Recognizing the Importance of Student Engagement

Institutions are beginning to create jobs that recognize by name the importance of student engagement in and out of the classroom. These positions are based on the idea that students who contribute actively to their learning environments—through experiences such as learning communities, service-learning, first-year seminars, and undergraduate research—are more likely to succeed in college.

Fairfield University in Connecticut now has a dean of academic engagement to help lead its efforts in using what have been identified as “high-impact practices”—the engaged learning approaches that boost student success, according to research.

Dr. Elizabeth Boquet, who had been associate dean of Fairfield’s College of Arts and Sciences, began in the new position in July 2009. Three factors led to the new job’s creation, she says: the arrival of a new president, strategic planning to aid the president’s transition, and self-study for accreditation.

“What we came to realize through the process of self-study … is that we had a number of areas—curricular in nature and academic in nature, but not necessarily happening in the classroom—that hadn’t had a lot of development,” says Boquet.

To further acknowledge the out-of-classroom component of engaged learning, Boquet’s position was created as a paired position with one in student affairs, the dean of student development, held by Dr. Deborah Cady Melzer.

“The idea is that we collaborate substantially to integrate living and learning on campus and to break down the divisional barriers,” Boquet says. “I report through academic affairs, and she reports through student affairs, but we’ve been crossing over a lot.”

One of the most exciting things about the paired deanships is that they make collaboration between academic affairs and student affairs a permanent part of the university structure, Boquet says. It’s helpful to have not only the working relationship between the two divisions, but also the administration’s support for that relationship, she says.

In addition, the paired deanships help Fairfield fulfill its mission to educate the whole person, she says. “We’re a Jesuit institution and we’re really trying to highlight conversations around community—around intentional, deliberate decision making—and so we’re happy about the way the positions came together.”


In the next few years, Boquet’s and Melzer’s major goals are to

  • educate the community about high-impact educational practices and ensure that all Fairfield students have access to those practices

“We have faculty, staff, and students who are already involved in a lot of these [high-impact] practices, so if you looked at our institutional profile, you would say, ‘Well, they’re doing pretty good,’” Boquet says. “But the questions we haven’t been asking are questions about who’s not able to access these opportunities right now and what the factors are that are affecting access.”

Students in certain majors, for instance, might have difficulty fitting study abroad into their disciplines’ course sequences, Boquet says.

“So we’re looking at educating faculty to have conversations much, much earlier with students about their academic planning choices, and I think that corresponds a lot to a much more intentional approach to retention and to students’ experiences over the course of their academic careers.”

  • help faculty develop their advising skills

“We’re focusing on an advising-as-teaching model so that faculty begin to see advising as linked to the other ways that they think about themselves as teachers, and as linked to the ways that students see themselves as developing socially, intellectually, and ethically,” Boquet says.

  • continue to develop residential learning communities

Although Fairfield already offers residential learning experiences, the objective is to have more systematic oversight of them and to link them more intentionally to high-impact educational practices.

  • coordinate peer-learning opportunities

“That’s going to include everything from developing a peer advising system so that we begin to use peer leaders in our academic advising to bringing together our various peer teaching areas,” which include student-athlete tutoring and math center tutoring, Boquet says.

Excerpted from “New Deanship Recognizes the Importance of Student Engagement.”Academic Leader, 26.2 (2010): 6.