The CSU Network at Five Years: Middle Leaders Working for Equity and Student Success

By Thad Nodine

January 2022

The CSU Student Success Network is celebrating its first five years of supporting middle leaders in developing campus practices and outcomes that are equitable and student-centered. Since 2016, over 1,800 faculty, staff, and administrators from every CSU campus have stepped forward to get involved in the Network’s activities. At Network events, these middle leaders work with colleagues from their own campus, share strategies and research with other CSU campuses, examine student data, plan new approaches, and work together back on campus to advance policies that support equitable student learning, engagement, progression, and completion. 

“During its first five years, the CSU Network evolved from a planning concept to become a full-fledged partner and leader,” said Dr. Bianca R. Mothé, director of the CSU Network and professor of biological sciences at Cal State San Marcos. “We’re CSU faculty, staff, and administrators supporting each other to create more student-centered and equitable campuses. Through this peer-to-peer network, we are working to create systemic change.” 

For example, middle leaders who participated in Network Convenings and the Middle Leadership Academy helped to plan and implement these student-centered approaches on their campus. All of these are geared toward closing equity gaps: 

  • Chico State developed a systemic, multiyear effort across academic affairs and student affairs to reform teaching and learning in the classroom, including using student data to understand equity impacts and providing resources to faculty and students to improve student outcomes. A range of aligned plans were developed by campus teams over several years at the Middle Leadership Academy, and implemented on campus. 
  • Long Beach State created a transfer center to sustain wraparound support for students transferring from a community college. Faculty and staff were inspired to implement this approach based on their interactions with colleagues from other campuses at a Convening on transfer students. Creating the new center required collaboration across academic affairs and student affairs. After participating in the Middle Leadership Academy, a campus team also created integrated supports for undeclared students to explore potential majors. This led to the expansion of mentoring and other services, and stimulated support on campus for a more systemic approach to advising. 
  • CSU Northridge instituted a community-based-learning component for the campus’ seminar courses required of all first-year students. The changes were planned by a campus team at the Middle Leadership Academy, with a goal to improve equitable outcomes. This shift required the development of new partnerships and collaborations across academic and student affairs, and substantial changes in curriculum and training for all faculty teaching University 100 courses
  • San Diego State is developing an integrated system of campus supports for transfer students throughout their educational pathways. Participation in the Network’s Convening on transfer students and its year-long Middle Leadership Academy helped shape the vision of middle leaders from San Diego State, and provided them with networking and leadership strategies to support the change process. 

More information about the Network’s achievements can be found in its Annual Report.

Why a CSU Network? 

The CSU Network was created by staff, faculty, and administrators in the CSU to empower and support their fellow middle leaders in working together to advance student-centered and equitable change on campuses. Support for planning was provided in the Network’s early years by the Kresge Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and the College Futures Foundation. On-going financial support is provided by the State of California

Dr. Andrea Venezia, who was professor of Public Policy and Administration at Sacramento State, conceptualized the Network in 2014-15, and she collaborated with colleagues throughout the CSU to spearhead its development and growth until 2021. During this time, Venezia was also executive director of the Education Insights Center (EdInsights), a research center at Sacramento State that facilitates the Network. Venezia now serves as principal senior research scientist and director of college and career pathways research at SRI Education.

In discussing the origins of the Network, Venezia said, “When you have complex problems such as the inequitable barriers that students face in higher education, you need a range of people with different lived experiences, various kinds of training, and different responsibilities to work together and address these challenges. In initiatives that are top-down in education, there can be resistance and entrenchment from those who are working daily with students. It’s really important to honor and elevate the expertise of people who sit in the middle of a system or organization–and to focus on innovation and improvement, and not on compliance.” 

She said that the CSU Network created structured spaces for people “in the middle of the system to be able to think expansively; strategize in a systems or boundary spanning way; and develop plans and actions anchored in student experiences, equity, and evidence. We all have power where we sit, and we need spaces in our education systems to think together, plan, and step into action.” 

Venezia added that faculty and staff in the CSU are experts with strong contacts in their fields, and they often need support and collaborative spaces to work together on issues related to strategy development and organizational change. As they step into leadership roles on committees or in their departments, they benefit from support in systems change and equitable student learning and success, including “reading the literature, connecting with experts from other campuses, digesting all that information, and putting it to use on their own campus. People need time and space for that.” 

The Network at Five Years and Beyond

Over its first five years, the Network created (see Timeline):

  • An Advisory Board to help strategize its development and reach; 
  • In-person and online Convenings to share strategies regarding pressing topics and issues facing the campuses; 
  • A year-long Middle Leadership Academy to provide leadership development and networking geared toward developing action plans on campuses; 
  • An annual statewide Conference focused on equitable student success in the CSU; and 
  • Applied Research that builds and shares knowledge from expertise within the CSU, including an online Knowledge Center and a recently launched Equity in Action Grant Program

Image of a history of the Network timeline

All of these are managed by middle leaders in the CSU and by EdInsights, working with teams of other middle leaders to facilitate engagement, relationship-building, and distributed leadership.

As we begin our sixth year, the Network’s short-term goals are already being reached: increasing middle leaders’ engagement in Network activities and leadership; providing leadership development; and building relationships on and across campuses. 

Goals for the next five years are focused on achieving programmatic change on campuses. Longer-term goals feature more systemic changes, including student outcomes associated with advancing equitable learning and success. Early evidence of these impacts is already being seen, including the actions at Chico State, Long Beach State, CSU Northridge, and San Diego State, as described earlier in this blog. 

Despite these achievements, however, many middle leaders on CSU campuses are not yet aware of the Network and its activities. This represents substantial opportunity for Network growth but also shows the challenges that a small organization with limited resources faces in providing statewide outreach and support in the largest university system in the nation. 

According to Dr. LeAnn Fong-Batkin, executive director of EdInsights, “It’s incredibly impressive what middle leaders have been able to accomplish, in working with each other and with campus leadership to advance equitable student learning and success. But we still have a long way to go. Students in California continue to face significant disruptions in their lives due to the pandemic, and experience serious inequities in educational and other opportunities.” 

“In this environment,” she continued, “it is very important for the Network to provide structured spaces for middle leaders in the CSU to come together to share ideas, build relationships, develop plans, and take on leadership roles from where they sit, to support our campuses in being proactive in fulfilling student aspirations.”