A President's Reflections

Culture and success

Posted on November 17, 2008

I’ve just returned from watching our men’s soccer team lose its NCAA Tournament game to Lowell 2 to 1.  While that outcome was disappointing, this was a remarkable turnaround season for the team that saw it go from a 9-7-5 record to a 15-2-4 record, ending the season as Northeast-10 Conference Champions.  Junior Adrian Shippers was named East Regional Player of the Year and our first year coach Marc Hubbard was named NE-10 Coach of the Year. 

What’s been most interesting to me has been to watch the way Marc, a young first-time head coach, created a culture that made such success possible.  Sure, having players like Adrian and Matt Delaney and others is critical, but lots of teams with good performers do less well than they should.  Others perform better than they should on paper. 

The intangibles that lead to success are situated in culture, I think.  Culture is where expectations are set and enacted, where players demand more from each other, where communication is established, and where the chemistry of the whole is created and then supersedes (and usually shapes) the behavior of the individual.  The Patriots ability to take malcontents on other teams (think Corey Dillon or Randy Moss) and make them excellent teammates has to do with the culture of the team.

Most universities have the same basic attributes: excellent faculty members, interesting courses, attractive campuses, and more.  What makes them different from one another is the culture they create.  As we embark on a new strategic plan, all the things we will seek to improve and measure and alter will be less important than the culture within which those changes take place. 

At SNHU the culture is most strongly oriented to serving students.  Our faculty and staff will go to extraordinary lengths to work with students who need help, whether that be with an assignment, with advice or mentoring, or a pragmatic question around financial aid or housing.  Most institutions say they do this for students, but I know enough other universities to know that what happens at SNHU is exceptional. 

This service ethos is not enough of course.  We are expanding and improving programs, working to make our administrative systems easier to navigate, trying to better support research and scholarship, and more.  But I remain convinced that the culture of success here is fueled by a rare institutional devotion to student success.

7 thoughts on “Culture and success

  1. Betsy Gunzelmann says:

    Although the attributes that lead to a success culture may not be tangible..they are identifiable. An open climate is one of the essential characteristics. Possibly this blog may be an example of how people feel free to express their viewpoints.
    Since researching school climates (from the psychological perspective) is one of my areas of interest, I find this blog quite intriguing and most positive.

  2. Bob Seidman says:

    We (faculty & staff) do many things well and the resulting synergy of our individual actions shapes all aspects of our university’s culture. When I began teaching here I was immediately impressed with the culture of caring that existed with regard to student success. I am no less impressed 27 years later. You are right in observing that not all universities live up to their claims. Devotion to student success is one claim that we can take pride in and continue to nurture. The advancement of knowledge, critical discourse, and devotion to our students seem to me to be our raison d’être.

  3. Frank Catano says:

    I agree with your comments and want to add one thought….in our commitment to student success we need to take students from where they are at in their scholarly development bringing them forward from that point. This will help us with retention but moreso will help us fulfill that most American of dreams ‘our children to do better’. This dream hit me clealy this past labor day during orientation when parents and students almost unanimously raised their hands when asked if they were the first in their families to attend college. It is this hope that we capture when we think of student success.

  4. Paul Leblanc says:

    Thank you for this first trio of responses! The ethos of devotion to students remains strong as Bob says, but I do wonder about how that then translates into action. What are the attributes of successful translation, to borrow from Betsy? My hope is that the new Strategic Plan helps us channel our student-centered impulses into better service than we already provide. That’s what goal 2 is all about.

    In similar fashion, Goal 1 speaks very directly to Frank’s point about taking students where we find them and moving them to success. Nicholas Lehman’s great book on standardized testing, The Big Test, has a wonderful chapter about a daring attempt to create a test that would have adjusted scores based on external conditions so that a 480 on a test might be adjusted to a 550 to account for the test-taker’s lousy school and other contextual shapers of performance. This was of course killed off when people realized the social ramifications.

    I think SNHU brings more value add to our students’ education when you consider how far they travel intellectually and emotionally in their four years here than does many better known institutions (to Frank’s point).

  5. Bob Seidman says:

    Paul writes: “I think SNHU brings more value add to our students’ education when you consider how far they travel intellectually and emotionally in their four years here than does many better known institutions (to Frank’s point).”

    Yes. But I say we can and ought to do much more. While all years in school are important, I think that one could make a convincing case that the first year is crucial. It is crucial for all of the obvious reasons: the first year sets the academic and social foundation and tone for subsequent years; a successful and fulfilling first year helps us with retention; and more ….

    What would things be like if we re-conceptualize the first year? I realize that there is a VPAA-appointed task force that is looking into the university core. I’m not a part of that group and have no access to what they are thinking about. And so I suppose this gives me license to be ‘naïvely inspired’ or perhaps naïvely deluded.’

    Let’s focus on the first semester of the freshman year and assume that the most commonly taken courses’ content is fine. [Big assumption, but necessary in order for me to make the ‘structural’ point I’m after.] Then, what would life be like from a freshman student point of view if s/he took not 5 distinct 3-credit courses, but actively participated in three distinct educational experiences (accounting for a total of 15 credits)?!

    The first experience, worth 6 credits, is team taught by their English and SNHU101 teachers. The second experience, worth 6 credits, is team taught by their Math and Computer Information Technology teachers. Students move as a cohort through the first educational experience. They also move as a cohort, but probably a different cohort, through the second experience. The last 3 freshman credits would be an elective experience of their choosing with no identifiable cohort in mind.

    Of course, this cohort arrangement smacks of Learning Communities that have been so successful elsewhere and tried once here on a very small scale. It is also somewhat like the kind of experience we’ve been providing 3Yr Honors students for over 10 years.

    I think that such a structure could have the makings of a win-win ‘success’ experience for both students and teachers. Naturally, it’s easier said than done, but why not try out a pilot program to see if/how it works?!

    Anyway, just some thoughts to contribute to this blog thread.

  6. Bob Seidman says:

    I think that we can define success in a number of ways. Maybe just staying in school (persisting) is one definition or aspect of a definition. Kevin Carey, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, writes about the Community College Survey of Student Engagement report and suggests that it pertains to 4-year schools too.

    “The idea that lots of students are necessarily washing out of college because faculty members are bravely adhering to high standards, come what may, is mostly a myth. Instead, students are leaving because colleges and faculty members don’t ask enough, and don’t provide the kind of high-quality teaching and support services that students need to meet the challenge.”

    I find this interesting and it made me think of the SNHU undergraduate program with the highest retention rates: 3Yr Honors. The bar is kept high for these students – it’s built into the curriculum and the culture.

    What would things be like if we provide all first year students with our very best and most experienced full-time faculty and integrate support services in such a way as to promote maximum success?!

  7. Frank Catano says:

    I think keeping the bar high is a good goal….once we establish the floor….both are needed. Bob mentions the culture…this too is big. The culture for the faculty as well as the students is critical. I think a faculty focused on teaching, relationship building, mentoring, and advising is the next step for SNHU…. I think research and publishing can work if they include students…. The competition is so great for jobs and grad schools that student publishing-usually with a faculty-is increasingly common both academically and personally for the student.
    I am increasingly an advocate for “whole-person” teaching wherein, for example, critical thinking is taught for academic, personal, and social skill development. Success: it includes both the instructor and the student as shared learners.

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