Why setting campus culture is critical
In a recent conversation Michael A. Di Giovine had with some of his colleagues, the exchange shifted to the ever-evolving higher education landscape. Even before the two-plus year tailspin created by the pandemic ensued, schools like West Chester University (WCU) were experiencing lots of changes. Initiating sustainability efforts. Broadening its internationalization efforts. And now, thanks to the pandemic, the Pennsylvania-based university is leaning more on virtual learning and digital technologies.
But what Di Giovine, Associate Professor of Anthropology, and Director of West Chester’s Museum of Anthropology and Archeology, and his colleagues noticed was that the mission of today’s higher education experience is the same for any generation: Students yearn for self-discovery. They want to find who they are and what communities they want to be a part of.
“Today’s students have grown up with technology all around them,” says Di Giovine, who also is co-author of the book “Study Abroad and the Quest for an Anti-Tourism Experience” with Susquehanna University of Pennsylvania’s John Bodinger de Uriarte. “They are quite connected to social media, which seems to provide them space to explore themselves and join diverse communities. This fluency in social media is just a different means of trying to fulfill the same needs we all had in college—to figure out who we are and who we want to be as adults, what our real interests are, and who our real friends are.”
What the pandemic showed Di Giovine and his colleagues, and the scores of higher education administrators across the country, is that being hyper-connected digitally does not supplant the desire to have real, in-person connections. Each university’s vibe is what the university and its students want it to be. For example, when the pandemic hit, West Chester was one of the first universities in the area to go virtual for the entire school year, shifting to online instruction from March 2020 until August 2021. When everyone finally returned to face-to-face instruction in the fall, both students and faculty expressed flexibility and understanding toward each other.
Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, WCU is a fully funded liberal arts university that started 150 years ago as a teacher’s college. The largest of the 14 state universities and the sixth largest in the Commonwealth, West Chester recently landed at No. 10 for the second consecutive year in US News’ annual college rankings for “Top Public Schools Regional Universities North.” It also landed at No. 50 in “Regional Universities North,” which includes both public and private schools.
The rankings are a testament to the culture the university continues to set forth. “The vibe right now is hopeful that we are nearing the end of the pandemic, especially now that we have in-person encounters,” Di Giovine says. “You can’t have culture without a community, and you can’t have a community without culture. It comes from the ground up, as much as it comes from the top down. The administration can set the tone through its policies and through the kinds of endeavors it supports—such as an interest in diversity, equity and inclusion; as well as in sustainability initiatives—but it also takes shape through the faculty, staff and students.”
“You can’t have culture without a community, and you can’t have a community without culture. It comes from the ground up, as much as it comes from the top down.”
— Michael A. Di Giovine, Associate Professor, West Chester University
More importantly, it requires connection between every campus group so that they feel a part of the community and interested in contributing to it. Di Giovine believes that universities, like any institution, must clearly articulate their values and to ensure their actions match up with these values. “They also must be able to effectively communicate these—both in explicit ways through the support for policies that further its mission, as well as more natural, implicit ways, modeling the behaviors and perspectives that are in line with its unique culture, and into which its newest members—its students—can acculturate.”
Building your value system
Founded in 1829, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is a diverse and collaborative community of engaged, socially conscious and intellectually curious minds. The dichotomy of the university is striking. Headquartered with its main campus in Rochester, New York, the university has international campuses in China, Croatia, Dubai and Kosovo. With more than 19,000 students and 135,000-plus graduates from 49 states and over 100 nations, RIT may be the epitome of how to bridge diverse cultures, and drive progress in industries and communities around the world.
Ian Mortimer, RIT’s VP for Enrollment Management, says while the university’s sense of culture and landscape varies from campus to campus, RIT’s culture and vibe is one of moving forward. With a base of pragmatic and responsible students, each is focused on the rational value of their education, especially with everything happening today.
“Students are seeking community and support, so we actually think it is easier than even 10 years ago,” Mortimer says. “The connection of students, among themselves, and with their community, is stronger if they are happy, but they are quicker to depart if it is not a good fit. Students want faculty and administrators to care about issues and opportunities as much as they do, which requires empathy for each other.”
Mortimer says that as long as the sum of all of the activities, engagements, interactions, support and relationships is greater than the parts, its culture remains strong. If a student has too many debits in their experience bank account, trust is lost and away they go. So, understanding the positive deposits of every student is the best way to approach management and leadership.
“We are fortunate to have a value system that moves with the external environment. We exist because we drive improvement in society and the economy.”
— Ian Mortimer, VP for Enrollment Management, Rochester Institute of Technology
Not every university can keep up with the changes swirling around them. There are universities out there that were born out of missions that are either not relevant to today’s environment, or are not aligned with what the market wants or needs. “I think the best universities are those that represent a strong value structure, but operationally, move in different directions to increase the value for all stakeholders,” Mortimer says. “We are fortunate to have a value system that moves with the external environment. We exist because we drive improvement in society and the economy. Thus, change is a natural state, which is a competitive advantage.”
Change is inevitable, so building a culture—and vibe—that is strong enough to withstand the crush is critical. In the end, your students are the best examples of whether you are doing that correctly.