation is much more than the accumulation of small wins, it is through tackling discrete problems that faculty, staff, and administrators build the muscles and appetite needed for ongoing, systemic, whole-institution reform. In times of crisis, those muscles get worked in new ways, and understanding what this means—particularly for mid-level leaders—is ongoing work to be done.

AASCU is the collective voice of nearly 400 public colleges, universities, and systems that hold students and community at the heart of our mission. The association works to expand student access, success, and opportunity, promote world-class teaching and experiential learning tied to career advancement, and support applied research and service that advances economic development and quality of life in communities across the country. AASCU institutions offer more than three million students each year with affordable, high-quality education as stewards of place, preparing our graduates to be informed and engaged citizens.