Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Education Sciences

First Advisor

Dr. John Nash


In the United States, the average attrition rate from freshmen to sophomore year for a 4-year university is 21.7%. After freshmen year, the dropout rate raises to 41% before graduation (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2014). As an administrative appointment, the department head is in a unique position to work with the university and college-level executives to lead faculty in better student persistence efforts. However scholarly inquiry on the relation of student persistence and department heads is lacking. Gmelch (2004) says “academic leaders may be the least studied and most misunderstood management position in the world” (p. 74).

The purpose of this study is to examine the role of the university department head position in relation to student persistence. A secondary purpose is to understand how each department head is able to adapt, or is currently adapting, to the challenges they identify. By identifying and learning from such challenges, this research will contribute to more intentional efforts for higher education leaders when dealing with student persistence.

A group of 20 department heads across multiple fields underwent an open-ended interview, resulting in 138 incidents of student persistence challenges and outcomes. The department heads were drawn from three universities and worked within one of five undergraduate colleges. This research uses Critical Incident Technique (CIT) to identify individual occurrences of department heads leading undergraduate student persistence efforts. The results are conceptualized through the lens of Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT), where the complex nature of a department head’s role is related to the student persistence efforts.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)