President's Office

Faculty Success: Are Students the Only Ones Who Need to Feel They Belong?

2018 Faculty Retreat

Retreat Theme:
“Art and Dialogue: CSUN's Pathway to the Promise Land”
Skirball Cultural Center 

Keynote address: “Faculty Success: Are Students the Only Ones  Who Need to Feel They Belong?”

Dianne F. Harrison, Ph.D.
President, California State University, Northridge
January 16, 2018 • 9:45-10:30 a.m.


Good morning, happy new year, and welcome to the 2018 spring semester!

I hope all of you had an enjoyable and relaxing holiday break, and had an opportunity to refresh and re-energize yourselves in preparation for the new semester. Or, if you were like me and one half of the rest of the country, you are recovering from a cold or flu! This may also account for my lack of interesting media accompanying my presentation – So apologies in advance for my talking head!

Before I continue, I want to say I recognize that it has been a challenging year – politically, within the CSU, for our students, faculty and staff – individually and collectively – and I might add, for our administrators. I think that we have all experienced lots of missteps, hyperbole and harsh feelings on the part of way too many people at CSUN.

Given these challenges, it seems fitting that this year’s faculty retreat is being held at the Skirball Cultural Center — the surroundings and exhibitions not only encourage thoughtful contemplation and reflection, but are also a powerful reminder of the important role that diversity, tolerance and inclusion has played in the history of our country, in California, and of course at CSUN.

But despite the uncertainty and many difficult issues we are facing in these times, I want to thank all of you for continuing to rally behind and support Matadors Rising, our student success campaign that is aligned with our goals under the CSU’s Graduation Initiative to increase our graduation rates and reduce time to degree.

With Matadors Rising, we will now have the structure and data to measure our success and work towards our goals. And we have already seen some preliminary positive results - indications that our initiatives are starting to work — let’s keep it up! I appreciate your contributions and commitment to this effort.

We know that a major component to reaching our Matador Rising goals and ensuring student success is creating a culture of belonging.

A sense of belonging is important because it connects to our students’ academic success and emotional well-being. Although research on belonging has traditionally focused on K-12 educational environments, universities (including CSUN) now recognize and emphasize the importance of belonging among college students. The concept of “Belonging” and its importance for student success has truly gone viral!

As described by Ohio State University’s University Center for the Advancement of Teaching,

The success of college students is related in part to whether or not they feel welcomed in specific college environments, such as classrooms. Sense of belonging is related to a number of outcomes, including college students’ engagement and persistence, course grades, and academic motivation. The bottom line is this: college students who feel that they belong in your classroom are more likely to succeed.[1]

In her book, Mindset, world-renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck showed that college students bring into the classroom the totality of their personal experiences and backgrounds, and often arrive with fixed mindsets, creating challenges and a lack of academic confidence related to negative stereotypes. They carry the belief that intelligence and capacity for learning is fixed and cannot be changed. Such circumstances often make it difficult for students to be motivated and take advantage of learning opportunities.[2] But research has also found that countering such beliefs and teaching students that intelligence can be developed and tapped with focus and hard work can help students overcome these challenges and succeed.[3] But be aware that helping students feel they belong does not replace the need for high quality teaching and focus on student learning outcomes and competencies. Helping students feel that they belong and have potential to succeed beyond their own aspirations does not mean less rigor!

To give you some insight into what our students are feeling, every other year at CSUN we participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which provides useful longitudinal data on the engagement of freshmen and seniors, in comparison to most of our CSU sister campuses and other peer institutions from across the country.

I’m happy to report that the 2017 results from the survey saw many positive bright spots for CSUN.

Overall, students were generally positive with their experience, with 86% of first-year freshman and 84% of seniors rating their overall experience at CSUN as “good” or “excellent,” which was just above the response for the other CSUs (respectively 83% in both categories).

Areas where first-time freshman rated CSUN significantly higher than other CSUs include our institutional emphasis on attending events that address important social, economic and political issues; emphasis on attending campus activities and events; and emphasis on encouraging contact among students from different backgrounds.

Seniors rated us significantly higher in encouraging contact among students from different backgrounds; providing opportunities to be involved socially; and providing support for overall well-being.

As this shows, there is much for us to digest in the data and they will be very helpful in how we focus some of our resources and energy.

Of course, we already have many initiatives and programs intended to encourage student engagement, belonging and well-being, and I want to share some examples of what we are doing campuswide.

  • We were one of the first universities to join the Stanford-based College Transition Collaborative. Since summer 2015, we have participated in their Social Belonging project. For students who participate in the social belonging activity during New Student Orientation, there is a 3 to 5% boost in retention, and that effect is strongest for first-generation college students (a 6 to 8% boost). While those percent increases may not feel like much, they are huge impacts.
  • Using a platform called Mapworks, and based on institutional data and student surveys, we now identify students at risk of withdrawal after their first year. Students who appear likely to leave CSUN are then paired with a peer mentor and a graduation and retention specialist.
  • The Office of Student Involvement and Development expanded the mentorship role of New Student Orientation leaders by providing targeted mentor training and explicit mentorship responsibilities for targeted mentees during their first three semesters.
  • A team of primarily college-based Student Service Professionals was created to work with students who are struggling in their first year. 
  • Academic First Year Experiences has spearheaded the Matador Momentum project to reimagine the first year at CSUN.
  • Recognizing that many students are disconnected from faculty and peers in their major until they begin taking major classes in their second or third year (which we saw reflected in the National Survey of Student Engagement data), a number of departments have begun onboarding their freshmen at the beginning of the Fall semester. For example, the Psychology department used Campus Quality Fee funding to create a community space for upper- and lower-division students along with programming to welcome freshmen and keep them connected to the major throughout their first two years of General Education coursework. 

As these examples show, CSUN is committed to creating a sense of community, engagement and belonging for our students.

These are more institutionally focused efforts. Your role in the classroom is just as – if not more – vital in creating an environment of belonging. There are methods for groups, but many times, it is your efforts, student by student, that make the difference. I encourage you to persist in your efforts to create these connections and learn new ways that reach today’s students. Again, being always aware of student learning and competencies.

I think it’s also important to mention the importance of diversity and inclusion here. As you know, a few years ago, the university included diversity and inclusion as an institutional priority, in addition to being infused in our other priorities.

In a webinar on “The Future of Diversity and Inclusion” for the HR Certification Institute, Dr. Lauren Aguilar, Diversity and Inclusion Partner at Forshay, Inc., spoke of the direct link between inclusion and belonging: Inclusion was described as “an atmosphere which signals that all people are respected, valued, and treated fairly” and Belonging as “The feeling of fitting in and having positive relationships with the community.”[4]

As this suggests, inclusion plays an important role in creating a feeling of belonging. Given the demographics of our students, this is why we have quite intentionally focused on increasing our faculty diversity. Students understandably want to see faculty who reflect and understand their values, background and experiences.

But I recognize that if we are to create an environment where students feel they belong, and feel welcome and supported, it is important that we consider and look at faculty belonging as well. And it is this subject that is the primary focus of my remarks this morning. It seems so appropriate to focus on this topic at a retreat devoted to you, the faculty, following winter break, which offered an opportunity for some down time for us – and to reflect – following a busy fall semester.

As much as we talk, read and hear about student well-being and belonging, it’s surprising how little research and literature there is on faculty well-being and belonging. But this is beginning to change.

Just last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed Margaret Price, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, who just co-authored a book based on the culmination of many years of research on faculty well-being.[5] Although the book focuses on mental health, Professor Price says makes clear that her observations and recommendations applies to all faculty members, and stresses the need to create a “culture of access” that promotes a sense of shared accountability to ensure the well-being of the people we work with and share space with – our colleagues. In other words, all of our faculty colleagues need to feel that the CSUN culture and campus are accessible and responsive to their needs and issues. And we should all be held accountable for creating a campus climate that is accessible to all. How do we do that if we disagree on issues? Or don’t pay attention to signs and signals from others? I think we have to rise above our own perspectives and assume a larger CSUN best interest view. Who of us wants to work in an environment of mistrust or isolation? Raise your hand if you do. I do not!! And I doubt if most of you do.

The demands of a modern 21st century university also add to the stress we all feel. In another piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The 21st-Century Academic,” Whitaker, an education professor at Colorado College addressed the shift faculty have seen in higher education, which was once a place to “broaden intellectual horizons,” cultivate a “life of the mind,” and focused on knowledge production, whereas today, “academe has shifted toward helping learners use knowledge in new ways – toward innovation”[6] and new pedagogy. I remember as a faculty member working toward promotion and tenure, thinking I was about a decade too late for this “good life” as a professor, where nothing was questioned or challenged if a faculty member said it. Respect for authority and position. Oh, well, I thought, I missed that era, and I was a young female professor constantly having to prove herself to both students and colleagues.

In my years as a student, faculty were respected, even revered to a certain extent by students for their expertise and authority. That changed dramatically in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But in point of fact, it made most of us more accountable and responsive to students. The pressures to be accountable to student learning, responsive to student needs and challenges, has only grown and currently is front and center as one of the avenues for evaluating faculty effectiveness. And it is not going away.

Let me give you a brief hypothetical. You or your colleague teach a GE course that is highly subscribed because it is a major requirement or pre-req for popular majors. Turns out it is a high DFU course. And believe me, no college is removed from having such courses, ranging from a low of 1.4% of course sections to almost 30% of all course sections within a college. In Fall 2017, there were 702 high DFU sections enrolling 9684 students. So now, the University and our Matadors Rising campaign has shined a spotlight on the course. You/your colleagues are “pressed” to fix this. Oh, and did I mention there are equity gaps uncovered? No department or college is immune to this! Do you think the involved faculty do not feel defensive, threatened or at least stressed about this? Singled out? This is another area where faculty belonging is relevant and deserves attention, and it includes tenure track faculty as well as lecturers.

Back to the article on 21st century academia, (and it is true in terms of our students), we also are seeing more adult learners seeking professional advancement or entry into a new field, an increased number of students majoring in interdisciplinary fields, and more online learning. Whitaker notes that this shift also has its roots in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, “when the war, civil rights and health crises forced academics to acknowledge the need for new ways of thinking about the world.” The point to all of this is that what you thought your life was going to be as a career academic – opportunity for robust research and perhaps teaching the courses you want, on the schedule that you want – has probably not been realized; our reality is our lives on and off campus is changing dramatically – and it is also true for our students! The well-researched, pedagogically sound notes you developed for your lecture just a few years ago are probably not as effective anymore – or focused on the increasingly important need to create student belongingness. I know that this is a tremendous “lift” for you; it requires new thinking and new efforts.

Let’s consider two faculty members – “Pat” and “Patty” (no gender assigned to either). Pat is relatively new to the university, not had time to make friends in the department or outside. They have not yet discovered other faculty with common interests and, naturally, has anxiety about the “new job” and the tenure process or even keeping an assignment as a lecturer. Pat has young children at home and the obligations and responsibilities we all have outside of work. At work, Pat is feeling quite alone and overwhelmed. Pat is not an anomaly, and one of many who are easy to fall into a crack.

Patty is the opposite. As a self-starter, he or she is engaged in departmental business, and mentoring students, having had the benefit of being mentored by senior faculty; he or she is on track with RTP, is attending campus events, and has gotten to know people outside of their field of study and beyond their college.

Who do you think is going to feel content and a sense of belonging? Who do you think is going to provide the best classroom experience for the students? No surprise. Pat does not feel much belonging here – YET. Left unchecked, this can create chronic stress and even mild depression, or even a premature departure from the university.

Earlier, I mentioned an interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education with Dr. Margaret Price regarding faculty well-being. During the interview, Dr. Price notes that the kinds of challenging crises faculty may face be “something as simple as needing to miss work suddenly due to a sick child.” In other words, we are all human and it’s inevitable that our everyday experiences and challenges on and off campus will have an impact on us, unintentionally affecting our relationships and, ultimately, the experience of our students.

Thus, creating a sense of belonging and a culture of support at CSUN is essential to helping all of us make sense of this new world and the new demands being made on faculty and the university. And they reinforce our commitment to the important work we do for students and the community.

We owe it to each other – we cannot assume business as usual. Faculty well-being – and belonging – is just as important as student well-being. 

Also important to well-being and a sense of belonging is forming and maintaining strong, stable interpersonal relationships, and the need for frequent interactions with peers.[7]

Teaching and creating scholarship, research and creative activity among a community of scholars – where we share offices and have meetings with colleagues in the same disciplines, pursue multi-disciplinary opportunities, and have opportunities to attend academic conferences – play a large part in creating a sense of belonging for faculty and academics like ourselves.

But don’t get me wrong – a culture of support does not mean ignoring inappropriate behavior or sweeping it under the rug. Discrimination or harassment are never okay and should never be overlooked, especially within a supportive environment. Just last week I was told of an instructor who informed a female student that women don’t do well in a particular subject and, therefore, she should not take a certain course. Really?! How absurd and, in fact, discriminatory. That sort of behavior must be called out and addressed. There is no room for that sort of thinking at CSUN. Good mentoring also means truth-telling.

Support on our campus also does not mean supporting bullying or intimidation or making others’ views somehow less than our own. We need to engage in professional and collegial dialog no matter what the issue. Content of a GE course? Who gets FTE credits? We have to feel comfortable addressing differences and different perspectives.

We also spend a lot of time explaining and stressing to students that “asking for help and support when needed” is important and our students are getting better at this! Are we doing this for our faculty and each other?

Without getting personal, look around the room. Who do you know and who do you know might need extra support to feel like they belong? Whose energies do we need to harness to help our students and faculty succeed? We are making efforts, no doubt. And please do not neglect our lecturers and their situations. I would urge you to review my colleague on the WASC Commission Adrianna Kezar’s recent work on changing faculty and student success.[8] Lecturers and tenure track faculty need professional development opportunities and mentoring as well. Are we doing this?

This faculty retreat you are attending is one example of addressing these faculty belonging issues, and I thank the Faculty Senate for its work to create an engaging and productive retreat every year that brings together colleagues from across disciplines to meet, become acquainted and create a sense of community among you.

Our efforts to recruit, retain and mentor new faculty, of course, plays a key role in this effort for younger faculty. Our more obvious and institutional examples of this work include:

  • Our New Faculty Orientation Program, under the direction of Professor Gregory Knotts, has effectively oriented our newest faculty to the university as a cohort.
  • The Faculty Success Program, which provides support for faculty to balance their workload and provide coaching to enhance productivity, time management and mission alignment. It also provides a network of mentors and to a broader community of colleagues and scholars.
  • The Solo Success Workshop is for a faculty cohort of 10 scholars from underrepresented groups to address their unique concerns and provide strategies for participating in campus life in ways that support their goals and inclusive excellence.

Most of these programs fall under our plan to advance faculty diversity on campus, retention and, above all, create a sense of well-being and belonging.

But it is also important to not forget or leave behind our mature and senior faculty as well. As educators, we all share a belief in the importance of lifelong learning and this needs to extend to lifelong mentoring as well. Emory University, for example, has proposed a lifelong mentoring program, starting with undergraduate students at the beginning of their lifelong journey as they learn how to find mentors and build the skills to become mentors themselves, then continuing on a spectrum to graduate students, junior faculty, and senior and emeriti faculty who have attained mastery and reached the summit of achievement in their discipline and mentorship.[9]

The point here, of course, is that if we are to promote and encourage well-being on campus, including our faculty, we must be attentive to everyone in the academy and find ways to foster connections among junior and senior faculty, across departments and colleges.

To accomplish this, there is more that can be done here and meetings like this, in your department and college meetings, and the Faculty Senate are places for you to explore and develop other ways to enhance the campus environment and create a sense of belonging and a deeper sense of connection here at CSUN.

And as I said on the importance of connecting with one student at a time, efforts connecting with your faculty colleagues – one at a time – are also just as important.

I want to thank each of you for your contributions to CSUN and the work you do every day on behalf of your students and the university. Your attendance today already underscores your commitment and engagement – I ask all of you to help spread your enthusiasm and dedication to your colleagues in your departments and around campus. Let’s have a “We Belong to CSUN” campaign that we are proud of and does important work.

Thank you.


[2] Dweck, C.S., Mindset, New York, NY: Random House, 2006, as cited in Yeager, D., Walton, G., and Cohen, G.L., “Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions,” Kappan Magazine, Feb. 2013, pps. 62-65.

[3] Aronson, E. “The Power of Self-Persuasion,” American Psychologist 54, pps. 875-884, 1999, as cited in Yeager, D., Walton, G., and Cohen, G.L., “Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions,” Kappan Magazine, Feb. 2013, pps. 62-65.

[4] Aguilar, L., “The Future of Diversity and Inclusion,” online webinar, HR Certification Institute, June 2017.

[5] Pryal, K.P.G.,“On Faculty and Mental Illness,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 18, 2017.

[6] Whitaker, M., “The 21st-Century Academic,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 2, 2018.

[7] Baumeister, R.F., and Leary, M.R., “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 117(3), May, 1995. pp. 497-529.

[8] Kezar, A., “We Have a Shared Vision For The Future Faculty – It’s Time To Implement It,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 10, 2018.

[9] Bruner, D.W., “Promoting Lifelong Mentoring,” The Academic Exchange, Emory University, Spring 2015.