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Two college administrators slice a cake that says "Welcome to IU" and hand pieces of cake to students.

Indiana University Bloomington provost Rahul Shrivastav and president Pamela Whitten serve cake to new students

Indiana University Bloomington

Raul Shrivastav’s career in higher education was an accident—kind of.

As a trained audiologist and speech pathologist, Shrivastav pictured himself in a clinical career, but after falling in love with research and teaching in his Ph.D. program, he took on more work in graduate-level education.

After two decades of working in higher education, Shrivastav is championing student success in academics at the University of Indiana Bloomington as the college’s newest provost. Prior, he served as vice president for instruction at the University of Georgia.

Rahul Shrivastav sits in a chair at Indiana University Bloomington

Indiana University Bloomington Provost Rahul Shrivastav

Indiana University Bloomington

Shrivastav spoke with Inside Higher Ed about the long-term goals of higher education, a holistic approach toward student success and the markers of a successful student.

Q: How does managing student success as a provost differ from your focus on it in your prior role?

A: It’s a much different, much bigger role. [At Georgia] I was largely in charge of … enrollment management and student success. Now I’m provost, so I’m basically overseeing all of those, plus research and faculty development and institutional infrastructure. It’s an order of magnitude bigger responsibilities. So as much as I’m still passionate about [student success], I am trying to build a team that does it for me rather than me having to do it myself.

I’ve been fortunate to work at four large, really good institutions. This is my fourth one, and the common theme that draws me is the kinds of opportunities these institutions present.

IU is one of those institutions where [retention and persistence] numbers are pretty good. My [first- to second-year] retention number is 90 percent, so I don’t spend my day every day thinking, “How do I fix it?” It allows me the time and opportunity to say, “What does a four-year education really mean? When my child goes to college, what do I want them to come out with?”

What attracted me at IU is no different than what attracted me to Georgia, because these are schools where you have the ability to have that higher-level conversation about what does it mean for higher ed to make students truly successful in the long term.

Q: What is your philosophy on student success, and what do you see as the markers of it in the short and long term?

A: The way I see student success is probably very different than the average university administrator. In the vast majority of schools in the country, when we talk about student success, we talk about graduation rates and retention rates and DFW [D, F and withdrawal] rates, stuff like that.

And to me, those are not measures of success. Those are measures of failure. And we assume that reducing failure is the same as increasing success, and I don’t think that’s the same thing.

To me, student success is really about, “How do we best prepare students to be successful in whatever they try to do?” And that success is not when you graduate—it’s what you do the next year and the next 10 years, the next 30 years.

It’s not easy to measure, but to some degree, we need to be talking about: what’s the curriculum, what’s the competencies, what’s the sort of networking, overall holistic development that we should be focusing on in college that shapes the student to be successful as defined [in the] big picture? And retention, graduate rates, DFW rates are not that.

Q: What metrics do you use to evaluate student success?

A: To me, there are academic criteria—those are varied upon the major. Then you have a certain type of competencies. And those competencies may or may not be tied to a major, and a lot of them are things you develop in a classroom anyway, even though we never really talked about it as a competency.

For example, if you take a class in statistics, which a lot of our students will do, it’s built into dozens of different majors. They learn regression and they learn ANOVA and they learn T tests. But they also learn a tool, like R or MATLAB or SPSS. So that is a competency. There is the academic knowledge, which is your statistics, but then there is a competency to do it from a job perspective, or long-term success perspective.

You need both; you can’t just learn statistics—if you don’t know how to use the tool, you can’t really apply it in a meaningful way.

The third piece is really around social cultural skills. It’s exposure; it’s being comfortable being uncomfortable. At the university, you are exposed to enough of a variety and diversity and various ideas that when you step out, you’re comfortable with the variety. If you never are exposed, it becomes harder and harder for you to operate in a world that is essentially global today.

And the last thing is, what do we do to encourage people to be willing to experience new things? Like a lot of education, particularly in your early years, the first weeks in the semester is walking into a room not knowing what you’d expect. But being comfortable with it.

I used to do this in my lab years ago. I had a lot of students from all over the world—Ph.D. students, Fulbright [students]. And we’d sit down one week a month and say, “What’s one thing somebody in the group hasn’t done before?” And somebody says, “I’ve never seen an opera.” So, OK, let’s all go to an opera. Doesn’t mean you have to like it, right. But to me, the bigger thing is, if you create a culture where it’s OK for you to be willing to try something new.

Q: As the chief academic officer, how do you support student success holistically, not just in academics but in the entire student experience?

A: To me, this is about aligning everything we do on campus around some central themes around student success.

Holistic success to me means taking the entire campus—it’s your housing, your dining, your recreational service, obviously your academics, it’s your architects in the building, it’s how you route the buses, it’s what messaging is put on the dashboards in the student union—and saying, if it is connected to student success, let’s do it. If it’s not connected to student success, let’s bring it lower on the priority scale. It takes a collective effort.

To give you one example, we have, and every major institution has, supplementary instruction—free tutoring for, say, math or chemistry or computer science or whatever it may be. A lot of that happens in a dedicated building or in a special room assigned by the department. But that’s not where they need the help. The student needs the help when they are trying to do their homework, which is often in the residence hall from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

So student success in this environment means having that tutoring resource there when students are doing that homework, or advising or making sure that your career counseling is not at the end of the academic term, but at the beginning.

Q: What does it mean to champion student success, and how can that be done across institutions?

A: Based on all four institutions that I’ve been in, I think that one of the most impactful strategies, if you’re really interested in student success, is visibility. The more the president, the provost, the chancellor, whoever it is, the more they say, “This is important to us” and celebrate the wins we get, the easier it is to rally everybody around that cause. I don’t think anybody on a campus will say [of student success], “This is not important.” But people will say, “I’ve got six things that are important and I have time for two of them. What makes this one of the two?” and that is prioritization and celebration.

[You accomplish that] by making this the center point of every conversation we have. Every meeting we have, our very first item on our strategic plan is student success. That is the No. 1 thing we are talking about. Doesn’t mean the others are not important, but this is a high-priority thing for us. Everything else builds on this.

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