Notes from the President (special edition): Oct. 19, 2023

Reflections on Academic Momentum

Dear Lumberjacks,

Today, I shared with our university community a charge to prioritize our work to foster student success, as measured by increased academic momentum, first-year retention, and degrees awarded.

I have reflected on this for many weeks—considering how to advance our vision, meeting with leaders across all divisions at NAU, reviewing best practices and data from colleagues and peers from across the country, and drawing on myriad personal and professional experiences.

Today’s message and charge is the first step in organizing, pacing, and prioritizing our work. To help contextualize and share some of the thinking that informed the ambitious goals set forth, I wanted to share a sampling of these reflections. I hope these will paint a picture that shows a community inspired to act and already doing great work to move the needle on all dimensions of student success. In addition, I hope these examples show how you can fit into the work ahead—no matter what your role or department.

Below are my notes on academic momentum:

Examples of excellence

The RAISE Plan: The Challenge of Scale

I first shared broadly about our Realizing Attainment Impact through Strategic Enrollment (RAISE) Plan at University Convocation. In short, it is a framework that allows our entire university to run at a grand challenge of helping 100,000 people earn high-value credentials by 2035.

The work has accelerated over the last six weeks. I was inspired by the cross-divisional discussions that took place in the September 8 kick-off meeting with all who are involved in the implementation of RAISE. Perhaps the strongest takeaways were the readiness to act and the idea that this plan is far more than just a strategic enrollment management plan. Instead, it is truly cross-divisional and tightly focused on outcomes—people earning degrees that propel economic mobility and social impact.

Rooted in the foundational pillars of people, programs, place, and pricing, the RAISE Plan is rapidly moving forward to tackle 13 cross-divisional strategic actions that include reimagining new student orientation, fully activating our student-centered culture of care, ensuring an accessible, personalized digital presence to best serve prospective and current students, optimizing our student policies, and purposefully integrating and aligning our front-facing efforts to positively and proactively engage students, among other areas of emphasis. Access, equity, and success are infused throughout in alignment with our vision and every piece of this work builds on our history of helping students reach their full potential in a supportive environment.

Innovative Pedagogy: The Challenge of Belonging

I am excited and energized by the broad engagement of our faculty in our academic momentum efforts. On October 2, I was privileged to participate in an inspiringly well-attended All-Faculty Meeting convened by the Faculty Senate, where first-year retention was an important component of the agenda. The topic was addressed by a panel of expert faculty (Michelle Miller, Cody Caning, Jason Whetten, Emily Manone) deeply committed to teaching first-year students in a way that not only helps them master the content of their classes but also build the habits of the mind that will propel them through graduation.

As hard as I tried, I was unable to capture all the invaluable insights shared about how best to help our first-year students embrace their academic identity, build community, and nurture a passion for learning as they navigate the many challenges inherent in the brusque transition that going from the final year of high school to the first year of college entails.

But one thing that struck me is that beyond all the structural and cultural issues that our faculty must address to help our first-year students (and all of our students, for that matter) meet the rigor of our academic expectations, is the need to infuse throughout all our interactions a philosophy of “relentless welcome” and a sense of humility and empathy. Our faculty experts also emphasized the importance of structure matched to the level of student development. First-year students benefit from more structure and feedback that teach them how to be successful as college students.

Indeed, “belonging”— socially and academically—is one of the most often cited reasons, beyond financial struggles, for students opting to not return to NAU. So, I was gratified to see the level of engagement in this discussion, how our faculty have created a learning community to further advance these discussions (The First Year Seminar), the desire for additional professional development opportunities (NAU’s Teaching and Learning Center, ACUE) to better equip ourselves to meet the needs of our students while upholding the integrity and rigor of our disciplines, and the recognition that we can do so much more if we worked to bring all of these efforts together.

Coherence of Action: The Challenge of Focus

I am blown away by the intentional focus of our academic leaders on academic momentum and first-year retention. I was still reflecting on the All-Faculty Meeting discussion when I was afforded the opportunity to participate in the Academic Leadership Summit meeting convened by the Provost on October 4. The summit included faculty, department chairs, deans and associate deans, vice provosts, faculty senators, and others who day-in and day-out work to elevate academic excellence. The objective was to discuss how the Academic Affairs is organizing its divisionwide work to contribute to the advancement of our students’ academic momentum.

The work is both impressive and inspiring. Here are the Top 10 academic momentum-related efforts currently being driven by Academic Affairs:

  1. developing 100% Career Ready curricula;
  2. strengthening our academic program portfolio;
  3. implementing our new General Studies program;
  4. developing academic pathways with partner community colleges;
  5. intentional efforts in first-year course design and pedagogy;
  6. simplifying the curricular complexity of academic programs;
  7. strengthening the assessment of teaching and learning outcomes at the course level;
  8. optimizing course scheduling to minimize waitlists, maximize students’ ability to build a schedule that supports academic momentum, offer course modalities best suited to meet learning outcomes, and effectively manage teaching workloads;
  9. systematically expanding experiential learning opportunities—internships, mentored research, capstone experiences, clinical work, and more; and,
  10. reinforcing expectations and building strong support for teaching at NAU.

Culture of Care: The Challenge of University Life

Finally, I continue to marvel at the determined dedication of those who work throughout the division of Student Affairs and the numerous impactful efforts underway to create meaningful experiences and support students in building community, optimizing wellness, and pursuing their academic and career purpose. The staff in Student Affairs are partners to our faculty in supporting and advising students outside of the classroom to help them build and maintain academic momentum at every turn. The multifaceted opportunities to positively support our students span, for example, from residents in our Campus Living Communities, first-year and transfer mentees in our peer mentoring programs, student employees, patients at Campus Health Services, Supplemental Instruction and tutoring participants from a wide range of majors, recipients of the Lumberjack CARE Center’s support, and members of over 400 student clubs and organizations who build community.

Interactions between Student Affairs staff and students across all our programs and services are opportunities to positively impact students’ drive and capacity to achieve their academic goals and fuel their momentum toward earning their degrees. With the RAISE plan as a guide and academic momentum as a top priority, the Student Affairs team is already collaborating in meaningful and purposeful ways with the university community to seize this moment and ensure our efforts contribute to the increased momentum our students need to persist, graduate, and realize the full value of their college experience.

Reflections on the impact of a relentless welcome

Clearly, hundreds of Lumberjacks are investing their time, talent, and energy in projects, programs, and initiatives designed to improve academic momentum and first-year retention rates to provide a solid foundation upon which myriad other efforts focused on improving persistence, completion, and post-college outcomes can be built and sustained. The challenge now is how to ensure that ALL Lumberjacks are not only aware of these efforts, but also invested in and contributing to them. Because, as I’ve stated before, the magnitude of the challenges we face in elevating excellence at NAU requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

While each of our contributions and actions will vary according to our departments and roles, it is our individual and collective responsibility to ensure our students are successful. If in doubt of how you can best help advance this work, please revert back to the “relentless welcome” attitude mentioned earlier. To illustrate, I will share two stories from other institutions I had the privilege to study and work in many years ago.

First—As an undergrad, a financial challenge that seemed insurmountable led me to the registrar’s office to pick up a total withdrawal form. I had concluded that my only path forward as a student-parent was to drop out and get a job. My GPA was high and my interest strong, but life was getting in the way. To implement my plan, I had to get six signatures—one from each of my faculty members that semester. After a few attempts at finding faculty during their posted office hours, I had obtained four of the six signatures. I was well on my way out. But then, unlike the previous four, the fifth faculty member took a minute to ask why I was dropping out given I was doing so well in his class. I explained. He made a call—referred me to someone in financial aid, I believe. And before I knew it, I had an emergency grant that allowed me to persist. His attitude of “relentless welcome” not only kept me in school but changed the trajectory of my life and that of my extended family.

Second—Early in my career as a faculty member at another institution, I was tangentially involved in a program founded by my wife, Dr. Rima Brusi. The project was called “Centro Universitario para el Acceso.” The program’s objective was to expand access to more students from the public housing projects near the university. The project, which originally included research, outreach, and enrichment components, exists to this day and has transformed hundreds of lives. But it also served to highlight how the lack of a “relentless welcome” attitude could contribute to perpetuate inequality. Case in point: an early participant in the program managed to gain admission into the university even against the backdrop of very tragic and traumatic events in her life. It seemed she was invincible, and nothing could stand in her way. Except something did. A visit to a campus office in which the fact that she lived in a public housing project somehow became subject of conversation made her feel extremely unwelcome and disrespected. Soon thereafter, she dropped out. Hard to understand, but the culture of indifference she came upon that day was the one tragic event that—at the time—she could not overcome.

What’s next

I, for one, recognize the need to better connect with the work of academic momentum and student success in a deeper, more personal matter.

And that is why, I so much look forward to teaching EE110 Digital Logic Circuits in spring 2023.

Doing so will give me a better understanding of the issues our students and faculty face and rekindle the joy that working directly with students has always brought me.

It’s been 14 years since I taught an engineering course, and this will be the first time I teach freshmen.

Nevertheless, I feel confident knowing we have a fantastic community of teacher-scholars committed to this work who are generous with their advice on the importance of not only minding the content and focusing on the structure of a course, but also creating an inclusive environment where all students feel they belong and are invited, supported, and encouraged to excel.

In future editions of Notes, I look forward to sharing more about my teaching, what I learn from colleagues advancing this crucial work across the university, and our progress toward meeting our vision. And I look forward to hearing from you directly on how you are engaging in this all-hands-on-deck approach and shaping a brighter future for the people and communities NAU serves.

In partnership,

José Luis Cruz Rivera





NAU Communications