Peer Review

Collaborative Leadership on a Liberal Arts Campus: Supporting Student Engagement

On today’s college campus, I believe that leadership is not a function vested in one person or housed in a suite of offices, but rather is a skill set that can be found in administrators, faculty, staff, and students throughout the college. Senior management’s task is to facilitate and support the leadership potential of everyone on campus.

I had an early opportunity to put this belief to the test when I joined the Eastern Connecticut State University community in 2006 as its sixth president. It was a momentous time. The university was at the end of its existing strategic plan, ready for the next steps in fulfilling its mission as Connecticut’s public liberal arts university. The following spring, we began a new planning cycle at a time when the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and other organizations were articulating an advanced vision of the liberal arts in the twenty-first century. A compelling argument was being made by such educators as Indiana University’s George Kuh—backed by data from the National Study of Student Engagement—that success at college was enhanced by the relative “engagement” of students. The argument was simple: the more students were engaged in “high-impact practices”—internships, first-year experiences, learning communities—the better their grades and the more likely they were to graduate.

National data has consistently provided credence to this engagement model—students who are fully engaged on a liberal arts campus perform better and graduate at higher rates than students who do not take advantage of engagement opportunities. High-impact practices ranging from service learning to undergraduate research and study abroad provide students with experiences in which they engage their intellect, collaborate with others, develop self-discipline, and benefit from the confidence that they are competent and productive.

This model served as guidance as my colleagues and I prepared for our next five years, with the goal of expanding student engagement and enhancing student success. As we started our planning, my management team and I were determined to create a process that included representatives from all stakeholder groups, and that would build or reinforce partnerships within and beyond our walls. The goal was to implement strategies that would help us become a premier public liberal arts university. As part of the planning process, my responsibility as the university’s president was to set a vision that could be embraced by the campus community, facilitate an open discussion about common goals and a shared future, empower faculty and staff in pursuit of that preferred vision, and recognize and reward the progress made.

By the time our 2008–13 Strategic Plan was approved in 2008, hundreds of Eastern faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community partners had engaged in thousands of hours of committee discussions, open campus forums, focus groups, and other collaborative activities. Not only did the process yield a “living” planning document that has guided our budget, operations, and assessment activities over the past five years, it has also served as a reminder of what can be accomplished when an entire campus community is mobilized to achieve a common set of goals.

The collaboration that has taken place at Eastern—both on our campus and with off-campus partners—has been gratifying to me personally and has reaffirmed my belief that people function best when they have a hand in planning their collective future and then work together on implementing that plan. As we near the end of the 2008–13 planning cycle, I am heartened by the progress that our university has made in creating a culture of student engagement on our campus. I have also been impressed by three related yet distinctive areas of partnership that have driven the changes that have occurred: (1) the enhanced relationship Eastern has with private sector employers, (2) the close partnerships the university maintains within our local community, and (3) the collaboration and role integration that has taken place among our own faculty and staff.

Employer Partnerships Give Students Experience in the World of Work

AAC&U surveys over the past five years have shown that the majority of employers want to hire college graduates who have broad intellectual competencies—critical and creative thinking skills; the capacity to conduct research, analyze the results, and solve problems; professional written and oral communication skills: and the ability to work independently or in teams. These skills are the hallmark of a liberal education. At the same time, employers also value college graduates who come to the hiring table with practical, work-based experiences—internships, on-campus jobs, undergraduate research—that provide evidence that they have applied their classroom learning in “real-life” situations.

A major component of our strategic plan has been to increase “experiential learning” opportunities for our students. We have been able to breathe life into our experiential learning program largely because of the excellent relationships we have with employers in Connecticut and beyond. For instance, many of our internship sites are due to the generosity of Eastern alumni, who can be found in management positions at such companies as Pfizer, ESPN, Aetna, and Pratt and Whitney. We also send political science majors to the Connecticut State Capitol, as well as Washington, DC, to prepare for careers in government and public service. Eastern students have completed internships at locations such as Animal Planet in New York City, IBM, Merrill Lynch, the Mohegan Sun casino, major television network affiliates, prestigious accounting firms, chambers of commerce, and many other companies, nonprofits, and other organizations. Eastern students also work in paid “co-op” placements at United Technologies, Northeast Utilities, and other well-known corporations.

Some students lack transportation or have on-campus obligations that make commuting daily to off-site internship and co-op locations difficult. This past year, we created an on-campus “Work Hub” so that students can work for off-campus businesses and other organizations without having to travel. Now in its second year, the partnership with Cigna, our first business client, has proven to be very rewarding to our students. While earning an hourly wage, Eastern students have benefited from the guidance of Eastern faculty and Cigna staff to create software programs, perform website maintenance for and its smaller sites, build Java applications and develop database infrastructure, write production-level code, create user guides, and map out code design. In the process, they have learned to apply the skills they have developed in classes and labs, developed professional behavior and expectations, and refined their career goals. A number of Work Hub students have been offered full-time jobs at Cigna after they graduate.

Having a facility on campus means that more students can take advantage of internship and co-op opportunities. This year, for instance, we added a design studio in the Work Hub that is equipped with professional quality photographic and graphic design equipment to allow students operating under faculty supervision to create promotional and marketing materials for local businesses and nonprofits.

As a result of these partnerships with the corporate world, 75 percent of our students take an internship or paid co-op during their time at Eastern, and others conduct research or engage in service-learning projects.

Our relationship with employers extends beyond using their workplaces as laboratories for Eastern students. Professionals in a variety of industries provide valuable counsel as advisors to Eastern faculty and staff. In addition to an active Employer Advisory Committee for our Center for Internships and Career Development, academic departments also have advisory committees and employer connections to ensure that what they teach is relevant to current workforce needs. For instance, the Business Administration Department has a standing advisory board. The visual arts and performing arts departments consistently use outside professionals for juries and reviews and to keep their programs up-to-date. Our biology and environmental science faculty maintain close contacts with their alumni to ensure active connections with the bioscience and sustainable energy industries. Our accounting program also uses accounting professionals, alumni, and emeriti faculty as advisors and adjunct faculty.

On a broader level, the university has a seat on the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board to keep us current with regional workforce needs. In fall 2013, new majors in the fields of health sciences, genetics, and global enterprise and cultures will debut on our campus. These are among the fast-growing, emerging occupations of the future, each based on the expressed needs of our corporate partners in the bioscience and business sectors.

Willimantic as a Learning Laboratory

Eastern sits on a hill surrounded by Victorian homes in the historic city of Willimantic, in Windham County, Connecticut. Our institution has historically been a good community citizen, with hundreds of Willimantic families taught over the years by student teachers at Willimantic State Teachers College, the precursor to Eastern Connecticut State University. More recently, Eastern students have found additional ways to volunteer in the local community.

To provide students with increased opportunities to develop their sense of social responsibility and commitment to service, another outcome of our 2008–13 strategic plan was the creation of the Center for Community Engagement in 2009. The center coordinates student volunteerism and promotes service learning—coursework linked to community projects. Service-learning initiatives have ranged from having computer science students build a website for the local soup kitchen to English majors writing business plans for local small businesses.

The historic ties that Eastern has had with the local school district remain strong today and enable Eastern professors and local school district administrators and faculty to collaborate on a host of projects. Students and faculty in the Early Childhood Education program recently completed a three-year literacy project funded by the US Department of Education to provide literacy instruction to upwards of 600 local preschoolers and professional development to their teachers. At the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, Eastern has more than 1,000 students tutoring in various capacities in the Windham School District. For instance, math majors provide intensive, one-on-one math tutoring in the middle school. Having Eastern students relate their own classroom instruction to the volunteer work or service-learning projects they perform in local schools and other service agencies is the type of high-impact practice that AAC&U and others have been advocating as the preferred model for twenty-first-century liberal educators.

At the same time that our students learn valuable skills, they are also making an important contribution to our local community. This past year, Eastern was one of only 110 institutions in the nation to be recognized on President Obama’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll With Distinction, annually contributing more than 44,000 volunteer hours to the local community, a value of $1.4 million.

Direct service in the form of volunteerism and service learning has proven to be an effective way to apply student learning in real-life situations while meeting critical community needs. Another way that the university can demonstrate leadership in the community is by encouraging administrators, faculty, and staff to serve on local boards. As president, I have been honored to serve on the boards of the local Covenant Soup Kitchen, Camp Horizon, and the Girl Scouts of Connecticut. The vice president for institutional advancement serves on the local chamber of commerce board of directors. The Center for Community Engagement director serves on the board of the local homeless shelter, as well as on other boards. Other administrators and faculty serve as incorporators for the local hospital. A faculty member and an administrator are currently serving on the local school board as elected members. These networks help us monitor our connections with community groups, at the same time that they often serve as sources of ideas for new organizational relationships. Students are also encouraged to seek leadership roles on campus and in the community.

On-Campus Collaboration is the Key to Making it Work

Developing and implementing a Student Success Model was a third key initiative in Eastern’s 2008–13 Strategic Plan. From an organizational perspective, the highlight of the new model is a stronger collaboration among faculty and student affairs staff around a common focus on individual student success.

Just as the planning process five years ago that involved hundreds of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others launched Eastern’s current model of the liberal arts—focused on student engagement and experiential learning opportunities in the private and nonprofit sectors—the integration of academic and student affairs roles and a campus-wide commitment to student success has been integral to supporting our engaged learning model.

Rather than creating a single office in charge of retention, the university developed a number of different committees and work teams to support our Student Success Model. This new institutional culture has shifted focus from access to timely graduation, with faculty and student affairs staff working more closely together, equally invested in the outcome.

In the twentieth-century student services model, faculty taught and student affairs staff made sure students showed up to class. They monitored the dormitories, dispensed thermometers, counseled the forlorn, tutored the unsure, and otherwise helped students manage their lives so that they would go to class, stay in school, and eventually graduate.

Today, our faculty has a direct interest and makes important contributions to student retention and timely graduation. Curriculum adjustments have improved retention and graduation, including the streamlining of programs so that students can graduate in four years, and the strategic offering of courses during intercession. Academic departments also monitor their majors’ retention, persistence, and graduation rates closely and share the responsibility with student affairs staff to make sure that students are engaged, adjusting to college life, and using the full range of support services on campus to ensure their success.

Faculty members also have joined residence hall staff on the team of first responders in the university’s “Academic Performance Notification System.” When a professor has evidence that a student is not performing academically, one click of their computer sends an alert to a staff person in the advising center, as well as the student’s academic advisor.

To further enhance the academic support we provide students, Eastern used funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and a Title III grant from the US Department of Education to create the Academic Services Center in fall 2008. The grant funds were also used to hire additional professional advisors. The center houses all advising and tutoring services, as well as special centers for writing and mathematics support. Through faculty and self-referrals, more than 2,000 students visited the center 10,000 times last year.

This collaboration between faculty, other academic support staff, and student services offices extends to another important component of our Student Success Model—the use of data to maximize student success. A common, easy-to-access data set related to student progress is now shared across departments, including admissions, financial aid, the registrar’s office, housing, information technology, planning/research, career services, and the Academic Services Center. As a result, decisions are now made collaboratively based on reliable data. This shared data set not only results in more timely interventions, better outcomes, and more targeted support, it also produces unexpected discoveries. For instance, the key factor in predicting the success of first-year students, apart from all other measures, turns out to be whether or not they attend the library orientation program. Simply put, a student who is motivated to use the library from day one is more likely to be successful.


A collaborative planning process. A two-way dialog with employers. Active partnerships in our local community. Collaboration and functional integration on our campus. All of these factors haves been key in expanding student engagement at Eastern Connecticut State University. By giving faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other stakeholders a seat at the planning table, and then working together in a variety of settings, we have aligned planning and action across the campus. In doing so, we have empowered students to become more engaged as scholars, student leaders, community citizens, and young professionals. We have surrounded them with an on-campus team of faculty and staff committed to their educational goals, and an off-campus network of employers, alumni, and others who are partners in our students’ success and the economic vitality and quality of life of Connecticut.

As a result, we have created a culture of student engagement. Our data is demonstrating that providing students with engagement opportunities increases retention and graduation rates. Participants in student clubs have better GPAs, students engaged in undergraduate research gain confidence and hone their skills, and students are better prepared to launch their professional careers when they engage in internships, co-ops, service learning, and other applied learning experiences.

As Eastern continues to work on its next planning cycle for 2013–18, I am encouraged that we have an effective model of collaboration and empowerment that moves us further ahead to realizing our vision of being a premier public liberal arts university. At the same time, we hope that these two principles of teamwork and personal leadership are being embraced and practiced by each student we serve.

Elsa M. Núñez is the president of Eastern Connecticut State University.

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