Brian W. Janssen
Director of Student Organization Advising and Leadership Development
Portland State University
Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and thought to yourself, “That was a great analogy for a certain part of my life?” A few months ago this happened to me as I read the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (Lewis, 2004) and the part of my life it applies to is my career as a student affairs educator. The following essay will begin with an introduction to the concept of Moneyball and how it connects with the world of student affairs. After that, four Moneyball-based promising practices will be outlined with the hope of inspiring progressive thinking and action on campus. The essay ends by challenging us as student affairs educators to think about how we can shape the future of our profession to best meet the needs of our students.
Connecting Baseball to Student Affairs
If you are unfamiliar with the book or movie Moneyball (2011), here is a short synopsis. In Major League Baseball (MLB) there are 30 teams and no salary cap. This essentially means that teams with more money are able to afford “better” players thus creating a perceived competitive advantage. As in MLB, within the U.S. higher education system funding variances can influence perceptions of institutional service and quality. In Moneyball, the Oakland Athletics’ (A’s) General Manager (Billy Beane) wants to find a way for his team to be competitive even though they are a resource limited organization. Does this conversation sound familiar to those of you working in higher education?
Through a combination of data collection and analysis, challenges to paradigmatic ideals, and a willingness to take risks, Billy Beane and his organization create a new structure that allows them to be successful within the competitive environment of MLB. Using their unorthodox, sabermetric driven approach, in 2002 the Oakland A’s won 103 games with a payroll of $40,004,167; the New York Yankees also won 103 in 2002 games but spent $125,928,583 (mathgoespop.com, 2011).
In the world of higher education and student affairs, we are obviously not measuring our success through wins and losses the way they do in baseball. But, as the percentage of institutional budgets coming from state and federal funding continues to decrease, many of us will find ourselves in a position similar to the Oakland A’s. Within the ever-changing landscape of higher education, how do we remain competitive and provide the same, if not higher levels of service, with a limited budget? What paradigmatic ideals do we need to break from to usher in a new era of success in student affairs?
Using certain aspects from Moneyball as a foundation, the following sections will outline what I believe are promising practices that could help student affairs educators rethink assessment, hiring, and leadership, while also promoting student and institutional success.
Promising Practice 1: Be Creative with Data Collection and Use
In Moneyball (2011), the Oakland A’s adopt a new philosophy towards data usage and analytics, what in the baseball world is called sabermetrics. Essentially, instead of relying on subjective information from baseball scouts (e.g., the way a play looks, swagger, attractiveness of partner), the Oakland A’s use data to build a team that can compete. The data they were analyzing had been available for years as had the philosophy, but it took courage and innovation to use these tools in a paradigm shifting way and that is what the Oakland A’s did. If they can do it in baseball, why can’t we do the same in student affairs?
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that we completely ignore the subjective nature of our work as that would not be the Moneyball way. Rather, we combine subjective information along with available quantitative data in ways that help us gain an increased understanding of who students are, how they define success, what they need to be successful, and if programs are truly having the impact they claim. Developing assessment measures and using the collected information can help answer these questions and ground decision making. When decisions are based on statements such as “I know our students and this is what they want” or “We have been doing it this way for a while and it always works”, it can cause frustration. Statements like these imply that as educators we cannot think of new, creative ways to elicit and manage change so we can have a positive impact on our students. They also imply that students have not changed which we know is not accurate. I believe differently and feel we should strive for more.
To move in this direction would require a student affairs workforce that not only values this type of data usage, but is trained to see data as an asset rather than a foe. For many student affairs educators terms like data collection, analysis, learning outcomes, and assessment can be scary as many in our field are not trained in these areas. However, if we are going to be progressive in our practice and use data to truly make a difference in the lives of our students, we must train ourselves and the next generation of student affairs educators to be well versed in data collection and analysis. If there is going to be a Moneyball like shift in thinking within the world of student affairs we must move past the days of placing an electronic counter at the base of a door frame and calling it assessment.
Promising Practice 2: Embrace Diverse Educational and Practitioner Experiences
In Moneyball (2011), the Oakland A’s create a successful team by looking for players who are often cast aside because they do not fit a traditional player mold. Essentially, they sought talented players who fit with their team model and philosophy rather than those with stereotypical measures of success. In student affairs, and higher education in general, interdisciplinary practitioners with a range of experiences and perspectives, even if somewhat non-traditional, should not be overlooked in hiring and promotion practices.
Over the past six years I have worked with a team of professionals who serve as advisors and leadership educators for student organizations and their membership. Educational backgrounds in sociology, counseling, sustainability education, and student affairs have led us to see our student affairs practice through an interdisciplinary lens thereby creating programs and initiatives that reflect this type of diversity.
As our institutions continue to attract students from a range of diverse backgrounds, having staff who can create interdisciplinary programs that appeal to a broad spectrum of potential leaders instead of those who typically engage in leadership positions will be imperative. If your department or institution is interested in retaining students from all backgrounds, creating programs that appeal to their experiences is key and having staff with varied educational and practical perspectives can set the stage for increased engagement.
As an individual with a more traditional student affairs background, being exposed to a range of new perspectives has allowed me to grow and develop as an educator and leader. No matter the level where we stand, from entry level educator to senior student affairs officer, if we can harness the power of those around us it will make us better educators and this begins with a shift in our hiring practices.
Promising Practice 3: Create Space to Hear Voices from All Administrative Levels
In Moneyball (2011), General Manager Billy Beane creates space for his data analytics person, Peter Brand, to discuss what his research shows and how they plan to proceed using his player assessments as the foundation for a new line of thinking, a paradigm shift if you will. In student affairs, it is not enough to hire folks with diverse educational and life experiences, we must also create space where their voices can be heard. To do this, I recommend that senior student affairs educators (SSAE) (a) build time into their schedules to meet with staff from all levels and (b) have a range of communication devices in place to gather information. The time a SSAE spends with staff does not always need to be in a formal listening session format, it could be lunch or coffee where the conversation is more informal and organic in nature.
As educators we should understand that folks fall along a spectrum when it comes to comfort level with in-person interactions and conversations. Similar to a classroom setting, just because people are in the room does not mean they always have a chance to speak or contribute. As leaders, it is our responsibility to create these types of spaces and if we do not we are missing the point on why having diversity of perspectives is important.
In addition to gathering information, when SSAE spend time with staff and provide multiple avenues for providing feedback it shows commitment to collaboration and learning. As student affairs educators we should strive to create learning partnerships where all folks can see themselves as holders of knowledge and teachers.
Finally, SSAE connecting with staff at different levels can also promote a sense of belonging. Research shows how powerful the construct of sense of belonging is for students and I contend it is just as important for staff. As Strayhorn (2017) and others have asserted, sense of belonging and mattering are basic needs and we should not overlook their importance in staff relationships and divisional culture.
Promising Practice 4: Embrace the Change
In case you have not noticed, even before the COVID-19 outbreak the 21st-century higher education landscape was changing rapidly and we must be open to it. For example, as technological advances in communication (e.g., online learning platforms, social media) exert greater influence on our institutions and students, we should not shy away. Instead, we should embrace the revolution and come to the realization that the way we have operated in the past is going to change. These changes will surely be met with fear and opposition because without support and scaffolding, change is scary. As institutional leaders it is our role to balance tradition with the realities of the world around us so we can be proactive and progressive.
Admittedly, I will miss certain elements of the traditional higher education environment, but I am also excited about the possibility of new opportunities. For example, recently my team has been exploring eSports and how they fit within our institution. As a former student-athlete I am not afraid to admit that when I first heard the term eSports I was a little offended by the presumption that electronic gaming and more traditional athletic endeavors share similar qualities. But, as I learned more about eSports I realized there are some similarities and more importantly, that for many students this is an engagement and leadership opportunity.
Being open to new ideas is at the foundation of our profession. In fact, that is what most of us are teaching to students whether it is in our leadership programs or through other avenues (e.g., programming, internships, employment). To be congruent with our learning outcomes we must demonstrate to students and others (e.g., faculty, community) our desire to embrace change and create progressive, student-centered educational environments.
The promising practices put forth in this document are not the only Moneyball ideas out there. In fact, my hope is that on every college and university campus there are people pushing a Moneyball like mentality that can help lead our institutions in a progressive direction. Aside from highlighting a few promising practices, the goal of this essay was to get people thinking in new ways; to be creative, courageous, and challenge previously unchallenged ideals. If we are to usher in a new era of student affairs, we must continually ask ourselves, are we Moneyballers?
- How is your individual department and larger student affairs unit using data to focus on student success initiatives?
- How is your division of student affairs using the collective voices of practitioners to influence strategy, policy, and practice?
- In the midst of the largest shift in recent U.S. higher education history, what creative practices are you embracing to help promote student engagement and success?
Lewis, M. (2004). Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game. W.W. Norton
Math Goes Pop (2011, September). Moneyball. https://www.mathgoespop.com/2011/09/moneyball.html
Miller, B. (Director). (2011). Moneyball [Film]. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Strayhorn, T. (2017). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students (Second ed.). Routledge
Dr. Brian Janssen is the Director of Student Organization Advising and Leadership Development at Portland State University (PSU). A veteran student affairs educator with 17 years of experience, Brian earned his Master’s Degree from Miami University (OH) and a PhD from The Ohio State University. Brian has worked at four different institutions in the areas of housing, student retention and assessment, learning center administration, scholarships and student engagement, and student activities. In addition to being a practitioner, Brian also teaches in the Higher Education and Student Affairs graduate program at PSU and serves as the university’s Faculty Athletic Representative (FAR). As the FAR, Brian has been appointed to multiple national level NCAA committees and executive councils.