Under the Microscope

Under the Microscope

How culture affects the success of your institution

Every week during the summer and once a month in the academic year, Becky Spurlock, PhD, and her team host “Pancakes on Wednesdays.” The gathering is an optional opportunity to come together with colleagues and enjoy each other’s company. There are no obligations or agenda. In addition, the Student Affairs and Enrollment Management team at the University of Texas – Permian Basin (UTPB) holds a weekly community hour—a snapshot in time that features no meetings or classes. There are snacks and drinks available so that attendees can socialize. 

As Dr. Spurlock, Senior VP for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, likes to say, higher education is in the people business. Universities cannot compete with industry salaries and perks, but they can entice people—both staff and students—because of their culture. “We do not produce goods, generally speaking. Institutional culture is at the heart of the experience for the entire university community—students, faculty and staff. It’s an ecosystem that thrives under certain conditions. In this case, a positive environment. When any part of that ecosystem isn’t working, everyone knows it and it affects everyone.”

It can be easy to take culture for granted. And once it’s lost or degraded, it will take a tremendous effort to get it back. So, stay tuned in to the campus culture.”

— Becky Spurlock, PhD, Senior VP, Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, University of Texas – Permian Basin

Part of the University of Texas System, the University of Texas – Permian Basin is a public university in Odessa, an area rich in cowboy culture, oil rigs and the aura that was the foundation for “Friday Night Lights,” the book, film and series based on one of the town’s high school football teams. Odessa is also home to Jack Ben Rabbit, an 8-foot-tall statue located downtown. Another 37 Jamboree Jackrabbits dot the city’s landscape.

So, when you look to promote culture, UTPB has its share of cards to shuffle in the deck. Dr. Spurlock says for a university to do culture right, it takes years of developing and supporting the ingredients that define the mix. The key, she says, is to never lose your focus. “It can be easy to take culture for granted. And once it’s lost or degraded, it will take a tremendous effort to get it back. So, stay tuned in to the campus culture. Prioritize the support needed to maintain and grow it.”

At UTPB, the Marketing and Communications team concentrate heavily on sharing stories about its students, faculty and staff. These success stories get shared internally and on its social media platforms. The effort makes a big difference in communicating the university’s values. For example, the “Student Success Stories” highlight the work the different offices do in advancing the university’s priorities and commitments.

Some best practices include creating a supportive growth environment, prioritizing belonging and connection, committing to organizational accountability, hiring leaders with commitments to the mission, creating sustainable work and providing access to the resources employees need to thrive.

Some of UTPB’s efforts include:

  • Regular communications in multiple formats, including the opportunity to ask anonymous questions of the leaders of the organization.
  • Regular public and private acknowledgement of contributions, with specific feedback on how the actions contributed to success. While general feedback is nice, specific feedback and acknowledgment make people feel seen. 
  • Paying attention to salary and benefits. Even small actions can have big impacts in an organization. Provide additional pay when people take on work to fill a gap. Stop asking everyone to do more with no plan for compensation and no end date for the temporary situation.

“It begins with leadership,” Dr. Spurlock says. “We have a culture of yes at UTPB. We start with yes and go from there. Does that mean we do everything? No. But starting with yes means the conversation can continue. Debate and discussion are valued. When people think there is a chance of something, they will push towards collaboration, innovation, and excellence. I encounter people every day to have answers to solutions, ideas for improvements and know where we need to put our attention. People will hold that information when it’s not safe to share. When they don’t feel valued, and when they don’t believe anyone will listen. When you attend to those issues, your organization will thrive. People don’t burn out from too much to do but from too little reason to do it.”

Setting the tone

According to the latest data from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), there are 4,360 higher education institutions in the U.S.; 2,832 are four-year colleges, 1,582 are two-year colleges and 1,050 are community colleges.

Alexsandra Sukhoy says if you had a macro-map of the classes each of them teach, the textbook publishers they use, the degrees they offer and the professions their students pursue, while there would be some outliers, many of these schools would overlap significantly on these categories. The difference—and the thing that sets them apart—is culture.

Some schools have a culture of sports. Ivy League schools have a culture of powerful legacy networks. Universities built within the city with many remote students versus more traditional schools built on rural campuses also will differ tremendously. In the former, students will use cars and public transportation to commute to school, work and home. In the latter, students will walk or bicycle short distances, opening up their schedule for more activities, jobs or studying.

“Culture sets the tone for our values, behaviors and goals,” says Sukhoy, an assistant lecturer at Cleveland State University and Founder at the Cadence Agency. “Our first experience with culture, and what truly shapes us, is the home where we grew up as children. The food we ate. The music we listened to. The rules and rituals set by our parents or parental figures. The celebrations with other relatives, the neighborhood and community, the place of worship and the interactions between women and men, adults and children, our elders, and everyone else.”

“The most important thing anyone with any influence in higher education can do is to be aware of the needs of the students all the while staying fully on-pulse with where the world is headed to next.”

— Alexsandra Sukhoy, Assistant Lecturer, Cleveland State University & Founder, Creative Cadence LLC

Today, as both educator and parent, Sukhoy shapes culture by listening to the youth, asking them where they get their entertainment, what they’re watching and listening to, and why it’s important to them. Being open to it, and then using it as a platform in the classroom helps to engage her students. For example, on the first day of her international business class, she asks her students why they are there. Some know; others are still trying to figure it out. Finding ways to connect the dots and engage is important.

“The most important thing anyone with any influence in higher education can do is to be aware of the needs of the students all the while staying fully on-pulse with where the world is headed to next,” Sukhoy says. “As an MBA student at the Simon Business School, at University of Rochester, the first lesson I learned was, ‘Markets never rest.’ The professors instilled this into all of us like a new DNA marker. The harsher way to put this, of course, is, ‘Evolve or die.’ Thus, every single class, campus event and initiative must come from this firm but flexible POV.”

The goal is to go out and listen to your students. Ask them what they want. Find out their dreams, the struggles and obstacles they face, their plans, their support systems. Given the accreditation requirements, students can begin to frame the pedagogy and college culture around the Venn diagram where all this intersects. “To put it in operational terms, the most successful higher education organizations in the present and near future will be the ones who use the Pull (vs. the Push) model,” Sukhoy says. Today, Gen Zs and Gen Alphas will be driving the cultures that many campuses will adapt to. And higher ed administrations will be along for the ride.