Relational Coordination Collaborative

Relational Coordination in Higher Education

Graduating students celebrate success

It is a challenging time for higher education.  Similar to other sectors - such as healthcare and social services - higher education institutions face increasing external pressures from consumer and policy stakeholders, while adapting to ever-changing student populations.

One of the key challenges is to understand and meet the evolving needs of students in order to achieve student success.  There has been increased focus on going beyond creating access for college students, to ensuring that institutions of higher education are creating the necessary academic, environmental, and structural supports to assist students in retention, persistence, and graduation. This is especially true for populations of students who have been historically and systemically under-resourced, marginalized, and discriminated against, for example students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, disabled students, LGBTQ students, and immigrant students. State and federal governments along with the philanthropic community have increasingly invested resources to encourage and hold institutions accountable for the success of the students they admit.

While there are many organizational factors that contribute to student success, the inability of students to access services and resources can be a significant inhibitor to student success. This is especially important for first-generation students who often lack familial networks to help navigate policies and organizational structures that can be confusing and daunting. Because institutions of higher education, even if they are not large, are complex organizations – collaboration and creating change can be challenging.

Relational coordination - a mutually reinforcing process of communicating and relating for the purpose of task integration - is known to help diverse stakeholders to more easily achieve their desired outcomes through the development of shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect, supported by communication that is frequent, timely, accurate and focused on problem-solving rather than blaming.  For a systematic review of the impact of relational coordination on performance outcomes across 73 industry sectors in 36 countries, please see Bolton, R., Logan, C.K. & Gittell, J.H. (2021). Revisiting Relational Coordination: A Systematic Review, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 

Just as relational coordination has been shown to help healthcare, social service and business organizations to more easily achieve desired outcomes for multiple stakeholders, there is early evidence that higher education can also benefit.   And while student success is a promising area where higher education institutions can benefit from increased relational coordination, there are other promising areas as well, including curriculum development, research and development, financial processes, campus social climate, alumni relations, and external stakeholder relations more broadly.

Purpose of this Innovation Lab

The purpose of the RC in Higher Ed Innovation Lab is to create a community of scholars, practitioners, and scholar-practitioners to advance positive outcomes for administrators, faculty, staff, and students using the principles and practices of relational coordination. This Innovation Lab will connect members from various institutional types, roles, and interests to create synergy for community-building, practice-sharing, and research opportunities.   To join us or learn more, please contact Founding Members Mary Anne Peabody or Jeffrey Grim below.

Initial Focus of this Innovation Lab

We are launching this Innovation Lab with a few initial areas of focus, while remaining open to new interests and ideas from future members:

  • Student Affairs & Academic Affairs Partnerships
  • Student Services Coordination

We aim to achieve:

  • Increased equity in student retention, persistence, and graduation, and
  • Improved quality of work and retention of faculty and staff through
  • Positive working relationships between administrators, faculty, staff, students, and other key stakeholders


Slide deck: Introduction to Relational Coordination in Higher Education

Slide deck: Goulding & Shanti (2022) Higher Education Advising: Trust, Ties and Transition

 Published paper: Alfazari, Ali, Alessi & Magzoub (2022) Assessing Relational Coordination and Its Impact of the Perceived Mental Health of Students, Teachers and Staff in a Clinical Skills Program During the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Founding Members

Mary Anne Peabody

Associate Professor, University of Southern Maine

Mary Anne Peabody, Ed.D., LCSW, RPT-S is an Associate Professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences department for the University of Southern Maine, a licensed clinical social worker, and a Registered Play Therapist Supervisor. She is an internationally recognized child play therapist, a prolific author in the play therapy field, and remains actively involved in the Association for Play Therapy as a Foundation Board member and as a reviewer for the International Journal of Play therapy. As a faculty member, she brought Relational Coordination to the University specific to improving the student experience with advising by securing grant funding. She has served as the department Advising Liaison, participated in the University’s Excellence in Academic Advising (EAA) process as a committee leader, is a current member of the University Advising Council, and has published in the field of academic advising. She resonates with the relational dynamics of work coordination, interdependence and high quality communication impacts performance, job satisfaction, and both employee and student sense of belonging within an institution.

Helen Gorgas Goulding

Senior Associate Director For Academic Advising and Coordinator of Professional Development

Helen Gorgas Goulding has worked in Higher Education for 35 years in the areas of Academic Advising, Professional Development, and Student Affairs. Areas of research and expertise are student development, student learning through curriculum/co-curriculum integration, career facilitation, professional development, retention initiatives and program assessment, academic support strategies, grit, and growth mindset, authentic and adaptive leadership theories, and practice. Helen has taught courses on college academic success and career decision-making and community-building. She received training in relational coordination through a grant to help improve workflow and communication issues within the university, specifically focused on improving the advising process for student success.

Jeffrey Grim

Visiting Professor, University of Iowa

Jeff Grim, PhD is a visiting assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at the University of Iowa (UI). At UI he teaches courses on higher education administration, teaching and learning, and connecting theory to practice in student affairs. He completed his PhD in Higher Education from the University of Michigan, his masters in student affairs administration from Michigan State University, his bachelors from the University of Maryland, College Park, and his associates in general studies from Hagerstown Community College. Jeff also has a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis and in executive coaching from Southern Methodist University.

Jeff approaches his research agenda centering the perspectives of participants to critically examine systemic and organizational structures to create inclusive and equitable experiences and outcomes for all faculty, staff, and students in higher education. He utilizes his significant coursework in organizational theory and public policy, along with prior professional experience, to shape a research agenda that meets rigorous scholarly standards and can be applied to improve higher education organizations and practice.

Jeff is particularly interested in how higher education organizational contexts can coordinate (through relationships and structure) to decrease achievement gaps and increase equitable experiences and outcomes for systemically marginalized students.

Beth Higgins

Director of Student Advising, University of Southern Maine

Beth Higgins, Ed.D. has over 30 years of experience in academic advising and is the Director of Academic Advising at the University of Southern Maine. This role consists of providing strategic and administrative leadership for planning, goal setting, and monitoring goal achievement for Academic Advising, Credit for Prior Learning, Disabilities Services Center, and Veteran Services while advising students. Throughout her years in the advising profession, Beth has implemented a dual advising program, developed advising assessment plans, coordinated professional development for advisors, led the University of Maine System-wide Advising Committee, and coordinated numerous retention and persistence initiatives.  Most recently Beth has been the transition lead for academic advising at her institution. Beth is active in NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising and holds credentials as a Reiki Master, Global Career Development Facilitator, LEAN Continuous Improvement Practitioner, and MBTI Step I and II.  Beth is new to Relational Coordination and finds that it complements her work philosophy as well as her faculty and student advising relationship research focus.

Caroline Shanti

Assistant Professor, Bachelor of Social Work Coordinator, University of Southern Maine