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Pivotal Moments: How Urban Universities Can Advance Equity & Transformation During Major Change

April 7, 2022

Washington, DC – Seeking to help universities across the country overcome challenges stemming from common institutional inflection points, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) today released three roadmaps examining how urban-located universities can turn the challenges presented during institutional mergers, leadership transitions, and new performance-based state funding models into opportunities to advance equity and institutional transformation. The in-depth studies and roadmaps are the culmination of nearly six years of intensive work by APLU, USU, Florida International University, Georgia State University, and Portland State University as part of the Frontier Set initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Driving institutional transformation can be a daunting undertaking in the best of circumstances,” said Andréa Rodriguez, Director at USU and APLU’s Office of Urban Initiatives, who led the work alongside APLU and USU colleagues Mitzy Gonzalez and Matt Renn. “Yet we know universities are frequently faced with vexing challenges that can hamper the process of institutional transformation. We’re thrilled to be sharing the examples of three public urban-serving universities that have done exactly that by identifying barriers to student success amid institutional changes of senior leadership transitions, institutional mergers, and shifts to performance-based funding models. The roadmaps are a guide for how other institutions can too be transformative through internal and external shifts.”

The roadmaps include profiles of essentials of institutional transformation:

Each case study provides critical questions to consider for institutions facing similar circumstances while highlighting the elements that led to successfully navigating them at the three universities. This week, leaders from across public urban-serving universities are convening at Florida International University to and learn about work of the Frontier Set. Participants will have the opportunity to earn a micro-credential, issued by Florida International University, that defines, identifies, and applies key elements of institutional transformation. Following the convening, APLU and USU will unveil an open access module to higher education that will highlight the critical elements and principles of institutional transformation.

As urban-serving universities, Florida International University, Georgia State University, and Portland State University serve first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented minority students. Over the past six years, the universities shared extensively with each other what they were learning through the process with the aim of creating models for other institutions seeking to emulate and advance institutional transformation amid such challenges. Urban serving universities are institutions in cities where their contributions are integral to the social, cultural, and economic wellbeing of the community.

Below are key high-level takeaways from the research released today.

Navigating Performance-Based State Funding
Nearly 30 states have some form of performance-based state funding (PBF) formula, tying state funding to student outcomes such as graduation, retention, and costs to students. Such funding models can create challenges for institutions seeking to prioritize equity or serve as open-access institutions where students of varying levels of preparation enroll. As it grappled with the impact of a transition to a performance-based funding model, Florida International University made clear that its primary mission involved advancing equity and serving as an anchor institution improving wellbeing in its community – even as the university aligned its operations with new state-defined metrics.

Florida International University responded to state PBF metrics while simultaneously defining its own goals related to social mobility and accessibility. Throughout the transition, Florida International University advanced institutional transformation through data-driven decision making, innovation in teaching and learning, and creating new pathways for student success. To achieve this vision, the university developed a coordinated university-wide mission with transformation efforts undertaken at the departmental level. This approach allowed the university to use the shift to performance-based funding as an opportunity to deepen collaboration across the institution.

Navigating an Institutional Merger
Mergers of institutions of higher education can present major challenges, with research showing increased job-related stress, high turnover, and decreased commitment among faculty amid such change. Georgia State, which merged with Georgia Perimeter College in 2016, has worked to overcome these challenges in part by recognizing and appreciating differences between the two institutions going into the merger as they ultimately worked to forge a shared commitment to meeting equity and student success goals.

As Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter advanced their merger, Georgia State gathered and incorporated feedback from faculty, students, and staff to inform the consolidation process. Georgia State also monitored and guided the transition with data to monitor the impact on student outcomes, faculty satisfaction, and community impact. Key to its long-term success was the clear vision and plan Georgia State adopted for scaling student success initiatives to all campuses.

Navigating Leadership Transition
The average term of university presidents continues to decline, with the average term lasting less than seven years. Such transitions present major challenges to advancing and sustaining transformational change on campus. Portland State University overcame leadership transition by adopting a student-centered approach to its transformation projects.

When designing programs focused on institutional transformation such as the PSU Futures Collaboratory, the university’s Students First initiative, and its ReTHINK PSU initiative, the university intentionally embedded the student voice throughout phases of the programs’ development and execution. Additionally, Portland State University recognized the importance of putting faculty, staff, and students at the heart of the transformation process, capturing data to measure progress, and acknowledging and accepting the near-term costs of transformation.

In early April, USU will release the open access learning module in which participants can highlight the critical elements and principles of institutional transformation. For more information, contact Andréa Rodriguez, Director at USU and APLU’s Office of Urban Initiatives at arodriguez@aplu.org.

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