Collaborative, Empowered Environment

In their definitions of transformation, letters to peers, and hopes for the coming year, all of the Frontier Set sites noted how fundamental a truly collaborative environment and campuswide culture of care are to this work. They’ve seen how critical it is for leadership to clearly and consistently build a culture of empowerment as they move equity and student-success efforts forward. This entails building a culture that fosters collaboration, encourages experimentation, and celebrates success—all through strategic communications and developing a rigorous planning process that aligns the institution around a core set of principles and goals. Faculty and staff must be made active partners in the journey, both by granting ownership and by creating working groups or task forces with specific aims. Key messages, from sweeping goals to tactical changes, must be delivered campuswide, and communicated clearly and frequently.


This work to create a truly collaborative environment pays off when initiatives succeed, faculty and staff are engaged and active, and students graduate.

Here are some thoughts and examples from the Frontier Set sites and intermediaries:

The Aspen Institute, Intermediary
“Transformation includes meaningfully engaging all campus constituencies, even those who serve students indirectly or have historically not been a part of student-success work.”

American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Intermediary
“Institutional transformation begins with an articulation of core values, particularly a commitment to student success for all students. Transformation also requires that the entire campus is committed to the core values, enacted in each office and program. Institutions that are in the process of transforming possess an experimental and innovative mindset, willing to try new approaches as well as jettison outdated practices.”

CUNY Staten Island
“The ability to change involves a complex multitude of elements, all of which rely on acceptance and buy-in at every level.”

Columbia Basin College
"Institutional transformation is a necessary and complicated process. Status quo is not good enough these days, and transformation forces institutional growth and collaborations between colleagues, all in an effort to ensure student success."

Rather than talk about the names of the various initiatives, we intentionally avoid such divisional, segmented language and instead talk more holistically about student success.

How they do it:

By engaging the whole campus in annual book reads that are centered on difficult topics—and creating an equity champions program that helps a key group of staff and faculty teach others about equitable outcomes and supporting the needs of each student.


A transforming institution is one which operates within a culture that is intentionally structured to enable employees to expect and welcome intrinsic and extrinsic change. This approach significantly reduces resistance to new initiatives by employees, allowing us to shorten the time necessary to scale new student-success models.

How they do it:

By creating temporary workgroups that meet on a very specific topic for a limited amount of time. Anyone at any level of the organization can join these, and they very rarely become permanent committees—instead, they just meet until a sustainable solution is identified and recommended for implementation. The workgroup model is collaborative, made up of administrators, faculty, and staff.

Johnson C. Smith University
“Radical transformation is the process of profound and swift change that orients an organization in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness. Unlike ‘turnaround,’which implies incremental progress on the same plane, ‘radical transformation’ points to a significant change of character, with little or no resemblance to the past configuration or structure.”

We employ the five stages of design thinking: empathy, problem definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Students, faculty, and staff are involved at each stage.

How they do it:

By taking an active problem-solving approach that squarely places students at the center of development activities in which the university leverages cross-functional teams to iterate, prototype, and implement solutions through a collaborative design process. This approach engages leadership at all levels and also, importantly, utilizes active listening and customization, which effectively draw on institutional resources and capacity. A few results to date include developing flexible degrees, blended academic and career advising aligned with the PSU student journey, and interactive degree maps.

Miami Dade College
“New teams have been formed as the institution tackles new challenges, but throughout this process, a core of team members remained in place, seeding new teams with a common language, methodology, and culture of transformation. This structure not only enables broad participation from faculty, staff, and administrators, and leverages resources and learning, but it also helps minimize initiative fatigue. New members bring fresh ideas, experience, and perspective, but the teams remain rooted in a shared vision and goals for student success.”

Morehouse is a transforming institution; the college not only sets its goals to transform and influence the lives of the students, but also to transform itself to meet the changing needs of those students.

New Jersey City University
“Institutional transformation is a complex process that requires, among other things, patience, enforcement, and, most importantly, strategic human, financial, and technological investments, and involves self-awareness, empathy, and competency.”

A culture of student success is maintained across the institution. All staff, executive leadership, and board members have a clear vision of how initiatives and their individual roles promote student success.

How they do it:

By giving major initiatives to a coordinator who works collaboratively across divisions to manage the logistics of a specific project. This helps free capacity among faculty, staff, and administrators, who can serve more as content experts and thought leaders.

Santa Fe College
“Part of what catalyzes transformation is a decentralized culture of empowerment and accountability that begins with the orientation of new faculty and staff, and is supported by ongoing professional development and collegewide communications.”

State Systems Intermediary
The two state systems, comprising 39 institutions, create environments that drive and support institutional transformation. Each system has a vision with clear goals, and each seeks to create enabling policy environments, provide technical assistance, and build statewide infrastructure that coordinates resources to support transformation.

Institutional transformation is a fundamental change in the orientation, policies, and practices of an institution, from entry-level staff through the president’s office, to refocus directly on the student experience and the primacy of that, including particularly the perspective of groups of students that may have been previously overlooked or not heard.

How they do it:

By launching college-level Student Success Teams in academic colleges. The purpose of these teams is to develop college-level ownership and investment in student success and to gather insights and develop locally led programs to improve students’ success. Each team is led by a college Associate Dean and is composed of college faculty, academic advisors, a Career Center representative, and a Student Life representative. These teams are then also represented on the Student Success Steering Team, which meets once a month to elevate college-level ideas and concerns, and collaborate on student-success strategies.

University System of Georgia
This state system recently announced the creation of the Chancellor’s Learning Scholars, a program designed to provide scaling capacity to reach 10,000+ full-time faculty in the system and to create a truly collaborative student-success environment within institutions and across the system. The system will engage communities of practice on each of the 26 campuses, supported by USG expertise via the overall systemwide Faculty Learning Communities, to be led by the Chancellor’s Learning Scholars..

William Rainey Harper College
Harper College’s strategic plan, which frames the transformational change initiatives for the college, was developed by engaging 100 key internal and external stakeholders in a community-based strategic planning process to ensure buy-in. Once the plan was finalized, five goal teams were developed, each led by a Harper faculty member and an administrator. These teams are empowered to develop strategies that address their particular goal.

For such a huge transformation to be possible, it’s necessary that faculty and administration work together on a common goal. Not everyone always agrees, but having faculty and administration play an equal role in leading these teams allows for each side to help see the other side’s perspective.

These goal teams meet on a regular basis, and the leaders of all those teams—along with the president, provost, grant directors, and stakeholders from institutional research, finance, outcomes assessment, and beyond—also meet several times each semester. This approach builds momentum and allows teams to see where another team’s work may support their own.