Officials create new office for student affairs, enrollment amid push to improve culture

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Laurie Koehler, the current vice provost for enrollment management and retention, will lead the new department.

Officials will combine the University’s student affairs and enrollment departments into one office beginning this summer.

The Division of Student Affairs and the Enrollment, Management and Retention Division will be replaced by a new “Office of Enrollment and the Student Experience” in July. Officials said the move, which will be officially announced Monday, is more than an administrative shuffle, but a new approach housing nearly all aspects of the student experience in one office to make students feel supported by the University.

The new office will encompass the vast majority of departments – like admissions, financial aid, student health, career services and student engagement – that have the most interaction with students. Officials said they hope the new unit will cut down on the administrative maze that often forces students to bounce between multiple offices to address issues.

The change coincides with the resignation of former Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski, who left his post in December. Three other major officials have also left the DSA this academic year.

“I see an approach that is very passionate about students and making sure that students succeed.”

Provost Forrest Maltzman said the department overhaul ties into University President Thomas LeBlanc’s commitment to improve the student experience. Since beginning his tenure last summer, LeBlanc has frequently talked about a bureaucratic culture at GW that often alienates students from the University.

Maltzman said the new office will allow for a more “holistic” approach to addressing students’ concerns.

“I see an approach that is very passionate about students and making sure that students succeed,” Maltzman said. “I see an approach that is very much sort of developmental, very customer service-oriented about the student experience.”

Transitioning to a new office
The office will manage a student’s entire experience – from the first time they arrive for an admissions tour to the time they walk across the stage at graduation – under one unit.

Maltzman said prospective students often pick GW because they are made to feel important as a prospective student, a feeling he conceded doesn’t always last once a student begins their experience on campus.

“I think there will be a greater alignment – especially in that transition period – all the way from when you go to CI [Colonial Inauguration] to when you get your housing, registration for classes, all those sorts of things will be another critical area,” he said.

Staff in the DSA and the enrollment offices were notified of the change Thursday, Maltzman said. He said the merger was not the result of budget cuts, and while staff members’ roles may change, he does not foresee “a reduction in staff.”

Student affairs offices have been hit hard with spending cuts in recent years, forcing officials to shuffle the leadership of some departments.

He said Laurie Koehler, the current vice provost for enrollment management and retention, will lead the new department. Costas Solomou, the dean of admissions, and the new dean of the student experience, who will have a role similar to Konwerski, will report to Koehler.

Maltzman said he chose Koehler to take on the new role as the senior vice provost of enrollment and the student experience because she has been a “change agent” during her roughly four years at GW.

Koehler spearheaded the University’s move to a test-optional admissions policy in 2015 and has led the effort to raise GW’s retention rates – a measure linked to student satisfaction that officials have called an area of “weakness” in the past.

“If this could be a way that we could make that experience for students even better than it is now, and I could play a part in that, and the institution felt like I could be successful in helping to facilitate that, then it was a pretty exciting opportunity,” Koehler said.

The details of how the new office will function have not yet been worked out, but over the next several months, officials will assess the various units it contains and may make structural changes, Koehler said. She added that recommendations from the Board of Trustees’ student engagement task force, formed last summer, would be crucial to establishing the new unit in the coming year.

“What I want to use the next several months to do is leverage some internal and some external folks to help us look at where we are, who we are, where the surfaces are, what our culture is like, what it could be – and then shape something that makes the most sense for the student experience,” she said.

Searching for a dean of the student experience
Koehler said officials will launch the search for a dean of the student experience in the coming weeks, which will include a committee of 15 to 20 students who will meet with the candidates when they come to campus.

She said officials are bringing in an outside search firm to find qualified candidates from across the country and she hopes the University will fill the role by the summer.

Student Association Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson said SA leadership has already spoken with officials about including student input in the search process since Konwerski resigned last month.

“The more students the better,” she said, referring to the search. “The more students who feel responsible for selecting the new dean and can really articulate – not only how much they love GW, but also the areas of improvement and where – there’s a huge opportunity here on campus for this new dean.”

Growing trend in student affairs
Maltzman and Koehler said the idea of having enrollment and student affairs together in one office is relatively new in higher education, but some schools – including Syracuse and Drexel universities – have experimented with the approach.

Top student affairs officials at these schools said the change has resulted in higher retention rates and a smoother student experience.

Subir Sahu, the vice president and dean of student life at Drexel University, said his school’s transition to a combined student experience and enrollment office in 2014 has been largely successful because it “aligns the student experience in a really positive way.”

“When these student services are housed under different areas, they may have different processes and approaches.”

“From the moment that a student is looking at your institution – so when they’re prospect – to when they apply, to when they get admitted, to when they decide to come here, to their orientation, to their experience, when they graduate and become alumni – it allows you to kind of look at the student experience holistically,” he said.

Sahu said that as a result of the merger, Drexel’s retention rates have increased over the past several years from the mid-80s to the high-80s.

Dolan Evanovich, the senior vice president for enrollment and the student experience at Syracuse University, said joining the two areas creates new opportunities for top administrators to work as a cohesive team, but that the merger is “a process and, understandably, can take time.”

He added that the combination limits the number of offices that a student may need to go to to get everyday support or services.

“When these student services are housed under different areas, they may have different processes and approaches,” Evanovich said in an email. “Through a seamless, coordinated set of services, the experience will be less transactional and more cohesive no matter what the student needs.”

Annie Dobler, Olivia Dupree, Dani Grace, Andrew Goudsward, Liz Konneker, Johnny Morreale and Meredith Roaten contributed reporting.

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