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Feb. 1, 2022

Podcast: Every student has the capability to learn, thrive and succeed

Michigan State University's new strategic plan articulates a shared vision for the university through the end of the decade.

MSU Strategic Plan 2030: Empowering Excellence, Advancing Equity and Expanding Impact identifies goals within six key themes: student success, staff and faculty success, discovery; creativity, and innovation for excellence and global impact; sustainable health; stewardship and sustainability; and diverse, equity, and inclusion.

On this edition of MSU Today, we'll be focusing on the student success theme of the plan with its executive sponsors: Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Teresa Woodruff and Senior Vice President for Student Life and Engagement Vennie Gore. 

Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. says MSU student success is central to everything we're doing at MSU.

“It's no accident that student success was the first pillar of our strategic plan, and it's really central to everything we're doing at Michigan State University,” says Stanley. “It touches on everything we do. I think what's exciting about what we're trying to do in this pillar and this area of emphasis is really bring to even further fruition a change in attitude and accomplishment that is taking place at Michigan State.

“We believe that every student we admit to Michigan State is capable and should graduate from Michigan State University. They're capable of doing that. When they finish, we're going to continue to support them in having rewarding careers during their lifetime. We’re going to help everyone who comes here graduate because we believe they can.

“We're not going to stop at graduation. We're going to continue to be an advocate for them and support them as they continue in their careers and their lives. People have been talking about this before I came, but I really see this as an opportunity for us as an institution to really make this happen. We're going to talk a lot today with Provost Woodruff and Vennie Gore about graduation rates. That's one of the most important measures of success. We’re supporting students’ mental health and supporting them in every way, shape, and form. It’s a holistic approach to see them succeed at Michigan State University. And I couldn't be more excited about that.”

Gore says the goal is for every student MSU admits to learn, grow, and thrive.

“Our goal is to have every student that we admit learn, grow, and thrive here at Michigan State and make sure they have the opportunity to have access to world class education through our faculty,” Gore says. “And we want them to have access to co-curricular and extracurricular activities, which helps them to grow and develop as people and become lifelong Spartans. That's what we mean when we talk about student success for the whole person.

“I meet alumni who have been here in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s and they look back on their educational experiences very fondly. They talk about what they achieved here at Michigan State and how it's helped them in their career and their life. That's what we want for everyone. Because I think when parents send their sons or daughters here, they want them to have that kind of enriched experience so that when they leave here, they can go out in the world and do the things that they hope to do.”

“Boy, Vennie, you're spot on,” Woodruff says. “I really echo a lot of what you said. I do agree. I think the student success that we measure at MSU is unique, and it's really the measure of our institution's ability to provide the kind of environment and inclusive, equitable curriculum and environment that really enables every student to learn, thrive, persist, graduate, and succeed after graduation. Each one of those is student success.

“The way we really look at it is to be very holistic and to understand that student success is not necessarily a measure of the academic achievement of an individual or the student collectively, but rather really thinking about how well the institution supports its students, which I think is a very MSU way of looking at student success. It really allows us to identify places where there are hurdles.

“We don't want a single soul at this institution to stub their toe as they're running down the track towards the world that is awaiting them with open arms with all the problems and the opportunities that exist. This notion of student success really is something that I think I'm really proud of. Vennie, as you said, I think it's something that parents see as really the opportunity for their child or grandchild or niece or nephew or friend to really succeed.”

What are some of the ways MSU is excelling in this area now?

“Go Green Go 15 is the credit momentum campaign,” continues Woodruff. “And what that really represents is the fact that one of the things that was identified at MSU is that students needed to maintain steady momentum in order to graduate in a timely way. If you graduate in a timely way, it allows you to get to that next destination more quickly and with less financial burden.

“That really illustrates the way MSU is able to look at student success with these data informed efforts and allow us to then modulate the institution towards the students' success. Another one that I know that we've done is to really redesign the math course curriculum. We're working on general education and other gateway courses.

“Part of that really lives out in the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative, something that I think, Vennie, you and others really brought to this institution as a way of blending together intellectual and social in the ways in which you learn in a dynamic interface between people and the living setting and the formal learning environment and that we learn from each other. The newest thing we did during my time here is really My Spartan Story. It was started before I arrived, but it's that interactive platform that allows us to capture all these experiences. If in fact we believe that student success is part of this continuum of their experiences at the institution, how can we collate and capture all of that work to allow them to use that as they move beyond this institution? Student success is not of a moment in time. It is of that student's lifelong outcomes of being at a place like MSU.”

“One of the other things about being on a residential campus this large for our 50,000 students here on campus, our graduate professional students in Grand Rapids or in Flint or Detroit or up in the U.P. is finding that sense of belonging,” Gore continues. “When I find that sort of sense of belonging in a community, it helps me find my colleagues. My grandmother used to say you are your friends. I didn't really know what that meant, Russ. But I think what it really means is that if I'm a person here who's interested in the sciences and I become part of Lyman Briggs and I meet other students who have similar interests, that enriches my whole experience while I'm here. And that sense of belonging is critically important for everyone because I think what we're learning even in this period of the pandemic is that isolation is bad for students. Being social and having a sense of connection and having that support is critical. Belonging is another thing we are working toward because that helps with students persisting in school.”

Recently the Division of Residential and Hospitality Services was merged with the Division of Student Affairs and Services to form the Division of Student Life and Engagement. How is this connected to the strategic plan and how will it support student success?

“In many ways, the two divisions have worked side by side together because we are both here for students,” continues Gore. “Residential and Hospitality Services was really focused on the campus experience. Student Affairs and Services had a broader mission of not just our on-campus students, but our off-campus students, fraternity and sorority life, our visitors, and our veterans who are here.

“Bringing the two units together allows us to have greater collaboration as we work across the campus. We know that we're not in isolation. Working with the Provost Office and the colleges also allows for us to have the holistic experience. One of the things that I've been really pleased with as the two divisions have come together is I think everybody recognizes the importance of collaboration and to working across our own boundaries. And that's critical for where we are and how we serve this campus community.”

“Well, again, I think Vennie's hit it on the head,” says Woodruff. “If we go back to the strategic plan and how engineering the institution best enables the success of every student, it is to invert the traditional definition of student success. Instead of centering on the students' assumed capacity or willingness to earn degrees, the strategic plan really defines student success as the measure of the institution's capacity or willingness to support every student.

“When Vennie and I sat down and talked about the living-learning environments, the Neighborhoods, we thought that was really brilliant. But then what we did in addition is to say, ‘Well, what happens when students live and learn for additional time within this setting? Do they succeed?’ Yes, they succeed even better. They succeed in the outcomes, which is getting to their goals academically.

“What that really contemplates as we think about the structure of the institution is the opportunity to more flexibly enable those institutional changes that support our objectives. Really that's where the Division of Residential and Hospitality Services and the Division of Student Affairs represented two groups that work together. But by coming together, we synergize in a way that we can better enable the student outcomes.

“I think institutions that are confident can make big changes, and it can then lead to extraordinary outcomes. We'll be measuring this. We'll be looking back, Vennie, in 2030 together from some vantage point and be able to say students today are better because of what we did institutionally back in 2020 and 2021. That's the exciting thing about MSU. It’s a place that's not ossified in a particular way of working, rather it’s aspirational for what our students really need.

“And then we as leaders implement. I'm really excited about what this is going to do for our student success over time.”

“If you think about the ethos at Michigan State, for an institution of our size and as decentralized as it may feel, there is a very low barrier to collaboration,” Gore says. “It's not just between the student life and engagement and provost offices. You see it in the colleges, and you see faculty members and researchers working across disciplines to expand scholarship or advance knowledge to solve big problems. That has been something that I think we have. It's just part of our DNA that we're able to do that. In other institutions I worked at, I would say that wasn't necessarily the case.”

With respect to the strategic plan, where do you see this focus on student success leading in the future?

“When we look at it in 2030, we would like to have eliminated the opportunity gaps,” Gore continues. “When we talk about the opportunity gaps, there are some subgroups of our community that aren't graduating at the level that we wish for or their parents wish for. It isn't about whether they have the academic ability. There are some non-cognitive things that come into play that make that a difficult hurdle for some students.

“Mark Largent (associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate studies) is fond to say that if we get a student to their junior year, that we're graduating them at the rate of Ivy League schools, 90 to 94 percent. It's that first and second year that is critical for us. And that's why the second year live-on (on-campus living requirement) was really important because it provides that sense of stability for students so they can get to the junior year. They're in their program, and then they can graduate. We hope in 2030 that we have students who are graduating at a high rate across all demographics. That would be the big change that we'd like to see.”

“Absolutely,” adds Woodruff. “Some of the ways we're engineering the environment for student success is in part the merger that we just talked about, but it's also in the way we're using data across a vast network of institutions. We have our institutional data, but also through the University Innovation Alliance, we're able to scale our knowledge node in ways that allow us to gather information and be able to test our hypotheses and be able to then work towards more equitable educational outcomes in some cases that perhaps we couldn't see entirely but that can be revealed through these large networks.

“That's something that I think allows this university itself to be a learning institution. I always say I never learn anything from talking to myself. If we simply look inward, we will never actually be able to enable the success that we wish to achieve. That University Innovation Alliance is something that I'm really excited about.

“I want to go back to the Neighborhood concept. It was an MSU concept in 2010, and we really began to think about the ways in which we offer opportunities for learning environments in a holistic way. And by having this in a place that students can access easily, it creates that opportunity for the student to casually learn and formally learn in the places and spaces where they are.

“Our goal is to eliminate the achievement gaps that we see today, and we've made steady strides. In as much as this institution continues to be thoughtful and intellectual partners in the institutional sense of trying to understand institutional barriers, I'm convinced our students can get there. At some level, our students are running a race. If there's a high hurdle, what we need to do is add that little pole vault so they can get over it. As we go, we hope to learn how to remove barriers and take those high hurdles to low and then eventually have an even playing field. Everyone who comes in races at the same level, and that I think is going to allow everyone to learn, thrive, graduate, and then succeed.”

What are the primary goals in this area of student success?

“Again, we want to get to an 86 percent five-year graduation rate. That's our goal,” Gore says. “We've been very successful in incrementally moving that up over the last eight years. We want students to have a holistic experience. When they leave here, we want them to not only be good scholars but also have an appreciation for the arts, have good health and wellness, and be good citizens. They're global citizens so they understand the impact of the world. That's what student success looks like to me and that's what we would like to have.”

“I agree with that,” says Woodruff. “Our objective is to make this place more accessible and attractive to a wider variety of students. Strengthening our ability to tell our story and really increasing the success of students who are here begins to tell that story. And that's from our undergraduate to our graduate students and to our professional students. Broadening the diversity of the student body provides a way in which our students become a learning community for each other.

“That's an important part of what we're driving toward - increasing the number and diversity of learners across campus. We're widening the ways in which students can learn. And of course, part of that has been developed through the pandemic, but we're doing it in a really intentional way to understand the pedagogical ways in which students learn best. Instead of asking students to change, we ask how we can change. That's one of the objectives of the institution.

“And we really must make sure that along the way, we're creating a climate that the students can see that they are part of that climate, that there is a give and a get, that it's not just that I come, but that I am a part of, that I am the climate, and I am the institution. If we think about each other and that we are all part of this, we create an MSU that really will thrive and create the best success metrics for every student that comes.”

What are some of the biggest challenges to reaching our goals for student success?

“Some of our biggest challenges are going to be the time and people part,” says Gore. “The reason why I say this, Russ, is I think everyone in the country has been talking about the Great Resignation. Having good talent in the institution is important to us. It's not a challenge of will, and it's not a challenge of political will. It's just a challenge of making sure that we're staffed at the point where we can provide the experience for our students. I'm an optimist who believes that as we come out of the pandemic, we will start to see ourselves as an employer of choice. This is a place where people want to be. We have a forward thinking plan. Folks can see themselves in this plan and they want to be a part of it. While the talent is a challenge, it's not an overwhelming challenge for me.”

“I think that's right,” adds Woodruff. “Our limited resource is ourselves. We might think that's monetary, but I think that the limitation to MSU will only be in the way we think about how this institution grows and evolves and how we become part of that evolution. That's going to take time and trust and coordination. It's going to take each of us seeing each other as part of the solution and believing that a change in the organization isn't a reflection on me or what I do but really a reflection on what the institution needs to do going forward.

“Being adaptable through change management, particularly in the current moment, is something that requires an enormous amount of trust. What we've seen across this period in the last several years is that people have started to lose trust in the institutions that once you didn't even think about. I saw a poll recently that trust in pediatricians is at an all-time low. What that says is that we have at a societal level pressure on each one of us as part of organizations and MSU as an institution. How do we build that willingness to give each other the latitude to work in an environment that is changing but is still going to be here for the next hundred years? The value of higher education has been questioned, but there is no other way in society where we have changed more lives, not only by those who go through our institution, but by those who stay. Our student success is linked to our faculty success.

“We have to continue to enable each of us to give each other a little benefit of the doubt while we go through the moment and believe that each of us wants the best for each other. I think once we begin to bring that trust back to every circumstance, we're going to reach our goal of a great university and great student success.”

What are some of the things that position MSU to be a leader in student success?

“It's in our DNA,” says Gore. “When I graduated from graduate school in 1982 from Indiana, there were four institutions that were on the forefront of living-learning: Michigan State, Vermont, UC Davis, and UW Stevens Point. They had a history of residential colleges and what they meant for large public Research 1 institutions and that integration and that set level of collaboration. We've had this long history over the years.

“One of the other things too is that we haven't rested on history. If you were to go back and look over time, you could see the evolution of what that meant on our campus. When we started the Neighborhood concept back in 2009 as a pilot at Hubbard Residence Hall, we intuitively knew that it was going to be messy. The pilot would be very different than what the product would be. And that has been true. What that says is that the people who are attracted to this work are thoughtful and innovative, and they don't necessarily think that we have all the answers. We're going to try some things. Some of those things will work and some won’t. The things that don't work we'll forget about, and we'll keep going without feeling we failed. I think that's the big thing. MSU is okay with trying something. And if it doesn't work out, it's all right and we move on to the next thing. It's that messiness that you have to be an organization like Michigan State to be okay with.”

“I echo that,” Woodruff continues. “We're experimentalists. When you're actually doing hypothesis-based thinking, you actually are not always right. In fact, I always say we're a batter, not a pitcher. A pitcher has to be right. Most of the time, a batter only has to put the ball in play about a quarter of the time. I really think that you've hit it on the head.

“We're really enabling a series of increasingly coordinated and very deliberative and thoughtful approaches across the entire enterprise. There's a saying I have that we have provostial partnerships across the entire institution. We are all provostial in the ecumenical sense of the way the provost is part of the opening and the enabling of everyone towards their academic goals. We're really being very thoughtful.

“That includes the merger of RHS and Student Affairs in a way that is an increase in coordination and deliberation that is going to, we believe, enable student success. We're also focusing on the strengths and skill sets of existing leaders and making sure we all see how we can be part of this momentum and then leveraging that talent that exists and trying to maximize the output that we have in ways that really have no silos. We have this egalitarian way of working.

“That itself is part of perhaps some of the experimental ways in which Vennie was just talking. But also I think it's just because leaders in this space understand what our goals are, and they really are towards student success and academic excellence. And relative to that, I think our faculty and academic staff from across the university are really engaged with our staff in all the ways that this institution's goals ask them to be. The strategic plan emphasis on student success really helps shine a light on all this work that is happening. That's part of our DNA. That's part of the experimentalist in us to achieve the goals on behalf of those in whose interests we serve.”

“I like the baseball analogy,” says Gore. “A Major League player gets paid multimillion dollar to have a batting average of 300, which is getting a hit three out of 10 times. If we were in that genre, we're probably batting 700. Seven out 10 times we get it right. Those three other times, we swing and miss. That happens in life and that's okay. But we're going to try something. If something doesn't work, it's okay. We're going to move on. We're going to do some other things. We have the flexible latitude to do that.”

“We' trust each other,” says Woodruff. “Even if I fail, I know I’m going to be picked up. But if we lack coordination, he's going to call me. These are ways in which we develop leadership together with the strategic objectives of the institution and our great faculty and students to holistically come together and have that great batting average.”

Vennie, earlier you mentioned the goal of an 86 percent graduation rate. What are some of the ways we will measure the success of the student success initiative?

“We keep score, using the baseball analogy,” Gore says. “At the end of the game, you want to know whether you won or lost. Graduation is one of the ways you keep score. Retention is another way that you keep score. How many of our students are staying from their freshman to sophomore to junior years? What are those retention rates? Are we seeing changes in subgroups? It’s like calling balls and strikes in a baseball game. That’s sort of how we look at it. The data analytics are something that we really began moving forward and understanding what the important things are. I like to think of this in three strategic questions: Are you doing the right things? Do you have the capacity to do the right things? And can you do the right things right the first time? And that's all about execution. You can analytically look at all those different things to be able to say that you're being successful.”

“Right. I agree,” Woodruff adds. “That 86 percent graduation rate is one piece of this. I also want to look at placement rates for where the students go after getting an undergraduate degree or graduate degree. And that's the going to be important as well as a metric of success. We’re working to reduce probation rates, too. We'll be measuring that this year, and that's going to be an important metric for us on the pathway. We want to see that sense of belonging and the climate assessments continue to improve. One of the things in the merger that Vennie's really focused on across all our affinity and identity groups is to make sure that sense of belonging is there and that folks know that this is not top-down. This is all of us. If you're here, you're a part of creating the culture that exists.

“Looking for someone else to create culture is not the same as creating the culture we all wish to be a part of. That's the message that Vennie's been giving, and it's been really a winning and wonderful way of thinking in a really renewed way about the institution. We want to have impactful opportunities for the students for internships and externships and laboratory environments and making sure students know that's an option for them early in their careers. That's an important part of this.

“We’ve seen a bit of a decline in the use of student services during this current context. We want to make sure that use of the services that we have created is increasing. I think another one is that student debt upon graduation has been decreased and part of that is the credit momentum. That is to say that we expect you to be here for a period with deep learning and then to graduate. That will be in the student's best interest as they move along.

“Part of that is creating an inclusive, equitable curriculum and an environment that enables their academic and social and overall wellness and financial support. That leads back to the student's ability to learn, thrive, persist, graduate, and succeed. All of that's really part of what that last set of metrics really enables.”

“We all have a role in student success no matter what your role is at the institution,” says Gore. “Whether you're a faculty member or a staff member who is serving food or you're a TA, we all have a role. At least through the pandemic, what we have heard from our undergraduate students is that college is more than just going to class. It’s the whole experience.

“And that impact that we all have on the individual student, no matter what our role is, is significant. Some of the most significant relationships have come through advising and mentoring and saying hello and being there for their well-being and knowing that there's someone in your corner to support you. That's student success. This is the collective responsibility of all of us as members of our community.”

“Really well said, Vennie,” says Woodruff. “The strategic plan is really such an asset to have for an institution that, through the COVID context, was able to continue to reach for what its aspirations should be. That's the leadership of our president and every person in a leadership role and everybody who participated in really thinking about what our aspirations are at a time when other institutions were really being grounded by the pandemic.

“Out of that has come the opportunity to really change the institution on behalf of the students we serve. I'm so grateful to all my colleagues with whom we've all worked to have this strategic plan, and the opportunity to implement it is just so exciting. I just can't wait to see what happens next to all of the students who come through this institution at this particular time. It's really an exciting time and the world so desperately needs them.

“Our students are carrying heavy buckets. No doubt about it. But we've told them that what we're doing is we're putting our hands next to them and we're going to help them carry it. We can't take it away. We wish we could, but we can't. We know that whatever they've learned, both within our academic halls as well as within our residential halls and within the halls of life and the changes that they've experienced, that those buckets have been filled. But we're going to help them with what comes next. We can't predict what their lives are going to be. But we know because of being part of this institution that they're ready for both the expected and the unexpected. That's the best that we can do on behalf of these students. I couldn't be more excited for the future that they will help create.”

On this edition of MSU Today, we've been talking about the student success theme of MSU's Strategic Plan 2030, Empowering Excellence, Advancing Equity and Expanding Impact with the executive sponsors of the theme, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Teresa Woodruff and Senior Vice President for Student Life and Engagement Vennie Gore. 

Read and learn more about the strategic plan at


MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on WKAR News/Talk and Sunday evenings at 8:00 on 760 WJR. Find, rate, and subscribe to “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

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