By Daniel Moon, Associate Provost and Professor, University of North Florida
Higher education institutions are facing pressure to increase student success measures and become more efficient. Each of these can present significant challenges for universities but having to solve both challenges simultaneously can be daunting. The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to add layers of complexity and urgency to this challenging puzzle. A potentially powerful mechanism for addressing this challenge is integrating Academic Affairs and Student Affairs into one cohesive unit. Doing so at the University of North Florida has contributed to all-time high retention and graduation rates, and yielded more than $2 million in savings and reallocation.
The challenges we faced
Higher education is focused on student success now more than ever, with unprecedented layers of accountability to students, parents, boards, and others (e.g. see Kelchen, 2018). This accountability is increasingly tied to a university’s bottom line. For example, most states have a performance-based funding mechanism that explicitly ties funding to student success measures. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the challenges that students face in pursuit of their degree, making this problem even more urgent for universities to solve. Significant shifts in improving student success measures require a more holistic and integrative approach, with different divisions of the university working more closely than ever before. This is especially true for Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. At the University of North Florida, as is the case at many institutions, we had two strong divisions, each working hard to help make our students successful. There was collaboration between the two divisions when needed, but each operated independently. We saw tremendous opportunity to improve the student experience if we could bring these two divisions closer together.
Universities are also operating in an increasingly resource constrained environment. The pressure on universities to become more efficient is not new, but it has taken on new significance. For many institutions, this shift to become more efficient ramped up in 2008 during the great recession, and this push has coincided with the greater accountability that is expected of universities. Now, because of the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly every institution of higher learning is facing budget challenges. Moreover, predictions suggest that we have yet to see the full economic impact of the pandemic on our universities, and there will likely be effects on their financial futures for many years to come. In 2018, UNF was not yet facing budget cuts, but we were seeking ways to be more efficient, to reduce costs where possible, and to reallocate resources to areas of higher need. To address these challenges, our university integrated Academic and Student Affairs, merging the two divisions into one: “Academic and Student Affairs.”
Integrating Academic Affairs and Student Affairs is a growing trend among universities seeking better alignment and seamless collaboration between academic units and student services (Kezar, 2003; Levy and Polnariev, 2016). Our integration involved a significant structural change, merging the two divisions. However, there are many ways to improve alignment between the divisions, including some that require only a new or strengthened mechanism for communication and collaboration. In our integration at UNF, we focused on two primary aspects- structural/organizational and functional/behavioral.
1. Structural/organizational changes involved realigning and merging units or changing reporting structures. The objectives were to create synergy between teams with similar functions or goals and to reduce or eliminate duplication of efforts.
2. Functional/behavioral changes involved adjusting the ways in which we worked together or creating new ways to facilitate collaboration. These initiatives didn’t require any structural or organizational changes, but benefitted from a higher-level administrator (Associate Provost, Associate Vice President, etc.) leading and coordinating the efforts.
Below I will discuss a few examples from each of the two areas of focus and then some of the benefits that are emerging. Not all of these might be possible or even appropriate at all universities, but some of the most effective ones will be readily achievable at any institution.
What we did
1. Structural/Organizational Changes
We began by looking at detailed organizational charts of Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. Along with the structure, there needed to be an in-depth understanding of what the units and the people in those units do. Having a diverse team of people who brought their knowledge and expertise to the effort was important. We looked for units across the two divisions that had similar or complementary goals and functions and worked through a variety of “what if” scenarios. Those scenarios examined possible ways of increasing collaboration between the units and ranged from opening new lines of communication (a functional change) to merging them (a structural one). Communication was a key step in completing the reorganization. This involved not only listening to input and suggestions from those who would be impacted by the changes, but also conveying the rationale behind the changes to the campus community. There were some positions we were able to eliminate or reallocate as a result of this process, but it is important to note that we didn’t start with that objective in mind. Rather, as we began to make changes we believed would benefit the university, opportunities for developing a leaner and more efficient structure emerged. Below are a few of the changes we made and the benefits that have been emerging.
- Student Health Services and Counseling Center aligned within the Brooks College of Health
One of the first changes we made was to move our Student Health Services clinic and our Counseling Center to the Brooks College of Health, under the direct supervision of the dean. Some positive relationships between those units and the College of Health already existed, but there was expertise in the college and greater opportunities for collaboration that could be better developed. For example, there were opportunities we saw for nursing students to engage more extensively with the operations of Student Health Services. Similarly, there were opportunities for our Counseling Center to collaborate with our Clinical Mental Health Counseling program housed in the Department of Public Health.
Nursing students have been gaining valuable experience through interaction with the Student Health Services team. They have also been instrumental in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing essential help that made our on-campus testing program possible. The partnership between our Counseling Center and the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program has added additional layers of support we can provide for our students, including the Prevention, Early Intervention and Resilience through Counseling and Holistic health (PERCH) program that provides proactive and early-intervention mental health support for students. The PERCH program represents one of the initiatives we were able to support by reinvesting funds saved through the restructure. Additionally, it helped to dissolve the invisible barrier between academic and student services units. The dean of the college and the student affairs leadership team continue to work very closely to meet the needs of the students, understanding and being able to address them from multiple perspectives.
- Residence Life Programming and Career Services moved to Undergraduate Studies
We wanted to strengthen the academic aspects of the programming in the residence halls, especially our Living Learning Communities. We also wanted to forge a more integrated link between our Career Services office and our academic advisors, especially for first-year students.
We have been able to enhance the involvement of faculty in our Living Learning Communities and provide a more consistent core of academic enrichment for the students in the residence halls. We have also been able to involve our advisors and retention specialists more fully in assessing and responding to the needs of our residents. Linking career services with advising has allowed for advisors and career counselors to work together to create an academic plan for our students and allowed for some basic cross-training to give people an appreciation for and understanding of what their colleagues do.
- Merging and slimming down offices
There were a number of offices that performed similar functions operating independently, resulting in duplication of efforts. For example, we had a Creative Services department in Student Affairs that handled some marketing and communications functions, and we had a Strategic Communications office in Enrollment Services that did similar things. The situation was similar with our International Center and our English Language program. We also had support staff in administrative offices in Academic Affairs and Student Affairs who could be better utilized elsewhere (e.g. Institutional Research and our One Stop student service center).
Teams that were brought together began to benefit from complementary expertise. For example, our Creative Services team had excellent project management skills and our Strategic Communications team had expertise in marketing and branding. By combining budgets of the teams, we were able to use resources more efficiently to serve the entire university community. We also had flexibility to shift and reallocate positions, and were able to reassign individuals to departments that better matched their passion and expertise.
- Aligning budget and personnel
Aligning the budget and personnel offices of Academic Affairs and Student Affairs could fit in the bullet above, but was significant enough to mention separately. Initially, we kept the two offices separate because this shift was complex. As units across the newly merged division continued to work together, however, the advantages of merging the budget and personnel teams increased. Although the predominant funding source was different for Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, the portfolio and many of the processes were the same.
A significant benefit for UNF was that this alignment of offices allowed for a more strategic management of the full array of funds and accounts in the division. It also became easier for us to manage the many joint initiatives between academic and student service departments. Merging the two teams also provided us with the ability to cross train our team members, giving us some depth and essential backup for critical positions and functions.
2. Functional and behavioral changes
In addition to looking closely at structures, we critically appraised processes, services, and functions that could be improved by fostering greater collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. Our objectives were to increase the awareness and appreciation of what our colleagues did across these two areas. We also wanted to create a sense of common purpose and shared vision for student success, and to increase regular and meaningful communication across all units.
- Team meetings and committees that integrate AA and SA leadership
One of the most important things we did was to begin holding meetings that brought together key individuals from the two divisions. These included the Provost’s and Associate Provost’s leadership teams as well as regular meetings of directors and unit heads from across Academic and Student Affairs. We also changed existing committees and built new committees to incorporate key individuals from across Academic and Student Affairs. Two examples of this were our Supporting Our Students (SOS) team, an existing committee that added representatives from Undergraduate Studies, and our Student Success Rapid Response Team, a new committee that brought together leaders from all of the support units (e.g. Financial Aid, Dean of Students, Student Engagement, Registrar’s Office, etc.) to better integrate immediate responses to challenges our students were encountering.
A significant benefit was that the entire team engaged in goal setting and strategic planning together, aligning priorities and discussing ways to support each other in achieving them. These opportunities also changed our way of thinking, expanding our view beyond the boundaries of the teams and departments we were used to working with. Bringing together individuals from across the division was instrumental in our ability to see our students more holistically, thus gaining a better understanding of various facets of the student experience and how academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular interacted. Decision making and acting quickly on those decisions became easier with everyone around the same table from the beginning.
- Joint initiatives and prioritized funding for collaborative projects
To foster collaboration, to signify the importance of partnerships between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs units, and to support creativity, we provided funding opportunities that prioritized or were exclusively for these collaborations. We were able to restructure and change the terms of some existing funding opportunities, as well as take some reallocated funds from the restructure and invest it in funding innovative collaborations. There were many examples of these joint initiatives from a collaborative bootcamp for STEM students, to a student nutrition project that brought together our Nutrition department faculty and our Recreation and Wellness staff, to a collaboration between our Art department faculty and our Student Engagement team to showcase some of the creative work of our students and faculty.
Units across the division actively sought new partners, generated creative ideas to improve student success, and worked together to make them happen. Academic departments began to see how to partner with student service units to better engage the student body. Student Affairs departments gained a better understanding of the wealth of expertise arrayed across our colleges.
What we learned
Below are a few of the things we learned along the way. Some we learned early and were able to incorporate into our planning. Others we learned from experience and required making adjustments and course corrections. Just as the integration is still continuing, so too are the lessons we are learning.
- Organizational and structural changes are important but only in that they should facilitate the functional or behavioral changes or reduce costs
It is important to keep in mind that, in terms of improving the student experience, what is most important is improving communication and collaboration between units. In some cases, this is best achieved through a structural realignment or change in reporting structure. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Structural changes are disruptive, even when all goes as smoothly as possible. And if the end result doesn’t give your institution a positive result in terms of collaborative synergy or in efficiency with no loss in effectiveness, then it shouldn’t be undertaken.
- Don’t be constrained by traditional structures
If you do look to make structural or organizational changes, think function and not structure. Some of the changes we made involved moving auxiliary-funded student service units into academic colleges. On our campus, this made sense. There were logistical challenges to overcome, but with a clear vision of the benefit and why we were doing this, those challenges were fairly easily resolved. Don’t let traditional structures stifle creative thinking and the benefits that can come from it.
- Don’t change for the sake of change
It is important not to make a change unless there is compelling reason, even if there is pressure to make things “look different”. Some people on campus will feel as though a substantive change hasn’t occurred unless the organizational chart looks drastically different. They seem to measure progress or success by how different a drawing looks, and this is a highly subjective criterion. As we have discussed, substantive gains in function and even efficiency can be made with no structural changes at all, and a structural change without a shift in function or efficiency is just disruptive.
- Change leadership to make departments change-capable
One of the important components to team members being open to and excited about the new opportunities that arise from change is to have the leaders of those teams be open to change as well. In a few of the changes we made, both structural and functional, we had leaders in place who were not open to doing anything different and saw conversations about change as threats. In turn, they communicated negatively about these ideas to their teams. With a change in leadership came an eagerness among the team members to think creatively and innovate.
- Decide, preferably early on, what identity AA and SA will retain
This is important if you are contemplating significant structural changes, but is still a consideration for any efforts to integrate Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. Some blurring of lines and breaking down of barriers is important, but it is important that neither “side of the house” feel diminished. For UNF, the desire to remove barriers, real and perceived, was significant. Initially the intent was for neither division to retain their previous name or identity. We felt it was important to signal a change- that things were not the same. But there is a lot that is tied up in these names from conceptual, psychological, and logistical perspectives. We also needed to be cognizant of community partners, donors, and other external constituencies.
- Be clear on reporting structures
If you are thinking about making structural changes, it is important to make reporting structures clear. Uncertainty regarding who reports to whom, or who serves as a point of contact can result in confusion that is detrimental to the mission of better integrating units. It can also leave team members and leaders feeling disenfranchised. Even if the decisions about reporting structure might not be popular with everyone, or might be changed at a subsequent date, clarity from the beginning can help the process of integrating structure and function go much more smoothly.
- Know what success looks like and measure it
For each organizational or functional change you make, think carefully about how you will know it is successful. Realigning a department or creating an integrated committee isn’t the goal, but rather a means to what you seek to achieve, whether that is new opportunities for students, new initiatives, cost savings, etc. Whenever possible, these outcomes should be quantitative and measurable, but there can certainly be positive qualitative outcomes as well. Not only does this help you to benchmark, set goals, and know if progress is being made, but it will be an important part of helping members of the campus community see the impact that efforts to integrate are having.
- Continue to communicate with the entire division
For people actively involved in the collaboration and integration, there will be a good level of awareness of the ongoing efforts and benefits. For the rest of the campus community, however, it is important to continue to communicate the efforts, initiatives, and benefits of the integration. There is sometimes a tendency to assume that if there isn’t constant communication about something, that nothing is happening. The absence of communication can also lead to some individuals falling back into old ways of thinking and old patterns of behavior. The integration, once begun, needs to be a recurring and present theme on campus.
A better alignment and increased collaboration between Academic and Student Affairs can be a powerful way to improve the experience of your students. The approach and extent of this integration can vary from campus to campus depending upon needs and culture, but starting with clear goals and rationale will maximize success of your efforts.
Kelchen, Robert. Higher Education Accountability. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Kezar, Adrianna. “Enhancing Innovative Partnerships: Creating a Change Model for Academic and Student Affairs Collaboration”. Innovative Higher Education, vol. 28, no. 2, 2003, pp. 137-156.
Levy, Mitchell and Polnariev, Bernard. Academic and Student Affairs in Collaboration: Creating a Culture of Student Success. Routledge, 2016.
Dr. Daniel Moon received his Master’s in Zoology and Ph.D. in Biology from the University of South Florida, studying food web ecology, entomology, and environmental biology. He is currently the Associate Provost at University of North Florida overseeing Budget & Personnel for the division, Digital Learning & Innovation, Student Affairs, and Undergraduate Studies. He has previously served as the Chair of Biology, Interim Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and Associate Vice President & Dean of Undergraduate Studies.