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Three Essential Strategies to Future-Proof Innovative Programs

At a critical juncture, higher ed must work to attract and retain students through their learning journey, which requires providing student-centered programming that ultimately reflects the postsecondary mission.

Recent headlines in higher education publications tell a dire story of prolonged and systemic stress. The Chronicle’s Erin Gretzinger warns that the woes of the University of Wisconsin system are the canary in the coal mine for universities across the country. Jeremy Bauer-Wolf highlights in Higher Ed Dive seven storylines from 2023 that promise disruption, consolidation and continued attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion. Meanwhile, Liam Knox asks in an article for Inside Higher Ed, “Is class-based affirmative action a pipe dream?” (and the answer seems to be yes).[1]

It’s not just from higher ed circles that these cautions come; publications from the Harvard Business Review to the Washington Post are chock full of what institutional leaders must do to navigate the convulsive changes, shifting paradigms and VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) higher ed environment today.

Readers are confronted with evidence of a reality defined by budget austerity, flagging public trust, constant reorganization, increased demands on faculty and staff, and calls for both innovation and efficiency. Meanwhile, higher education employees are shifting positions at an unprecedented rate, with many exiting academia altogether.[2]

The consequence is a dizzying sense of impermanence and swirl, with students often appearing only as secondary characters. Amidst this swirl, the reality is that, for most of us, our purpose remains steady. Students arrive on our campuses, not as sidekicks but as main characters in their own stories, ready to engage in radical acts of personal, professional and intellectual transformation. To support their success and development, we strive to build lasting programs that can provide steadiness and safety in a time that can seem anything but.

In dialogue with the work called for in McNair and colleagues’ Becoming a Student-Ready College (2016) and Davidson and Katopodis’s recent The New College Classroom (2022), to name a few, we want to share how we as practitioners, one an administrator (Erin) and one a faculty member (Mary), have each contributed to the development of a vibrant and diffuse student-centered culture at our large public, research-intensive and minority-serving institution.

We have a shared commitment to the values of liberal education that informs our separate design of sustainable, student-forward programs that demonstrate the efficacy of strong, accessible curricular bridges between the classroom and applied experiences in preparing students to be agents of their own futures. Programs that allow students to gain optimism, agency, well-being and a sense of belonging. Programs that allow students to have a say in what happens to them and have that say matter.

The purpose of this piece is to share three things we believe you can do to stay true to this North Star and cultivate enduring programs that enrich the student experience at your own institution.

1. Stay Student-Centered

Because universities are hierarchical structures, it can be easy to lose sight of a fundamental reason why universities exist: to train and engage students in creating new knowledge, novel ideas and new relationships. But we don’t report to students. We report up a chain that with every level up moves farther away from day-to-day engagement with students. While lots of leaders say it, few can follow through on including students and their lived experiences in decision-making. “Don’t talk about us without us” is a message we hear time and again, so find ways to involve students in your enterprise. In addition, be sensitive to including all students, not just those comfortable talking to the teacher. Consider, for example, how you are creating pathways to engagement for neurodiverse students, students who may be the first in their family to attend college, who may be food or housing insecure (or both), or who may simply not have a financial or social safety net. Consider the needs of your adult learners and transfer students, students from different majors or disciplines, and students in the murky middle who are often forgotten as we attend to those in crisis and those at the top.  

Staying Student-Centered in Practice: Reflection

Mary: I treat my students as colleagues and prioritize my responsibility as their mentor. My empathy-based teaching practice prompted me to reimagine a co-curricular TA program, going from having one TA per section of a required first-year research writing course to having a large community of 25+ student mentors.[3] The model distributes responsibility, alleviating undue pressure on any one mentor, and creates a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and professionalism.

To manage the number of mentors, I create roles that provide structure for students (everyone knows their job, their value and how to work together) and that frees me up to concentrate on teaching rather than administration. The TAs take attendance, run breakout sections, track extra credit, record class notes, offer feedback on assignments and even co-teach to explain difficult research concepts for our first-year students.

The program retains 90% of mentors year to year, with some staying with me the entirety of their time at the institution. Mentors and their parents credit this program with creating a sense of connection, community and coherence that might otherwise be missing. Likewise, student evaluations of my sections are atypically high when compared to traditional first-year writing courses which historically students evaluate poorly. My students consistently comment that the TA program was a highlight of the course and one of the most helpful facets. All these factors have the added benefit of increasing student retention as well as amplifying my own engagement.

Expanding this program allows TAs the autonomy to cocreate and run course components such as group study and breakout sessions that are fun, sought after and communal. Every semester I invite candid feedback from the TAs and revise the program based on their input as students working with students. One outcome of this collegial process is the TA’s CARE program, which allows students to reach out directly to their peer mentors about any issue. The list of issues ranges from technology problems to connecting with mental health resources to finding the best restaurant within walking distance to complaints about the instructor (AKA me). Each semester I have over a dozen new TAs and 25 returning. These students want to be part of this community. They want to help their fellow students succeed.

2. Create an Army

Start with a shared coda or collective vision and distribute responsibility for success. This process will require you to think through the language and agendas of different members of the university community. Faculty have different priorities than advisors, and advisors have different agendas than student affairs professionals, who have different perspectives than student accounts staff. However, each office and person intersects with the student experience and has student success as a goal.

Before you create your army:

  • Get to know how your university runs and, more importantly, who actually runs it. Don’t overlook the talents and insights of those outside academic affairs.
  • Consider how different groups could benefit from your vision and what they might need to carry forward the change effort.
  • Consider how your vision might negatively impact an office, unit or role. Will your great ideas create a tsunami of work for someone else? Find out and start conversations proactively.
  • Use language that suggests collective ownership and that celebrates common goals.
  • Credit people with their good ideas and ensure the spotlight is on those doing the work, not on you.
  • Rinse and repeat: Refreshing your army should be intentional and recursive.

Creating an Army in Practice: Reflection

Erin: I did the tried-and-true 90 in 90 (90 meetings in 90 days) when I arrived on campus to build a university-wide experiential learning program. I included everyone who was willing and interested: directors from all the high-impact practice units, the registrar and his amazing team, cabinet members, academic advisors, student affairs leaders, shared governance bodies (faculty, staff and students) and as many content experts and practitioners as I could bring to the table. I ran focus groups with students and partnered with community engagement to run parallel sessions with community partners and nonprofit leaders.

Based on these meetings, I identified connections, shared values and trouble spots. And from that, I built an advisory council of 60+ members representing every college and school and major business unit across the institution. The council was founded as a collective of equals. We are all part of a community because of our expertise and how it serves the greater goal. In consequence, the harnessed passion of content experts is focused on a single problem: how to ensure equity and fairness in experiential learning.

The army’s work transcended any one person. Part of building the army requires graciousness and recognition. I write a letter of commendation each year and copy supervisors, department chairs and deans, acknowledging the tremendous service that these faculty and staff contribute. The army of volunteers renews each year because, in part, they feel appreciated and recognized. We also have a lot of fun and care about each other.

3. Write a Personal Mission Statement

A mission statement that is true to you, not to the person you think you should be. The successes we have described are direct results of strong senses of purpose and mission. Sustainable programs reflect authentic personal values. The values imbued within your personal mission are what will give you resilience and a foundation that can endure even when the immediate context changes. The name of your office might change, for example, but your core mission will continue to serve and guide your decisions and priorities. A strong sense of why you do what you do will energize your programs, inform your engagement with students and inspire your vision.

Practice Your Personal Mission: Reflection

As we shared notes with each other on our approaches as leaders and thought partners, we landed on a very similar commitment to fairness and justice as basic and fundamental values. We like to make sure people get the credit they deserve and that doors are propped open to facilitate access and opportunity, rather than allowed to close in the name of prestige.

Erin: My work as an administrator is a natural extension of my teaching philosophy, which I described as a young and newly tenured assistant professor in terms of James Berlin’s edict: “the liberated consciousness of students is the only educational objective worth considering, the only objective worth the risk of failure.” I am dedicated to supporting the success of all students and I have built high-impact practice programs (HIPs) at two different institutions in service to this mission, one as an accreditation project and another as a presidential experiential learning initiative. In both cases I understood my role wasn’t to scale HIPs but to scale access and opportunity. That sense of mission informed my priorities to, first, build a community of practice and, second, get into the data infrastructure. The first creates an army of concerned and informed colleagues dedicated to the mission, and the second ensures data inform policy, identify structural barriers and point the way forward.  

Mary: My mission is to foster a healthy future by investing in students regardless of the traditional markers of excellence. For example, when building my TA program, I had to consider who to let in. I was encouraged to engage in a traditional process that would have rewarded the most ambitious and the highest achievers. I resisted because I believe inclusion is required for true excellence. Some of my best TAs have been students who almost failed the course, including students who struggled because higher ed is not built for them (neurodiverse, first-generation, housing and food insecure). So, the undergirding of the program with a mission that prioritizes fairness and inclusion drives me to offer more good for more students regardless of their academic status.

These three ingredients—staying student-centered, creating an army and practicing your mission—create enduring programs. When a program is student-centered, students remain engaged and become champions. When a program invites broad engagement, the army is invested and embeds energy and a through line for sustainability. When a program is based on authentic values, it will transcend the dizzying moment to remain relevant. Onward!



[1] This is of course not an exhaustive list but a quick summary of just a few of the articles awaiting readers scrolling through their media channels on Jan 8, 2024.

[2] See “Survey Analysis: Why Higher Education Employees are Leaving Their Jobs” by Justin Zackal and Megan Zahneis’s “Higher Ed’s Work-Force-Retention Problems Aren’t Going Away.”

[3] Done well, undergraduate teaching assistantship programs are high-impact practices with strong correlations to positive outcomes such as improved self-confidence, student retention, persistence, sense of belonging and self-regulation. Here are some examples of UTA programs as HIPs: Closing Equity Gaps through a Peer Mentoring Program (2023) and Personal Impacts of the Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Experience (2022)


Bauer-Wolf, Jeremy. “7 Higher Education Trends to Watch in 2024.” Higher Ed Dive, Jan 8, 2024.  

Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.” College English, vol. 50, no. 5, 1988, pp. 477–94. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Jan. 2024.

Davidson, Cathy N., and Christina Katopodis. The New College Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP 2022. Print.

Felege, Christopher J., Cheryl J. Hunter, and Susan N. Ellis-Felege. “Personal Impacts of the Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Experience.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, vol. 22, no. 2, 2022, pp. 33-36. ERIC, Accessed 25 Jan 2024.

Gretzinger, Erin. “Wisconsin’s Warning for Higher Ed.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Jan. 8, 2024.

Knox, Liam. “Is Class-Based Affirmative Action a Pipe Dream?” Inside Higher Ed Jan 8, 2024.

McNair, Tia Brown, et al. Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2016. Print.

Totaro, Virginia Wray Totaro, Hilary Levinson, Amber Pearson, Michael K. Dooley, Katy Hanggi & Constance C. Relihan. “Closing Equity Gaps through a Peer Mentoring Program: The Impact of Being an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant.” Academic Leader. 2018. Reprint March 6, 2023.

Zackal, Justin. “Survey Analysis: Why Higher Education Employees are Leaving Their Jobs.” Higher Ed Jobs October 5, 2023.

Zahneis, Megan. “Higher Ed’s Work-Force-Retention Problems Aren’t Going Away.” Chronicle of Higher Education Jan 13, 2024.