A Field Guide to Killing Zombies, or Conducting Program Review at SFA

Dean of Student Affairs at Stephen F. Austin State University, Dr. Adam Peck, reflects on his use of CAS self-assessment tools as a mid-level practitioner and explains how he now uses CAS in his senior-level role to help staff set meaningful goals.
The SFA Student Affairs staffWhile I have certainly been aware of CAS for a long time, my first experience with a self-study didn't occur until ten years into my career in student affairs. I was Director of Student Life at a mid-sized private university. We had a new VP starting, and among the first tasks he'd assigned was for us to complete a review of our programs using CAS. Being in an uncertain time, I am not sure I initially embraced the challenge with a wholly positive outlook. First, the process was initiated as a busy fall semester approached and would require us to conduct multiple studies at once. The pace and volume of work in student affairs often leaves more time for action than reflection, so it can be hard to take time to think about how you could thrive when many are just struggling to survive. Second, it's very hard to be open and transparent about areas for growth as a time of leadership transition when many are trying to put their best foot forward and may fear exposing their supposed deficiencies.

I've always been a reflective practitioner with a strong goal orientation. Among the things that I like best about higher education is that each year we get to start new and take lessons learned from the year to make improvements. So as I engaged in the self-study with my team, my attitude about the process quickly improved. In CAS, I found something that was often very hard to find (especially as a professional early in my career). The standards provided an objective standard for effectiveness in my functional area. 

As we worked through the process, I became more and more acutely aware that effectiveness wasn't just an abstract goal – it spoke to our ability to fully serve our students. Like many in our field, students are the reason I got into this work. As I looked at our program in light of the CAS standards, I found new ways to better serve our students and the process empowered me to consider new ideas for serving them. It also provided me grounding in the history of the functional area.

Since that time, I've been an enthusiastic user of CAS, not just for the effectiveness of individual programs that I have overseen, but increasingly, in a role that requires oversight of multiple functional areas. For the past nine years, I have served as Assistant Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. In this role, I spend a lot of time trying to determine how to help a variety of functional areas set and achieve meaningful goals. There is often a great temptation to project my vision of effectiveness onto one of my areas. This is especially true in areas I once directly oversaw. But as I have grown in this role, I have learned that these insights must come from the programs themselves. Perhaps it is similar to what Parker Palmer wrote in The Courage to Teach, “…education is the attempt to ‘lead out' from within the self a core of wisdom that has the power to resist falsehood and live in the light of truth, not by external norms but by reasoned and reflective self-determination.” My job as an administrator is the same as any other educational endeavor. Helping my areas achieve their own insights into their strengths and opportunities for improvement increases buy-in, which drives energy and buffers us from resistance to change.

As I write this, I am preparing to launch self-studies for our entire division tomorrow. I am cognizant that our staff will approach these with varying levels of enthusiasm for the process. Like me, they may first see the CAS Standards as just more work to be done, something separate from their passion for helping students succeed. This is an unfortunate reality in a variety of assessment activities. But I think this challenges us to better articulate the purpose and benefits of these experiences. In building a culture of evidence, we can often focus too much on wedging assessment into our culture when we should be figuring out how to infuse our culture into assessment activities.

As an example, our culture at SFA could be described as fun, slightly competitive and decidedly quirky (they do say that an organization will often take on the attributes of its leaders, don't they). So our self-study launch will focus on the theme, “Killing Zombies.” We'll start with a zombie-themed icebreaker in which groups will answer SFA trivia questions to earn tools to survive the zombie apocalypse. The team with the most tools will be deemed “survivors” and will earn a prize. Our Vice President will then introduce the concept of “Zombie Programs.” These are programs that are roaming our landscape, disconnected from our goals and without direction. He'll empower each area to kill these zombies. I'll give the final presentation titled, “A Field Guide for Killing Zombies,” which walks them through the steps of conducting a self-study (with liberal use of zombie metaphors throughout). 
Self-studies will be conducted throughout the spring semester and summer.  At the conclusion of the process, we'll connect to the “slightly competitive” aspect of our culture. Each area will be asked to produce a poster session for the division's fall professional development convocation. These posters will summarize each functional areas strengths, opportunities for growth and action plan for making these improvements. We are also asking programs to discuss how their area contributes to the SFA Vision Statement and mission. We are encouraging creativity in their approaches to these presentations. If history is any precedent, this will be more than enough encouragement for our areas to have fun with their presentations. It's our hope that this format will help us take our reporting beyond a binder that sits on a shelf to create an approach that prompts opportunities for areas to understand each other's challenges and prompts meaningful collaboration. 

CAS Self-Studies with their clearly articulated standards and ratings certainly appeal to those of us who crave objectivity and structure. But that doesn't mean they can't be fun, and it doesn't mean that it cannot connect to our hearts as educators. As we pursue the concept of “effectiveness” it is useful to remember who that effectiveness is for: our students. And as different as our missions and goals may be, students are our “true north.” Keeping them at the center of our work is something that brings us all together.

Dr. Adam Peck is the Assistant Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. He also is the Editor of a new book entitled Engagement and Employability: Integrating Career Learning through Cocurricular Experiences in Postsecondary Education.