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Expert on Student Outcomes to Guide Franklin & Marshall Efforts

  • Donnell Butler
  • Donnell Butler, Ph.D., '95 (Photo courtesy of Donnell Butler)

In a major step toward Franklin & Marshall's commitment to national leadership in effectively supporting students from all backgrounds for success in and beyond college, F&M has recruited an expert and innovator in the field of college access and student outcomes.

Alumnus Donnell Butler, Ph.D., '95 will work closely with the offices of the president, provost, admission and dean of the college, in addition to other offices across the institution, to assess the impact and implications for F&M of the changing demographic of college students across the country. In the newly created position of senior associate dean for planning and analysis of student outcomes, Butler will manage planning, projects, programs, and relationships that improve students' transition to college, and he will evaluate student accomplishments during and beyond college. His appointment becomes effective Aug. 1.

"Donnell Butler is a recognized expert on the national stage when it comes to understanding and promoting successful student outcomes at the college level," said Dean of the College Kent Trachte, to whom Butler will report. "The college-bound population in both the U.S. and the Franklin & Marshall student body is evolving. More and more of our students are expected to be the first in their families to pursue higher education, and our entire student population continues to need coordinated support to meet the challenges of balancing academic and personal needs during a critical time of development. Dr. Butler will support the evolving needs of all of the highly talented students we educate at F&M."

F&M is at the forefront of a growing movement toward holistic student development—an approach that recognizes that a multitude of factors have an impact on college persistence and performance, according to Trachte. Colleges must provide the resources and programs through admission and advising, the academic curriculum, post-graduate and career support, and in all aspects of residential and campus life to give students the skills and intellectual capacity to develop their talents fully.

"Accessing and capitalizing upon this diverse array of resources may be an unfamiliar challenge for students who are the first in their families to go to college," Trachte said. "Dr. Butler's position signifies F&M's commitment to ensure that students from all backgrounds are empowered to maximize college and prepare themselves for lives of leadership and meaning. He will help us build our understanding of the strengths that all students bring to the college experience, what diverse support students may need, and the extraordinary learning that students from all backgrounds can create together in a highly interactive residential liberal-arts context."

Butler majored in business administration and sociology at F&M, and earned the Williamson Medal, the highest honor a graduating senior can receive. He accrued more than a decade's worth of experience in educational research and policy before earning his Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University in 2009. His dissertation focused on how a students' exposure to socioeconomic experiences different than their own affected their college preferences, behaviors and perceptions.

At F&M, Butler will contribute to programs to assess where and how student learning is occurring. He will support faculty by providing contextual information about the diverse backgrounds of the student community, including international students, and he also will help develop mentoring programs to allow students to build relationships that will empower them to compete for opportunities during and after college.

Butler said F&M's embrace of an integrated approach creates new opportunities by helping ensure the College recruits students well suited to its rigorous academic program.

"It is rare for a college to designate an individual who facilitates, integrates and evaluates how partners across the institution affect student access and success," he said. "F&M is committed to learning what works from national research, from peer practices, and from the College's own commitment to studying student experiences. This commitment to evidence-based educational practices is what the country needs as the student profile changes."

Among other efforts, Butler will evaluate the impact of the various education and enrichment programs that F&M offers to pre-college students during the school year and summers. He will also contribute to the College's efforts to cultivate and maintain relationships with high-performing secondary schools and networks like the national Knowledge is Power Program, known as KIPP, and also with enrichment programs like the Posse Foundation and College Match that currently partner with F&M to bring highly qualified students to the College.

While many selective institutions have begun to focus heavily on recruiting talented students from under-represented communities, Trachte said, part of Butler's role will be to work closely with the Office of Admission to identify new ways to discover and recruit exceptional students and to create durable pipelines from outstanding schools and networks. Butler will help schools understand what academic and personal preparation is most predictive of success at a college like Franklin & Marshall.

In addition, he is charged with "helping to identify and engage with government leaders, foundations, and corporate and private philanthropists interested in the national priority of ensuring that strong students from underserved communities receive a rigorous education that empowers them for lives of success," Trachte said.

ANALYSIS FOR UNDERSTANDING STUDENT OUTCOMES

Butler has broad experience in research and survey methodology for understanding student outcomes in both secondary and post-secondary education. Part of his responsibilities will be to support the College's existing Office of Institutional Research as it designs, implements, and manages systems to collect and analyze data about student outcomes at F&M. Currently, he is director of NAEP Background Questionnaire Research and Development at Educational Testing Services in Princeton, N.J. NAEP, which stands for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, creates the largest nationally representative and continuing survey of how American students experience teaching and learning in various subjects from grade school through high school.

"Everything I've done has prepared me to take on this kind of role, though I never imagined that role would be available at my alma mater," Butler said. "I cannot wait to help attract more talented students to F&M; have them join the amazing talent already on campus; foster collaboration among students, faculty and staff; and put together programs in ways that will increase the likelihood of success for all students, no matter their backgrounds."

Butler said his own personal narrative helps him understand the challenges many first-generation college students face. Neither his mother nor stepfather went to college, but they always encouraged his curiosity and supported his thirst for knowledge, he said.

President Daniel R. Porterfield said Butler fills a vital role for F&M, which faces increasing competition to attract and enroll the nation's most talented young people.

"Franklin & Marshall is committed to enrolling students from the full American mosaic and helping them achieve success in whatever path in life they choose," Porterfield said. "This is part of an approach that moves beyond only educating students during the four years they are on campus. We believe that we can extend our impact as educators by helping students learn during the year before attending F&M and by helping them flourish in the critical first years after graduation. Donnell brings expertise to this work—as a scholar, a program manager and as an alumnus. We are thrilled to work with someone so devoted to fostering and promoting the success of all students."

Butler is excited to return to F&M and said he can't wait to get to work.

"One of the things I always loved about F&M as a student was the innovation, new ideas, interesting projects and moments of great human development I saw in my classmates," he said. "People took risks that, as first-years, they didn't know they were capable of taking. But by the time they were seniors, they could say, 'If I can do this, I can do anything.'"