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System Leaders Gather with Common Goal of Improving Student Success

January 31, 2018


​In its second year, the ACE-NASH Leadership Academy​ this month brought together leaders from a wide swath of institutions from Alaska to Maine to discuss one of the highest priorities facing U.S. systems and campuses: improving student success.

The Academy, held January 17-18 in Washington, DC, is designed to support systems in the development of high-performing teams that facilitate large-scale change, enhance campus and system performance, and scale best practices across multiple campuses. Participants worked as system-based teams and focused on leading change efforts that are known to enhance student success through a multilateral approach, considering relationships between system and campus leaders as well as among the campuses themselves. 

“Public university systems are critical social and economic drivers that educate approximately three-quarters of the nation’s bachelor degree seeking students,” said Rebecca Martin, executive director at the National Association of System Heads (NASH), which held the Academy jointly with ACE. “As such, leaders are needed to harness the collective resources of the campuses to improve student success, address local and global challenges, and improve operational efficiencies.”

Some key takeaways from the Academy are:

  • The collective impact of work done by systems can be significant, but it requires sharing of ideas and innovative practices at both the intra- and inter-campus levels.  
  • Engaging students is critical to understanding their goals and needs. Their insights allow institutions to design culturally sensitive and relevant strategies for support. 
  • Data is vital to student success, but it has to be analyzed at both the system and campus level in order for it to be relevant and actionable.
  • Surveys alone are not enough. Campuses and systems have to ask for the “why” behind certain findings in order to understand students’ needs and develop a corresponding plan to address them.

Speakers at the Academy shared insights and strategies with participants. Tristan Denley, executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University System of Georgia, spoke to the impact of integrating multiple strategies to achieve a comprehensive approach to student success. Building on his prior work at the Tennessee Board of Regents, he demonstrated the power of aggregating data at the system level to reduce some of the “noise” found in institutional-level data around barrier courses. His current research on creating a productive academic mindset across a diverse set of campuses provided another example of the collective impact of a system approach to student success.   

Aaron Thompson, executive vice president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, spoke to reaching diversity, inclusion, and equity goals. He suggested that participants leverage the tools and information available through their systems in order to create systematic change. Reaching quantitative goals—like increasing graduation rates for students of color—could be achieved with qualitative changes, such as recruiting more faculty of color; providing training focused on instructor competencies rather than just subject-matter expertise; or adding diversity goals into strategic plan language. 

Participants also discussed the importance of leadership diversity at the system level as crucial to campus success. There is a need for system heads to show a full commitment to diversity and inclusion in order for institutions to really invest in it, and the commitment must be both in word and in action.

The Academy comprises a two-day intensive workshop, with a follow-up meeting in April. System teams will develop action plans around a project of choice designed to significantly boost student success and will report on three-month accomplishments at the meeting in April. 

With any questions about the ACE-NASH Leadership Academy, please email​


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