Supporting Leadership Development in the CSU: A Q and A with Susan M. Baxter

July 2020

By Kalifa Madden, Communications Manager, EdInsights

This blog is an edited transcript of a conversation between Kalifa Madden and Susan M. Baxter.

Susan M. Baxter, Ph.D., former executive director of CSUPERB (CSU Program for Education & Research in Biotechnology), joined the Advisory Board of the Student Success Network in 2016 and stepped down from the board when she retired from CSUPERB in May 2020. In this interview, Susan identifies why she stayed engaged with the Network, how it influenced her work at CSUPERB, and how it supports faculty and staff in the CSU. 

Kalifa Madden: You’ve been involved with the CSU Student Success Network since its early stages. Why did you get involved? 

Susan M. Baxter: CSUPERB is a system-wide program, and I think I was approached because the Network was looking for experience in figuring out administrative and strategic issues across the largest university system in the country. I expected this to last a few phone calls, but once I got involved I stayed engaged until I retired. 

KM: What kept you engaged?

SB: CSUPERB is a grant-making program, but we also build community. We convene our grant recipients once a year and we host workshops occasionally during the summer. What we found is that these are the places and times where people learn from each other about how to improve their own game and their own professional trajectories. That incubation of relationships is really the secret sauce, or the reason that CSUPERB has been so long lived. The Student Success Network was started with that as their primary activity, bringing together Middle Leaders to examine and sharpen their perspectives, for example, about equity and how to navigate and make change. This was beyond CSUPERB’s mission, so working with the Network was a fun opportunity for me to inform CSUPERB’s work and scale it up. 

But the number one reason I remained engaged in the Network is because the Middle Leaders involved in it are consummate professionals, they run great meetings, they think strategically, they represent so many corners of the university, and the depth of scholarship they brought to the table was refreshing and renewing for me. I got to meet new people, hear new perspectives, and learn as I was going.

KM: Has your involvement in the Network influenced your work with CSUPERB?

SB: Since I started working with the Student Success Network, CSUPERB has become more intentional about building community and bringing people together around strategic initiatives. For example, historically CSUPERB has worked with researchers on the academic affairs side of the university. After seeing the way the Network brings people together across academic and student affairs, some colleagues helped us put together a workshop to talk about how faculty can work with student affairs staff. Boy was that workshop impactful. People came away changed and sought out their own Middle Leadership teams around different equity issues across the university and those teams have persisted on those campuses because of that workshop. I had thought that all faculty work with student affairs, until I saw, in working with the Student Success Network, how completely different their worlds could be. 

KM: What do you see as the Network’s important accomplishments so far?

SB:I think the Middle Leadership Academies have been really impactful system-wide. When we bring together campus teams that span academic and student affairs and give them a safe space to learn together and work on projects, then good things happen. I was just reading the Network’s blog about David Zeigler, the math chair at San Jose State, and how he transformed the department’s supports for incoming students. Those are the kinds of changes we’re seeing.

I also find the Network’s reports and blogs to be very powerful. When I first started in the CSU a decade ago, people were coming from outside the university and writing about us, but we were not active in publishing about our own experiences and high-impact practices for student success. I think that it’s been super important that EdInsights and the Student Success Network have started to elicit voices from inside the CSU–from people who know the students, who work with the students, and are invested in their success. This is a crucial part of higher education literature that we should be writing, rather than being the subject of studies from outside the system. 

KM: How can the Network be of service now, given the pandemic and the exacerbation of inequities in higher ed?

SB: That’s a moving target isn’t it? I’ve heard that about 15% of the students were just lost during the spring semester. I’m in the STEM fields and I haven’t seen data across the university, but I think that identifying these kinds of impacts is really important, and perhaps the Network can play a role in this. I also think the Network can help through its convening role–getting Middle Leaders together to share their perspectives, what they’re learning, and how we can support them. What do we do about summer? What about fall semester? It can be overwhelming, and so having a forum where we can hear what people on other campuses are doing can help all of us set a bar for ourselves and what we might be able to accomplish. This morning I read the Network’s blog about the Chico State team’s accomplishments. At one of the Academy sessions, they heard from the Humboldt State team about how they had rolled out data to their faculty members across campus, and it helped them solidify their plans for rolling out equity data at Chico State. Sometimes it helps to get outside of our own campus perspective and learn from what others in the CSU are doing, so we don’t have to reinvent everything as we figure out our paths forward. 

KM: How does participation in the Network help Middle Leaders?

SB: Leadership development. Many participants, when they first connect with the Network, do not see themselves as campus leaders. So participating in the Network can be very empowering and can provide practical skills in how to move ideas forward across a campus. There comes a time in everyone’s career where they recognize what students need on their campus, and with just the right support, they realize, well, okay, I guess I’m a leader who needs to figure out how to get this done. It might happen when they go from associate to full professor, or when they become a department chair, but they begin to broaden their perspective and want to do more for the campus community. Participating in the Student Success Network offers tremendous support for this transition into leadership because it connects you with like-minded and very smart professionals from across the university system, it provides you with information and skills, and it offers time and safe spaces for learning and experimentation, all of which is really important for leadership development.