Student Affairs

Student Engagement and Inclusive Campus Environments – From Magical Thinking to Strategy and Intentionality

Presenter:  Professor Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D, University of Pennsylvania

@DrShaunHarper | #CSUNmagic | Terry Piper Lecture Series | Organizing Committee Members

This is the fourth annual event for the Terry Piper Lecture Series.  Previous speakers have included Dr. Laura Rendon, Dr. Vincent Tinto, and Dr. Marcia Baxter-Magolda.  I personally had the pleasure of reporting directly to Dr. Terry Piper when I started working at CSUN back in 2006.  I make sure to attend this event every year.

“Change is inevitable, progress is optional” – Dr. Terry Piper

Started faculty career at USC, and talked briefly about his relationship with Dr. Brandon Martin and Debra Hammond.  Before becoming a faculty member, Shaun was involved with Student Affairs and credits Debra’s leadership as a major inspiration to him.  While Shaun did not know Terry,  he acknowledged his work (“I feel as if I knew him based on legacy”).

Student success requires a lot from a university – it doesn’t happen out of thin air.

Some Common Occurrences of Magical Thinking Assumptions

  • The assumption that powerful educational outcomes will be automatically manufactured through student-initiated engagement with peers who are different.
  • More racial diversity = increased sense of belonging for students of color
  • The curriculum will diversify itself
  • Students will engage themselves
  • All 40,000+ CSUN undergraduates will be learned persons who are prepared for a democratic society
  • Students will confront their own biases

Dr. Harper and his graduate students did a content study of mission statements of universities with enrollments over 20,000 students. They made some interesting promises, i.e. students will be prepared for a global economy, ready for a diverse and inclusive workforce, etc.  The reality is that cultural barriers put student groups on the fringe of the university experience.

Diversity is often reflected in the student body, but this is not sufficient.  It needs to be reflected across the institution.  However, we see cultural clustering that effectively perpetuates racial segregation.  If students do not feel substantively engaged, they leave.  This can produce “accidental” racists, sexists, and homophobes.  Universities are often the most guilty institutions in perpetuating these attitudes.  Overwhelmingly, these attitudes are from men.

Dr. Harper shared some learning from his work:

  • Deliberate strategies that bring principles of good educational practice to fruition on college and university campuses.
  • Individual and Collective Reflection:  What am I doing to involve all students equitably?  When was the last time I read about these principles and intentionally attempted to implement them.
  • Remediation.  Deficits are not all the students’!  It’s completely possible to become an educator without ever teaching students.  We’re now four year into a study, the race and student affairs project.  What have we learned?  People learned in their student dev theory course about a racial identity model from the early 1970s!  It doesn’t teach how to deal with racial inequity issues.
  • Literacy.  You must read to keep up with developments within the field.  I often have people come up to me and tell me that they can’t read because they don’t have the time to.  This is not intentionality!
  • Collaboration with students
  • Cross-sectional partnerships
  • An actionable written document.  So many campuses do not have this.
  • Assessment.  How do you measure success?

Intentionality Examples

  • The professor who does not wait for the one Native American student in his class to approach him about research opportunities, but instead invites her to have a conversation about how their mutual interests might be collaboratively pursued via a research project.
  •  The academic advisor who asks commuter and part-time students how they would prefer to receive information about engagement opportunities, then communicates this information in a systematic way to the campus activities office and later checks the database to ensure her advisees are receiving info in ways they requested.
  •  The office or department leader that predetermines with colleagues who will attend which sessions at a conference, insists everyone takes copious notes, provides time during the next staff meeting to recap and collectively determine adaptability of ideas from sessions, and then signs reimbursements.

Real-World Examples from the Study

The Lumina Foundation provided a grant to work with 5 institutions to do something about enhancing and improving Black Male success – Institutional Change for Black Male Student Success Project.  Those campuses were:  UCLA, Stanford, University of Wisconsin, Community Colleges of Philadelphia, North Carolina Central University.  Teams from each university had to include:  two tenured faculty, at least one cabinet member, at least two students (black undergraduate men).  These teams created the ingredients/artifacts of the intentionality and strategies mentioned above, and then took them back to their home campuses.

At UCLA, their opportunity was to address the low first-to-second year black male retention rates, plus campus size and experiences with racial stereotypes.  The team included tenured faculty, senior admins from academic affairs and student affairs, grad students, staff from various student support services across campus, and black students.  Key components:  bringing resources to black male students (“blacklimated”).  Increased social and cultural capital via “deans day” where students could sit with their deans (deans actually gave out cell phone numbers).  Stereotype threat strategizing:  role of grad students was that they shared their experiences for effectively responding to issues (i.e. microagressions).  Introducing black male students to their first/only black male professor.  Result:  across 3 cohorts of 77 students, all but one returned to UCLA for a sophomore year.

North Carolina Central University opportunity:  black male six year graduation rate was 27 percent.  Disaggregated data showed that honors students that received additional support were most successful, and black male students who received 2.7 GPA in high school were least likely to persist.  VPSA, tenured faculty members, black undergraduates.  Key Components:  strategic “scholar” languaging (call them “Centennial Scholars”).  Apply what works for honors students to the Centennial Scholars.  Residential learning community with centralized support, RAs, and resources just for them (also moved into super-shiny residence halls like the honors students).  Result:  across 3 cohorts of 90 undergraduates, only two students left before completing their bachelor’s degrees.

Each institution received only $20,000 to accomplish these results!

Post Script:  Black Male initiatives are in vogue right now, and this I think is dangerously close to a form of “magical thinking.”




Student Affairs Technology

How a simple web service saved 1,500+ hours of student time

It may only be February, but graduation is already on the minds of many of us in higher education.  It’s an exciting time for our graduating seniors, and a lot of work for us in Student Affairs who do the “behind the scenes” work to make these events run smoothly.

At CSUN, we have an annual event in March called “GradFest” that supports Commencement.  GradFest is an event where students who have applied to graduate can learn everything they need to know about graduation, visit with vendors to purchase a cap and gown, class ring, and so on.  The annual CSUN graduate population is made up of thousands of students, so as you might imagine, this is a large event to plan from a logistical standpoint.

A big part of GradFest is to check that students have indeed applied to graduate – that is, they are “on the list.”  Prior to 2013, this was accomplished by students waiting in a line, where they were manually matched by staff in our Office of Student Involvement and Development to a long list of students who had a) met the criteria to walk and b) applied to graduate.  If students were on that list, they were checked off and sent to a second set of lines where they could purchase their regalia (more on that in a moment).  At this point, you may be asking yourself “why does that first line exist to begin with?”  Great question.  In the distant past (10+ years ago), we had situations where students who had not applied to graduate and were not in fact eligible to walk, purchasing regalia and walking.  Implementing this simple cross-check virtually eliminated the case of the “phantom graduate.”  The downside is that this check was done manually with a paper list, and that takes time.

Many of you who are front-line with students probably already see the other issue.  At any event hosting thousands of students, you’re bound to have some standing in line who – for whatever reason – should not be there because they haven’t done what they were supposed to do.  After waiting in line for as much as an hour, these students find out that they aren’t on the list and need to visit the registrar to sort things out.  They’re not able to move forward and order the most visible artifacts of a graduate, so at this point they’re likely to be upset.

As a web technologist, I saw this situation and thought of ways that we could use web services to simplify event logistics.  One of our big GradFest vendors brings in over fifty of their own computers that are connected to the Internet, so students can easily browse their online store and buy or reserve their regalia.  I thought:  “What if my team could build a simple web app that calls a web service whose sole purpose is to say whether or not a student is on the list?”  If we could do that, then all we’d have to do is present this web page on a browser of the vendor’s computers.  This would not only completely eliminate a line, we’d also free up many hours of professional staff time.  An added side-benefit is that those students who were not on the list would not be quite as upset when told they needed to visit the registrar.  A five-minute wait beats an hour-long wait hands down!

To make this happen, my team had to do four things:

  1. Add to our data warehouse the list of students who had successfully met the criteria to graduate and had successfully applied to participate in their graduation ceremony.
  2. Build a web service that a) verifies a student is in the warehouse, and b) returns a simple “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” value.
  3. Build a bare-bones web app that authenticates a student using their CSUN user id and password.  After authenticating the user, the app invokes the web service and presents appropriate messaging to the student, i.e. “Congratulations…” or “We’re sorry, but…”
  4. Document the process.

Some of you may be asking yourselves:  “Hey Paul, web services have been in general use for over a decade in the larger world.  What’s so special about your implementation?  It sounds super simple.”  And you’d be right to ask that question.  What makes our implementation so special is that waaaay back in 2013, this was the very first production implementation of a web service at CSUN that I’m aware of…and it took us less than two weeks to build!  Once we implemented this simple proof of concept, the vast potential that web services and APIs enable became very real for us.  By making clearly defined data available to applications, we opened up some pretty amazing possibilities.

Ok, so what were the specific successes and issues we experienced?

The successes were dramatic and obvious:

  1. Eliminated a line, saving students 1,500+ hours of time standing in line
  2. Saved professional staff 50+ hours of time manning the line, freeing them up to provide high-touch event services for those students who really needed them
  3. Built a practical proof-of-concept that worked exactly as expected and demonstrated the power of web services
  4. Added a table to our data warehouse containing an always up-to-date list of students who can participate in graduation ceremonies.
  5. Created excitement among our developers around web services and APIs

The issues and challenges we experienced are real, but tend towards the philosophical.  For many processes and services on this campus – and I suspect any campus – simply putting your information into a database is a big step forward.  Add a web interface, and you’re talking rocket science!  Ok, I’ll cop to a little hyperbolic license there, but it is fair to say that some people who benefit from a database-powered application tend to get, shall we say, protective of their data.  This human issue almost inevitably leads to data balkanization, more often referred to as silos.  Another issue when implementing web services is that higher ed administrators and even some IT folks are used to thinking about applications in the traditional sense, and don’t give much – if any – time to thinking “a layer above” their application. There are almost always ways in which data and applications can be made useful beyond their original intended purpose.  I believe that strategically thinking about how we make connections between our data and services is the future of technology in Student Affairs.  In short, Student Affairs is a platform.  More on that in another post…

In a few weeks, I look forward to seeing CSUN students use our little app at GradFest.  In a few months, when I attend graduation and hear pomp and circumstance, I’ll know that I and my team had some small hand in making this process just a little bit easier for our students and the staff who support their success.

Good luck to everyone in this 2014 graduation season!



My EDUCAUSE 2013 Mega Post

One the things I try to do when I attend conferences is to make a detailed record of all the sessions I attend, with the exception of keynotes, which tend to get really good coverage from other folks.  I live blog the events as I attend them, which hopefully helps those who committed to other sessions, and then I do one of these “mega posts,” which summarize all the posts I attended.  Based on my itinerary, 2013 seems to be the year of big data and analytics.  I’m willing to bet a lot of my fellow attendees will agree 🙂

I’ve been in higher education for just over seven years now, and somewhat amazingly, this was the very first EDUCAUSE event I’ve ever attended.  Why didn’t anyone tell me about this conference?  It was an extremely worthwhile event, at least for me…one of the meetings I had will likely save my division close to $50,000 each year!  That savings will go a long way toward providing students at CSUN with more and/or better services.  There were lots of great sessions to attend, with lots of smart folks sharing what they’re doing with IT on their campuses.  I’ll definitely be back next year.

Without any further ado, here’s my EDUCAUSE 2013 mega-post…please drop me a line and let me know if this helps you!


Friday, October 18 (last day of EDUCAUSE was a half day)


Thursday, October 17 (my busiest day)


Wednesday, October 16 (spent a few hours prowling the vendor floor and visiting with my accessibility colleagues)


Tuesday, October 15 (each session was a half-day long)


Student Affairs Technology

EDUCAUSE Student Affairs Constituent Group Meeting

Title:  Student Affairs Constituent Group

Facilitator:  David S. Sweeney, Director for Information Technology in Student Affairs at Texas A&M


David got us started by talking about some of the tasks this group wants to take on in 2013 – 2014

First up:  compiling a list of Student Affairs-related commercial software tools.  David was going to send out a survey asking for this, but hasn’t gotten around to doing this just yet.  He found out that EDUCAUSE has a database tool that does this.  Paul said he would assist David with this.  Perhaps this list / data repository can become a good resource for all of us?

Next:  what kind of IT-related things have surfaced this year within SAIT departments and/or Student Affairs?  David created a list of these things, and talked briefly about the EDUCAUSE “Horizon Report” – two of the items on David’s list are on the EDUCAUSE list.  Readers:  go look at the EDUCAUSE Horizon Report.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to do that 🙂

…and the list, please…

  1. SoMe, a.k.a Social Media
  2. Explosion of tablets / BYOD (i.e. how do we support them?  How do we manage secure information on those devices?)  Do we go with permissive or restrictive models?
  3. Emergency reporting and the “dear colleague” letter (Title 9 sexual assault and reporting).  What mechanisms do we have for reporting these and OCR reports?
  4. Student Analytics, i.e Purdue’s “Signals” product.  How do we take that data and incorporate it into other datasets.  How do we count participation in particular events?  Texas A&M is using swipe cards for events to build up a co-curricular portfolio.
  5. Student Learning Outcomes and Co-Curricular Portfolio


In no particular order, we talked about the following stuff…my apologies to attendees for not capturing everyone’s thoughts!


There was some discussion about who IT reports to within Student Affairs.  Oddly, I’m the only one who reports directly to the VP of Student Affairs.  We also talked about centralized versus decentralized IT services.


It’s official:  student analytics is the hot topic of the year!

How many of us actively collect assessment data?  About five out of the 18 attendees are.  Assessment data collection by Student Affairs on many of our campuses is quite rigorous.  On some campuses, this effort was initially looked upon as a burden.  Many use the CampusLabs product (StudentVoice, Baseline, etc.).  Student Affairs clearly is clearly a leader in this space, but our ability to demonstrate the value of our data is spotty, and integration of this data appears to be a long way off in most cases.  I recently blogged about exactly this topic in this post:  “Should Co-Curricular Activities Contribute to Academic Early Warning Systems?”

University of Montana talked about being at “level two” of this process.  David asked a question:  are you running demographics analysis against this information?  Answer:  recently, yes.

University of Toronto pulls their assessment data into Oracle and use it to populate a co-curricular transcript (this sounds very cool).

There appears to be a general problem most of us face:  getting people to create / manage a data warehouse and do the data extraction!  Some campuses have invested in Crystal Reports and have built student data warehouses.  Where does the responsibility lie for doing this?  Should we educate others in our division so they can do it themselves?  One answer provided (sorry, can’t remember your name!) said that creating a department that professionally studies and manages assessment data has worked for them.  This is not a department of one, either, which was very encouraging to hear.

Texas A&M has a new (about 12 months old) student success department that analyzes data.

FERPA was mentioned by some in attendance as a perceived barrier for use of student data for analytics and reporting purposes.  This perception seems to vary from campus to campus.  FERPA is in fact NOT a barrier when it’s used by people who have a day-to-day business need for it.  Some campuses have data ownership “issues” that need to be overcome.

Paul talked briefly about how he met with LinkedIn CEO at Web2.0 conference about four years ago to talk about developing a service to generate a standardized format for co-curricular transcripts that could be easily imported into a student’s professional profile.  There was interest in this, but there was agreement that there isn’t one well-defined standard.  Maybe our group can think about what kinds of information should be in that kind of profile?  A number of great suggestions were made about taking advantage of Career Services’ expertise with what employers are currently looking for.


This group could undoubtedly have gone for a couple hours, but it was lunchtime so we reluctantly had to break.  There was consensus among the group to contribute to our constituent list serve, which can be found here:  Let’s get cracking, SAPros!

Student Affairs Technology

Should Co-Curricular Activities Contribute to Academic Early Warning Systems?

I was reflecting recently on some of the things that puzzle me about Student Affairs.  One of those things is related to the strategic use of web technology on my campus…I’ll get to that part in a minute.

In February 2013, Dr. Vincent Tinto visited CSUN and gave a presentation with the title “Student Success Does Not Arise By Chance.”  He had a number of very interesting things to say about student success, one of them related to academic early warning systems.  Bottom line:  the earlier you can identify a student who is having trouble, the better.  The sooner we can positively intervene, the more likely that student is to persist.  No surprise there.  He went on to talk a bit about how our friends on the academic side of the house have tools with measurable inputs to help them flag students who might fit the “at risk” category.  One measurable input includes class involvement via in-class discussion, LMS participation, or some other measurable way.  Of course, faculty are also able to tell at-risk students by changes in appearance, disruptive behavior, spotty attendance, etc.

My question to Dr. Tinto was this:  “What are the best examples you have seen of incorporating co-curricular signals into early warning systems?”  To my astonishment, his response was that he was not aware of any such systems.  This is something that I’ve been advocating for many years, but with little success.  I think that one challenge is that many of us view our own departments without respect to how they interact with all the other areas on campus (notwithstanding the high-profile collaborations that exist on every campus).  Another challenge that I think we face is that our systems tend to be built to support the needs of our own discrete processes, without considering how the information within our system may be useful to other areas on campus.  I’m sure you’re already thinking:  Student Affairs has hundreds of quantifiable indicators we could use to identify students who may be at-risk.  And of course, you’d be right.

We all know that mere participation in activities with like-minded students – whether it’s a student/academic club, a living learning community in campus housing, student government, you name it – is positively correlated with retention and student success.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, as part of a student’s co-curricular transcript, we could see what activities they’re involved with?  More importantly, could we not also use these very same indicators – or more correctly a lack of them – to proactively prevent students from falling into the at-risk category before they get anywhere near the danger zone?

One of the things I’m passionate about is using web technologies to build web applications and services that connect students to people and other services.  My department’s mission statement is simple:  build user-friendly, student-centric online services.  We’ve built plenty of stand-alone systems, but standalone systems are a bit like a computer that isn’t connected to the Internet…pretty useful for word processing, spreadsheets, and singe-player gaming, but ultimately kind of lonely and a little boring.  Start connecting to other systems, though, and things get interesting pretty fast.  For example:  if we know what a student’s major is, why not recommend a related club they can join, or expose that information to our career centers so they can automagically show them internships and job opportunities within their major?  How about tying those same internships and opportunities to our friends in Advancement and their database of successful alumni?  Could we recommend upcoming campus events that might interest students?  If we know what a student’s GPA is (and it’s high enough), why can’t we proactively recommend participation in student government when a senate seat from their college is open?  With the focus on assessment and measurement of learning outcomes, we have a rich trove of data on which to draw (most of which is sadly locked away in disparate repositories).  I’m sure you recognize the functionality I’m talking about:  it’s a simple recommendation engine.  If you use Netflix, you already “get” what this is about.  This idea gets really powerful if we can connect it to our academic warning systems…

Being around people who share the same interests and passions as we do is extremely powerful.  It fires us up, gets us excited about what we do, and helps make our lives more fulfilling.  Why wouldn’t we want to “bootstrap” these kinds of experiences for our students?  The good news is that it isn’t that hard, it just requires us to think a little beyond our immediate system and process needs, and consider how we can leverage our information in other, often unexpected areas.

What do you think?  Has somebody already done this somewhere and I’m just not aware of it?  Hit me up on “the twitter” @paulschantz or leave a comment below.  I look forward to hearing from you!