Thoughts on the Ecology of Student Success

September 13, 2013

The Yellowstone fires of 1988 together formed the largest wildfire in the recorded history of Yellowstone National Park. Starting as many smaller individual fires, the flames quickly spread out of control with increasing winds and drought and combined into one large conflagration, which burned for several months. The fires almost destroyed two major visitor destinations and, on September 8, 1988, the entire park was closed to all non-emergency personnel for the first time in its history. [1]  Only the arrival of cool, moist weather in the late autumn brought the fires to an end. A total of 793,880 acres (3,213 km2), or 36 percent of the park was affected by the wildfires.

Before the late 1960s, fires were generally believed to be detrimental for parks and forests, and management policies were aimed at suppressing fires as quickly as possible. However, as the beneficial ecological role of fire became better understood in the decades before 1988, a policy was adopted of allowing natural fires to burn under controlled conditions, which proved highly successful in reducing the area lost annually to wildfires.

In contrast, in 1988, Yellowstone was overdue for a large fire, and, in the exceptionally dry summer, the many smaller "controlled" fires combined. The fires burned discontinuously, leaping from one patch to another, leaving intervening areas untouched. Large firestorms swept through some regions, burning everything in their paths. Tens of millions of trees and countless plants were killed by the wildfires, and some regions were left looking blackened and dead. However, more than half of the affected areas were burned by ground fires, which did less damage to hardier tree species. Not long after the fires ended, plant and tree species quickly re-established themselves, and natural plant regeneration has been highly successful. (Wikipedia)

We had just moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the summer of 1988, and I can still remember the haze that obscured the sky, the faint smell of burning wood, and the light gray ash that covered our cars each morning, hundreds of miles away from the fire.  We visited the park the following spring, and were stunned to see regeneration like that shown in the picture above already beginning.

So what does the Great Yellowstone Fire of 1988 have to do with Student Success?  I would submit it suggests to us some basic principles about how “ecosystems” function and illustrates how we, as human elements in that ecosystem, can sometimes create seemingly beneficial policies that time (and sparks of change) expose as antiquated, ill-conceived, or just plain bad for the ecosystem and the organisms in it. So, think, if you will, of our college as an ecosystem: an Ecosystem is made up of both Biotic (living) elements and Abiotic (nonliving) elements.  In this conceptual framework of student success:

  • Students, staff, instructors, family members, larger community (as in case of local native tribes, for instance) make up the biotic—there are incredibly complex relationships between/among these biotic elements of the system that are fundamental to understanding the larger ecosystem.

  • College environment and climate, policies/processes, systems, curricula, etc., make up the abiotic; some are fixed and “immutable;” most can be manipulated to influence the overall health of the ecosystem.

  • Some elements of the system are “tightly coupled;” others are “loosely coupled;” some are “fixed” and hence predictable while others are “fluid,” cyclical, episodic, and less predictable.

  • Some relationships within the ecosystem are causal; others are influential, temporal, incidental, etc.  Complexity in understanding the system comes in teasing out these relationships and understanding how they influence the student success ecosystem as a system.

  • Ecosystems are dynamic rather than static; they are subject to certain immutable processes/laws, which can be described and modeled; they also respond positively or negatively to unanticipated dynamic elements within or outside the ecosystem.

So back to Yellowstone: For decades, the Park was managed to prevent the small fires that were a normal part of the healthy ecosystem, based on the premise that the Park should be managed for enjoyment of visitors, and nobody wanted to see burnt forests.  A perfectly understandable policy, but one that allowed huge buildups of dead wood and dense undergrowth that in an extended drought created a tinderbox.

Here’s the premise and question I’ll leave you with:  I would assert, along with our guest speaker for Monday, Terry O’Banion and others, that we’ve manipulated our ecosystem so that it is predicated on an “Access Agenda”.  Let’s get as many people in the door as we can.  We should be the “Great Democratic Experiment” in higher education. Certainly a noble goal, and one at which we’ve excelled over the years.  But have we developed policies and procedures, and ways of understanding the ecosystem and the students in it, in ways that are counterproductive or even harmful to Student Success and Completion?  What would an ecosystem built on Student Success look like?

I encourage you to consider this conceptual framework, read Dr. O’Banion’s monograph in anticipation of his being with us Monday, and come prepared for some interesting dialogue on Student Success.  Have a great weekend!


1)    Schullery, Paul (1989). "Yellowstone fires: a preliminary report". Northwest Science 63 (1): 44–54.