Building Sustainable Student Programs

As I continue to prepare for my transition from UPenn to BU (I will be the Managing Director of BU’s Arts Initiative – I will post more about this later), I have been thinking about what it means to develop programs that are sustainable – not environmentally sustainable, but programs that have a functional life beyond my time at the institution.  The last thing I want is for programs that I believe (and I hope students believe) are successful and relevant or that have proven (through assessment) to be to be successful and relevant be placed on the chopping block because “that was Ty’s program”.  After some time searching the web, I couldn’t come up with anything useful to use as a guide.  So I will posit a few ideas and hope that some of you comment.  Of course, I am in particular, wondering about sustaining student arts programs, though I expect the basics would be the same for any student program.  Here are characteristics that I think would indicate the ability for programs to be sustained over the years, particularly through staff transitions.

Strong student commitment or involvement.  I think the two are different.  You can have a few student who are deeply committed to a program that they can effectively manage or help to manage.  If that kind of investment repeats itself annually, the program should be easy to maintain, even in a staff transition.  Or you can have a great many students who are involved in a basic program that takes little effort for staff to maintain.  To me, this indicates a broad level of interest, enough to support a simple program with low commitments.  We have both kinds of programs.  I would hope both kinds survive the transition.

Clear goals aligned with the university mission.  After spending nearly two years in our division working through the process of formally assessing our programs, I am more keenly aware of how those programs do or do not fit the institutional mission, or at least the current institutional priorities.  Those that clearly do, even if they take more staff time to maintain, should be worth the effort to sustain, during a transition.  If the goals are clear, even temporary professional staff could support such a program during a staff transition.

Low to mid level staff management needs.  If a program is too reliant upon things that you as a staff person must do to manage it, it may not be sustainable, particularly through a staff transition.  I wonder if it is even something that should be sustained.  I am still trying to figure out if we have programs that fit that description.  I think we do, and I feel badly that they may not survive.

Institutional support.  I guess this goes with the mission thing, but it seems to me that programs that operate in a vacuum, particularly the administrative vacuum, are less likely survive a staff transition.  This, of course, then means that as staff we should render due diligence in engaging our superiors in the work we do.  If they don’t know about it, how can they support it?  There is a great deal to be said for having a champion or two within the institutions top leadership. Institutional support could also come in the form of colleagues, regular collaborators and partners who may, during a transition, be able to take on more work to see a valuable program through.

Finally, I will say that though I believe it is important to create programs that are sustainable, I also firmly believe that it is important to know when it is okay to heavily adapt or even kill a program.  Student needs and interests change, so should our programming in response to those needs and interests.  What do you think?

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