1) This interview in the Weekly Wisdom Series originally aired on June 10, 2021 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
2) This transcript is intended to serve primarily as a guide to the full conversation. We apologize for any inaccuracies and encourage you to listen to the podcast.
Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.
Take the burden off of students having to navigate the bureaucracy. We don't make the courses any less rigorous than they ever were before, but let's make the figuring out how to do college a lot less complicated. And so I think what the last 12 months have shown is how important that is.
Welcome to Innovating Together, a podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I'm your host, Bridget Burns.
You are about to watch another episode of Start the Week with Wisdom, which, for those of you at home, if you have not seen this before, these are our weekly episodes where we conduct an interview with a sitting college president or chancellor, and we want to talk to them about how they are navigating the challenge of this moment. We are in a really unique time, and we want to focus on their leadership and unpack how they are making decisions, how they are navigating, and hopefully it will leave you with a sense of optimism, a bit inspired, and give you a bit of hope.
And, you know, as Bridget's sidekick, I'm pleased to welcome today – and I just found out that he had this title, but he was deemed to be one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world – and probably, since there isn't an intergalactic version, probably the universe – according to Fortune magazine. And he is long known in a lot of higher education circles for his prior role at Georgia State University, where he oversaw student success, a very wide domain. He has now launched the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State, and welcome, Tim Renick.
Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here, Bridget and Doug.
We are super excited to have you today. I'm debuting the Madonna mic for you, so this is going to be a big, big episode. Got a lot of songs –
You've always been a star with me, even before the mic, so, mm-hmm.
So we usually try and kind of set the table and get a sense of where folks are, so just, how are you holding up right now? You've spent the last year navigating very interesting terrain in student success and then also making a transition. So how are you hanging in?
Yeah. It's been a very challenging year, but there's light at the end of the tunnel, so that's very encouraging. I mean, now our plans for fall at Georgia State are looking more like plans for fall in previous years, as opposed to last year at this time, when we didn't know what was going to be the nature of the classes we were delivering and who was going to be where and so forth. So that's encouraging.
Will you tell us a little bit about your new role and sort of the transition that you are making?
Yeah. So starting last November, I became the Executive Director of the new National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State. Now for five, six years, we had a steady stream of campuses come to visit Georgia State, often for a single day. Some days we were hosting 90 guests on a single day. We'd put on a whole show for them. We would do talks and take them through our advising center and connect them with our data teams and so forth.
It was all very useful, and quite well received, but there was always the request for more. Right? After you bring a group of people to campus and learn about the predictive analytics and microgrants and all these sorts of programs, then inevitably, you want to go back to your home campus and begin to implement, and we never had the bandwidth really to help campuses through that process.
So in its simplest form, the National Institute for Student Success is going to kind of fill that need, where we will help campuses work to identify their own institutionally-created barriers to student success and introduce evidence-based methods of removing those barriers.
So it's exciting work. We already have some partner campuses we'll be working with, beginning the end of summer and into the fall, and we think it's a way to make sure that these kind of approaches – which are not Georgia State approaches; they are just kind of good, commonsensical approaches, building upon evidence-based practices over the last decade – that these become the norm rather than the exception in higher ed.
That's great. I feel like people are always asking, like, "What does this mean? Where is Tim going?" And I'm like, "It's that basically he gets to actually do the thing that everyone expects and asked him to do all the time, and it's not a side hustle." So we are excited for you to be able to give your actual focus.
Tim, I guess the thing that's interesting to me – you have built a whole career, especially in this portion of it, and you're doubling down now, on student success and on sort of carrying it out through, helping it ripple through higher education. A lot of times, there's a tendency in higher ed, as well as other industries, for people to constantly move sort of up rungs of the ladder, and I'm suspecting, and have a sense, that you had opportunities, have had opportunities, to become provost or president, etc. And I'm curious sort of what has led to you to follow the course are on.
Yeah, I think that's a good question, Doug. I have had the opportunity to become a university president a couple times in the last few years, and, you know, in both cases, I turned down that opportunity because I thought that I could make more of a difference in my current role. I mean, the reality is that I know a lot about student success, and one reason I am constantly asked to do public speaking engagements, and one reason we have had now about 500 campuses come to visit us to look at our student success programs, is there's not that much information out there about how you actually implement and bring about and scale large-scale, data-based interventions to support students. That's a kind of rare if not unique skill set, whereas, if I were to assume the presidency, I'd be asked to be doing that maybe 5 percent of my time, and 95 percent of my time other sorts of things.
And so my belief was, even before this notion of the National Institute for Student Success came about, is that, you know, this is what I'm good at, and this is where I can make a difference, and my voice will probably be a lot louder as a national representative of these student success approaches than as another president among the hundreds of other presidents out there.
Is it about understanding both yourself and what you want to accomplish? I mean, is that sort of – what are the factors? Is it, again, looking inside, and also thinking about what you want to get done in the world and where you can have the biggest impact?
Yeah, I think it's a little of both things. It's looking inward and saying, you know, "Where do I really find my satisfaction on a day-to-day basis?" I love the work we do in student success. There there's nothing in my career I've been prouder of. I love talking about it. I go out and talk 100 times a year because I think this work is so important. It gets me enthused.
And then I look at – and I've been very close to presidents and presidencies and so forth – what you do on a day-to-day basis as a university president at a large public university, and some of that I would love doing, and a lot of that I wouldn't love doing very much.
So part of it is that internal thing, but the external part of it is, you know, what do we need right now? You know, what is needed in higher education? And do we need a president, another president, kind of learning the ropes, which I would definitely be, or do we need people to up the ante and up the standards for how we talk about student success? And I think there's much more demand for the latter than the former.
You and I have talked about this over the years, and I just always thought, like, if I had to decide between the greatest contribution that you could be making, if I mentally am thinking about you on stage or coaching an institution to improve student outcomes versus being in a skybox at a football game, talking to donors, and I was just like, one of those feels like not the best use of your talents. And so I – yeah. You know, this is something we've talked about quite a bit, so –
Yeah. I never quite evoke the skybox image, but I think that was in the back of my mind. Exactly right. Yeah, meeting with donors and meeting with politicians and so forth – there are others who can do that better than I can.
Right. So I'm curious about, you know, you talked about what you love to do, and one of the things that is very noticeable about – an element of your leadership is, you are an incredibly compelling communicator. You're a great storyteller. But, you know, when people would often be like, "Why is this so great?" I would be like, "He's acting like a distinguished lecturer," and it comes directly out of your work as a faculty member.
But what I want to understand is, you know, there's also something about telling the underdog story that feels like it's really in alignment with who you are. But I don't actually think you have shared your personal connection to, or your background connected to, the underdog story at Georgia State. I think you often just focus on the students, but could you share a bit about that now?
Not because my family was wealthy – my dad was career military – but because he happened to be stationed there, and we lived in this area where, you know, the kids around me had a world that I had never seen before and I rarely experienced even while I was going through school there. And that I went off to Dartmouth. I did well in high school in my outsider role and kind of felt like an outsider again, because most of the other students in my dorm were – you know, they'd gone to private schools. Until I got to Dartmouth, I didn't even have the concept that there was such a thing as private high school that you go to, but many of these kids had gone to prep academies.
You know, I was work-study or the equivalent thereof. From the first semester, I was working in the dining hall. My first assignment working at Dartmouth was in the dish room, as they called it. The conveyor belt would bring the dirty dishes in from the floor of the dining room, and I'd have a rubber spatula and scrape the plates off and so forth. You know, I was comfortable in those roles. I am not complaining about it in any way. It was something that kind of came naturally to me, and I think it provided a lot of really useful experience for my later leadership roles.
You know, by the senior year at Dartmouth, I was one of the managers of the entire dining hall, and half the people I worked with were my fellow work-study students. The other half of the people I was working with were the townspeople from around Hanover, New Hampshire – you know, the people who had full-time jobs in the dining hall. And navigating the differences and communicating with these different audiences and kind of building a common sense of purpose and so forth was something that I worked on while I was still literally in my undergraduate time.
So when I went off to Princeton, again, it was a great, great privilege and a great education, but I never felt truly at home there. When I came to Georgia State, where 75 percent of our students are nonwhite and 60 percent of our students are low-income, and everybody, almost, is working to get through college, I said, "Yeah, this makes sense to me. I identify with this."
Well, I guess I'm interested in following up on that. I mean, there are – I'm curious kind of where your thinking has evolved. You've obviously seen, the last year has been an incredibly difficult one for – year-plus has been incredibly difficult one for so many people, and I'm interested in how you view the pandemic and the recession and the moment we've just come through as having – we've seen, you know, the enrollment data that just came out in the last 24 hours or so about the spring continued to show certain populations really struggling more. And again, unsurprising which ones they are, because they're the ones who struggle pretty much whenever anything bad happens in our country and in our society.
And I'm just curious sort of whether you believe the pandemic has been a good thing or a bad thing – not to oversimplify, but for the focus on student success. It's obviously impaired student success in certain ways just because it has harmed students and made their lives more difficult, but I'm curious sort of how you think we are coming through this and whether you think there's maybe potentially increased focus on the importance of it. I don't know how you see that balance.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, there is a dialogue out there about what we want to hold onto that we learned from the pandemic and what we will kind of go back to pre-pandemic. And I think the overarching message I would take away is, it underlines the importance of developing these kind of systematic student support systems that don't require the initiative of students to be helped. I mean, we need to be much more intentional about delivering personalized services to students on a daily basis without them asking for these services.
And in a nutshell, that's what Georgia State has done over the last decade, with our predictive analytics and proactive advising and chat bots. And, you know, we have given out over 20,000 proactive microgrants, no application required.
You know, what these systems – which were developed to pre-pandemic – tell us is that, you know, we can't expect students, especially from low-income, first-generation backgrounds, to both master all of the academic skills that are required to get a bachelors degree and, at the same time, figure out this insane bureaucracy that we have created in higher education, with FAFSA forms and transcripts and applications and majors and registration holds and so forth.
So what Georgia State has tried to do, through the use, in many cases, of technology, or at least its assistance, is take the burden off of students having to navigate the bureaucracy. We don't make the courses any less rigorous than they ever were before, but let's make the figuring out how to do college a lot less complicated.
And so I think what the last 12 months have shown is how important that is. Just one very specific example is, last April, when we got our first federal stimulus money, the CARES Act money, and were instructed to deliver half of that money to the students directly, we set up two means for the students to access that money. We set up an application, like every college and university did across the United States: Apply for emergency aid, and we'll give you some of this money. And over the last 12, 14 months, we've had about 6,000 students that have availed themselves of that, have taken the time to fill out an application and get federal aid from that pool.
The other thing we did is used our existing systems, the same systems we used to give microgrants to students who we find are at risk of dropping out, with no application required. We are looking at students with holds on their accounts, with high balances, high levels of unmet need. They don't need to come to us and tell us they have financial need. We see they have financial need. All our systems are telling us they have financial need. And what we did is just put the money, the federal money, directly in their accounts.
We've done that over 60,000 times in the last 14 months. So by a ratio of 10 to 1, you know, we've distributed the money proactively, as opposed to waiting for the students to fill out some bureaucratic form and go through yet another hurdle.
And more than that, what I'll say from years of experience is, the students who have the bandwidth to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles are not always the most deserving of the aid. By definition, they have the bandwidth, so they are a little better positioned than those who could never even conceive of finding the time to figure out how to fill out an emergency aid form and even know that that money is available to them.
So, you know, if there's a good thing that comes out of the pandemic when it comes to student success, I hope it is that campuses that were left entirely flat-footed over the last 12 months – I had some campuses reaching out to me last April, saying, "How do you advise students when they can't physically come in and sit across from an advisor?" because they had no video advising systems, no proactive outreach systems set up, and so forth.
The campuses that have invested, historically, in those kind of approaches were the campuses that weathered the pandemic better, but also the campuses that are going to be much, much stronger as we work our way out of the pandemic – and as we recognize that the nature of students has changed so much in higher ed. More and more students are parents. More and more students are adult learners. More and more students are part time, low-income, so forth. These are the kind of approaches that these students need in order to succeed.
Well, I feel like that's super helpful, and I think folks are already giving great perspective on their thoughts on how this is a great conversation. So I wanted to shift to focusing even more on you as a leader, again because I just feel like there is no one who has heard you speak about student success more than me [laughs], and every single time that I hear you speak on student success, I learned something new, and you know that.
But again, I also know you personally, and I feel like you as a leader – it's very interesting to me how your leadership has evolved. The way that you – you know, you start your career as a faculty member, you move your way up at Georgia State, and slowly over time, because of your, I think, quiet leadership style, patience, I don't know, you over time assemble a very massive portfolio that I think helped you with implementing student success innovation.
It's one of the things that, when I look at other campuses, and presidents are asking kind of like, what's the hot tip that they can take from your example, I am always kind of looking at, like, who gets fired if student success doesn't improve? And there doesn't seem to be someone who is actually in charge in the way that your position – and now Dr. Allison Calhoun-Brown is in, Senior Vice President for Student Success. I think that's a novel concept, but it only happened because you over time that built that.
And so I've seen you lead in that way. I've also seen how people at other institutions around the country follow you. And then I've also seen people above you somewhat differ on leadership. So I think your leadership style is in itself really interesting, and then now you are in an entrepreneurial role. But could you share what you think are the most useful skills that have helped you be able to lead, in all these different spaces, towards this important goal?
Yeah. Yeah, that's a great question, not an easy answer. I'll say this, autobiographically, that I came to Georgia State as the first hire in religious studies and was assigned as a junior faculty member – I was only 25 years old when I was hired by Georgia State, straight out of my Ph.D. program – to start this religious studies department. It was an uphill climb, right? So from the beginning, I had to use a whole host of skills to try to gain buy-in from colleagues, from administrators, from people who held budget purse strings and so forth.
I'll say kind of what I learned then, and then I applied in even greater degree when I began overseeing the student success efforts in 2008, is maybe two skills. One that is particularly important and that everybody knows about is, you know, using evidence, using the data. We are noted at Georgia State for paying attention to data, and anybody who has heard me speak knows that you'll get a lot of data from me, but it's not just a curiosity. I mean, it is an intentional aspect of how I present things to academic audiences.
Maybe if I was speaking to an entirely different audience, the data wouldn't be as important, but when you speak to audiences of skeptical faculty, staff, administrators, and so forth, most of whom have a whole string of degrees at the end of their names, they need the evidence. And if you are asking them to do things that are utterly different than what they've done for the last 20 years of their careers, then you better have good and compelling evidence.
So we've been very intentional from the beginning. I did this as I was building the religious studies program, and I did this as we were building up student success at Georgia State – to have not only good data available, but to have confirmed that data, to hire independent evaluators. When we launched our chatbot in 2016, that very first summer, as we were launching it, we also made a call to Lindsay Page at the University of Pittsburgh, a leading summer melt researcher, and said, "Will you run an RCT on this first trial we're doing this summer, so that we'll have good data in order to make a compelling case?"
So that's one side of it. You know, the data is not incidental or is not some quirk of my personality. It's part of what we are trying to do to convince our fellow people in higher education that they need to change.
The second part of it, which maybe gets less attention is, my subfield in religious studies is actually religious ethics. So I taught comparative religious ethics, I taught courses in war and violence, I taught courses in church and state and so forth, when I was a full-time professor for 20 years of my career. And what I think I have done more intentionally and maybe more overtly than a lot of other people who speak in academia is make the moral argument. I mean, it is a moral argument, and the reason many people are attracted to higher education in the first place is because of the moral mission. I can tell you, I hear it every fall as we bring in new faculty and staff to Georgia State, that a main reason why people come to Georgia State is because they want to make a difference, and they want to make a difference especially with low-income students and students of color and first-generation students. So, you know, be out there and say: "Yes, what we are doing is the morally right thing to do, and if we don't do this, if we allow students to come to our campuses and drop out with debt and nothing to show for it, that's wrong, right? That's immoral."
And not every audience member will kind of take up and be inspired by the same data points. I make ROI arguments as well. But I think what is underestimated, when you are speaking to a group of your colleagues in higher education, is to recognize that most people could have done other things, and they chose higher education because they believe in its moral mission. So make the moral arguments, and show why what you are doing is the morally appropriate thing to do.
You know, it's really interesting, because I've been spending a lot of time recently talking about demands for higher education to prove its value, and that focuses more on the non-moral part.
And it's pretty interesting to hear – I don't hear a lot of talk of the sort that you're doing, and it's different and kind of refreshing, I have to say.
Well, don't get me started on the ROI side of it, because I can go on for 45 minutes or an hour about how these programs pay for themselves, because they do. But I think there's a lot of people thinking now about how you make those kind of very practical arguments. I think – well, you know, Bridget's question was about, how do you get people to actually follow and be inspired, and I don't think it is predominantly the practical, ROI argument. I think it is, you know, these people came here for a reason, as faculty and staff, and this will help you fulfill that mission.
And it aligns with when I go to other institutions, when the leader really can appeal to something that's a very intrinsic, values-based appeal, for instance, you know, "define not by who you exclude but by who you include" [unintelligible 00:24:50]. People, it gets them up moving in that direction. They are deeply inspired and passionate.
I want to turn back to something that I do think is pretty different about you, and I'm hoping you can give us some advice on how you develop this. You have a level of patience and just, like, dogged determination that you will go through – first off, the amount of time and energy that you can spend on data is unparalleled. And so I want other people to do it, but I also just – you know, I think people get kind of overwhelmed over time. They maybe move on to a different thing, or I'm not sure what it is. But somehow you have been able to stay so focused and be so patient when focusing on some of these longer-term, data-driven improvements, and I'm wondering, where did your patience and your kind of resilience come from?
Yeah. I'm not sure I have an easy answer to that. I do think part of it comes from being, or at least perceiving myself as, a bit of an outsider, and not expecting things to kind of be handed to me.
But, you know, the attitude I take is kind of the same attitude of sales. Our point in student success is not to find something or make an argument that turns a switch that takes graduation rates that are 35 percent and turns them to 100 percent. What we're doing on a day-to-day basis is trying lots of different things, some of which may be successful, others of which will be entire failures.
And if you're a salesperson – you know, selling cars or houses or whatever – and take the view that it's not worth my time, energy, and so forth to go out there today because there's a good chance that what I am doing is not going to result in a sale, you're going to go down in flames, right? It's going to be a disaster. What you need to do is recognize that there is a certain proportion of the efforts that you engage in that will bring back these returns. And with that expectation in mind, it's enabled me to go through a lot of things that haven't been successful and find the ability to continue going on by those one third of the things that really do work out and produce great results.
I'll tell you, you know, being at a place like Georgia State with 50,000 students, of which 80 percent have immense needs – academic, financial, emotional, so forth – it can be overwhelming, right? Because there is so much deserving attention that the students need. But if we can plug away and do things every day that make life a little better for some of the students, then over time, every year and every five years and so forth, you begin to see those results in a very gratifying sort of way.
I mean, Georgia State is now graduating 3,500 more students than we were just 10 years ago. Every year, 3,500 more students. None of those efforts that we had, none of that data analysis or these pilots and so forth, resulted perhaps in more than a few dozen here or maybe a dozen there of additional graduates. But you do that day after day and year after year, and a decade later, it's 3,500 more students every year graduating with their degrees. So, you know, I can't say that that explains why I am patient, but it does explain what my outlook is and why I am willing to keep plugging away even when not every day is a success.
All right. Well, we only have like one minute left, so these are rapid-fire, last two questions. One is the best advice that you have received, and the second is the advice you must frequently give to others when they are thinking about leadership. Do you have answers to those two?
Yeah. You know, I think the advice is, everyone who you network with is a future ally, and don't burn bridges – that a lot of people, you know, treat their leadership roles as an us-versus-them and as a confrontation, and I've always had the view that whenever possible, you build strong relationships, you agree to do things even if you don't immediately see the personal benefit, because those relationships pay off in the end, and I think my career is testimony to that. So that would be the advice that I got, and maybe it's the advice I give as well.
But the other advice I give to anybody watching today is, you know, there is a whole realm of opportunity for career development in the field of student success. The whole term "student success" didn't really exists a decade ago, so the idea that you can be a leading administrator at a university and overseeing these kind of efforts and programs and coordinating them and so forth is a very new enterprise. So I encourage people to really take that seriously, and just because there's not a lot of examples out there, don't assume there won't be many, many more examples over the next decade, because I think this is definitely the direction the higher ed is heading.
Well, that is perfect, and so, thanks so much for sharing your insights and perspective, Executive Director Tim Renick. Folks can look up the National Institute for Student Success. We will link that below, and you will be able to look a little bit more into how your institution might work with them. Doug, as always, thanks so much for being an excellent cohost.
And for those of you at home, we will look forward to seeing you on our next episode.
Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts
Guest: Tim Renick, Executive Director, National Institute for Student Success (NISS) at Georgia State University
Dr. Tim Renick, who has led Georgia State University’s student success efforts since 2008, is the founding executive director of Georgia State’s National Institute for Student Success, and Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State. Previously, he served as Georgia State's Senior Vice President for Student Success, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, and Director of the Honors Program. Between 2008 and 2020, he directed the university's student success efforts, overseeing one of America's fastest improving graduation rates and the elimination of all equity gaps based on students' race, ethnicity or income level. Dr. Renick has testified before the U.S. Senate on strategies for helping low-income university students succeed and has twice been invited to speak at the White House. His work has been covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, and CNN and cited by former President Barack Obama. He was named one the 16 Most Innovative People in Higher Education by Washington Monthly, and received the Award for National Leadership in Student Success and the McGraw Prize in Higher Education. He has served as principal investigator for more than $30 million in federal and private research grants in student success. A summa cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College, Dr. Renick holds his M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University.
Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (A.C.E.) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.
Co-Host: Doug Lederman, Editor and Co-Founder, Inside Higher Ed
Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. With Scott Jaschik, he leads the site's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country. His work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003, after working at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one for a 2009 series of Inside Higher Ed articles on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug and his wife, Kate Scharff, live in Bethesda, MD.
About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.
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