Shared leadership for student success at UW-Whitewater

Meg Waraczynski
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Jodie Parys
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Susan Elrod
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Susan Elrod, Jodie Parys, and Meg Waraczynski, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
published Feb 7, 2019 1:17pm

Colleges and universities across the country are facing increasing pressure to enroll, retain and graduate more students at a time when the environment for higher education is competitive and often contentious. In order for institutions to be successful in these student success endeavors, everyone must work together. We are all familiar with shared governance as a central tenet of higher education but those processes apply primarily to policy development and decision-making. We argue that shared leadership is required as a holistic approach to goal development and implementation of strategic priorities that foster student and institutional success. In this model, both administrators and faculty/staff leaders play key roles that are essential to the long-term success and sustainability of student success initiatives. Administrators provide a framework for initiatives as they relate to the broader campus community; foster connections between individuals engaged in similar work; provide strategic support and remove barriers to progress; and hold the campus accountable for achieving shared goals. Shared leaders capitalize on their discipline expertise and commitment to student success and program outcomes to fill in the pieces of the framework. They utilize their classroom and program experience to design, test, and apply proposed solutions and also retain ownership of the initiatives and solutions.

This collaborative and distributed leadership model has been effective at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in advancing several projects aimed at student success. These projects were initiated in recent years, some by faculty and others by the administration. For example, we just completed our participation in AASCU's (American Association of State Colleges and Universities) national Reimaging the First Year (RFY) project. Mid-way through the project, our work on this initiative had become siloed and was losing traction. Shortly after arriving on campus, our new provost suggested we invite the campus to an open forum where RFY project leaders could make a presentation about their goals and get feedback from a broader campus audience about them. Another purpose of this forum was to identify others who were interested in getting involved. Nearly 100 people showed up and this was just what we needed to re-invigorate our efforts. With fresh perspectives and involvement, this initiative gained new momentum. Our provost also met regularly with all of the student success project teams and soon realized that many were heading in the same direction but were unaware that their efforts were overlapping. At the same time, the university was completing a new strategic plan that prominently features goals regarding enrollment, retention and graduation rates, and closing the gaps between majority and minority students. This confluence created an opportunity to put shared leadership to the test.

In order to foster greater cohesion, decrease overlapping efforts and focus efforts on the new strategic goals, our provost suggested we convene all of the project teams (eight of them in total) in Birds of a Feather (BoF) meeting. At this meeting, each of the project leaders presented their goals and plans in a lightning round with one-page summaries available for each project. Following the lightning round, attendees were distributed to multiple tables in the meeting room, with one representative from each project at each table. Tables created a list of common goals or plans. From this list, we created a set of cross-project priorities that enabled us to form a streamlined set of actions for a new "birds of a feather" (BoF) steering committee that consisted of leaders from each of the initiatives. The provost regularly met with this group to engage these leaders in their work but also to offer guidance, support and keep the focus on our big goals. It is important to note that some of these team leaders are faculty and staff members leading 'grassroots' efforts that evolved from their personal goals for improving student success. Supporting innovation efforts of a variety of origins is an important part of shared leadership and this process provided that empowerment and support.

The BoF steering committee continued meeting on its own and made significant and coordinated progress on our goals. For example, several groups worked on early alert projects and now these are all working in concert, from leveraging an existing survey tool to conceptualizing a new e-Portfolio effort. As a result of these and other efforts, the university has reached new record high retention and graduation rates.

Through this work, we have realized several features of shared leadership models (Kezar and Holcombe, 2017), in bold below.
  • First, we have engaged a greater number of individuals as leaders and cultivated a mechanism for them to assert their leadership in a collaborative effort.
  • The BoF steering committee has faculty, lecturers, staff, and administrators where leaders and followers are seen as interchangeable. We are all there on an equal playing field and the contributions of each person are respected and valued.
  • Everyone brings different perspectives, expertise or skills to the project in ways that would not otherwise exist and these multiple perspectives are capitalized on for problem solving, innovation and change.
  • This structure is horizontal, in that leadership is not based on position or authority. Meetings are very high energy where connections across projects are encouraged and continually being realized and capitalized upon. These leaders take new insights to their project teams in ways that would not occur previously.
  • This shared leadership approach means that collaborations and interactions across the organization are emphasized, as opposed to the previous model where efforts were siloed and inefficient. For example, the STEM transformation group is pioneering data analytics tools that everyone knows about. Multiple teams can incorporate these tools into assessing their own projects' outcomes. This illustrates the synergy and efficiency of effort that can be realized when leadership is routinely shared. In turn, this has cultivated a broader data-driven decision-making culture without a top down mandate. Administrators have stayed engaged and helped to remove barriers, secure resources based on needs identified by the group, and hold the entire group accountable for their progress. So, a shared leadership model also results in shared ownership as well as shared accountability to meet the goals that the group has established.

As Kezar and Holcombe (2017) note, adopting shared leadership strategies increases team satisfaction and cohesion and is associated with higher quality problem solving and more constructive interaction styles. In a higher education environment, this may derive in part from greater faculty and staff buy-in to transformational efforts. Goals and objectives that emerge from a shared leadership framework are shared by stakeholders at all levels. The individuals who must do the work to achieve those goals and objectives share ownership of the effort, rather than seeing that work as something imposed from above and disconnected from their own personal goals and objectives.

We anticipate that our model of shared leadership will help prevent burnout because there is a shared responsibility for the work and many people are involved. The collective contributions help sustain momentum, energy and enthusiasm. The leaders of each project support one another, instead of working in isolation. In addition, BoF leaders can authentically communicate to peers that these initiatives are truly built on faculty and staff goals and expertise, not based solely on top down mandates. This is critical for building ownership and, in turn, the structures required for successful implementation but also for sustained success. The people who are responsible for achieving outcomes are actively engaged in all aspects of the project, from conceptualization to implementation. The focus is not only on building successful programs, but on building leadership capacity for change. Leadership development is often an overlooked aspect of change and this model provides a built-in mechanism for doing so that works in concert with getting work done.

Developing shared leadership requires not only support from higher-level leaders, but also a genuine trust that letting go of some control will result in better outcomes. It requires sincere appreciation of multiple viewpoints, even (especially) minority viewpoints. We believe that our campus is already realizing the benefits of leaders taking such risks, and encourage others to explore and institute similar leadership strategies.


Kezar, Adrianna J., and Elizabeth M. Holcombe. (2017). Shared Leadership in Higher Education: Important Lessons from Research and Practice. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Suggested Citation:

Elrod, S., Parys, J., & Waraczynski, M. (2019, February 7). Shared leadership for student success at UW-Whitewater. Retrieved from

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