Lessons Learned: How VCU is Leading With Listening to Student Needs

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges into conducting a sudden and unexpected experiment with remote instruction, Virginia Commonwealth University did something that might seem surprising: It texted its students.

During those early days of the pandemic, phones all across the VCU community lit up with messages from the university. And students responded en masse. They texted about their anxieties, their fears and their concerns about balancing studies with family responsibilities and health worries now that many had returned home. They told us about the challenges many faculty members were facing as they navigated the unfamiliar virtual world of Zoom lectures and online discussions.

The responses we got back taught us a lot about remote learning, and enabled us to respond more quickly than we might have only a few years ago. But we also received something even more valuable, which still applies in a world emerging from the pandemic: we learned we should lead by listening.

The idea of listening more to students’ needs and priorities didn’t begin with COVID-19, of course. As institutions have begun to place more emphasis on student success over the past decade, they’ve systematically put more value on the student voice and sought student input on major decisions that would affect them. But campus leaders have often historically posed these questions to the students who are easiest to find: the student government association, student representatives on trustee boards and a few other high-profile student leaders.

Later, when institutions started to put the student at the center of everything they did, they expanded their opinion-gathering efforts. Institutions held student forums and student focus groups. New committees and task forces also included a student or two.

But the error we all made — a misstep that became clear in this era of meeting students where they are — was that the students who came to forums and served on university committees were hardly representative of the larger student body. The modern American university is a large and diverse place. It’s impossible for one or two students to accurately portray the wide range of backgrounds, interests, experiences and opinions that come together on a college campus.

Technology helps to change this equation by making it possible for every student — regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, family background, or part-time status — to have a say in the policies, programs and activities that might impact their campus experiences. An institutional culture of care demands that colleges and universities hear from all voices on all decisions that affect students. That’s one of the reasons we chose texting as our communication method of choice: at universities today, meeting students where they are means meeting them on their cell phones. Using text messages, rather than a separate app or platform, enables us to reach virtually everyone on campus without any additional hassle.

We learned a lot from those simple text messages. We used the insights we gathered to make better decisions about extending student deadlines, for withdrawing from courses, and opting for pass-fail or letter grades. Along with our partners at Mainstay, we spent the past year reimagining the texting initiative on a broader platform to allow for full-scale integration with existing university systems involved in advancing student success. When we announced those decisions, we were able to confidently say to our students that we’d heard their voices and that they’d helped us make a change.

Perhaps more importantly, technology has eliminated barriers and helped my institution make crucial decisions more quickly than ever. In years past, student surveys done on paper or via email took many weeks to design, collect and process. They generated relatively few responses, and university leaders took many months to make their decisions. Today, short “pulse checks” texted to students can generate hundreds or even thousands of responses within 24 hours. Data can be analyzed and sent to senior leaders within 48 to 72 hours so they can make decisions in a matter of weeks or even days.

Technology also can create a virtuous cycle of engagement. When students see that university leaders not only ask what they think but use their feedback to make decisions, students are more likely to respond to later questions from the institution. A greater number of responses from a wider range of students can improve the data analysis and decision-making process. And students who feel heard also feel valued; this sense of belonging makes it much more likely they’ll persist with their studies and remain connected to the institution.

We live in a world where students should no longer have to wait months or years for university leaders to make key decisions that affect them. As the way colleges and universities operate and act to support their students is being transformed, it has become more important than ever to take students’ voices into account. Listening must be a fundamental part of our approach to leadership.

Aashir Nasim is Vice President and Senior Advisor to the President at Virginia Commonwealth University. This op-ed is adapted from his foreword to the recent white paper “Leading With Listening.”