A collaboration from the start

The idea of a UC-wide survey that focused on the academic and civic engagement of undergraduate students at the University of California was first explored in 1999 by John Aubrey Douglass (Senior Research Fellow at CSHE) and Richard Flacks (Professor of Sociology at UCSB). Douglass identified the need for improved information on the student experience throughout the UC system as it entered a new era of enrollment growth and financial constraints. Flacks had surveyed work on UCSB students, exploring issues of student engagement, and had ideas on how such a university-wide survey might be constructed.

By early 2000, Douglass and Flacks proposed the development of an online survey as a collaborative project between faculty and institutional researchers located at an academic research unit, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE). The goal was to develop a new university-wide resource on the character and experience of students within research universities, one that made use of existing institutional data and that would help promote both scholarly and policy-based research, and, ultimately, institutional improvement.

At the time, a number of campuses did student surveys, but they were not coordinated, and generally did not incorporate a larger theoretical framework for analyzing the dynamics of both the academic and civic engagement of students. Under a proposal forwarded by John Douglass at CSHE, seed funding was provided by Associate Vice President Dennis Galligani at the UC Office of the President to explore the viability of a university-wide survey, which, in turn, led to a meeting of some 30 faculty and institutional researchers from throughout the UC system. They recommended that CSHE researcher Douglass work with collaborators to create a proposal for the development of what has since become known within the UC system as the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES).

By early 2001, Gregg Thomson, Executive Director of the Office of Student Research and Campus Surveys (OSR-CS) at UC Berkeley, was asked to join as a co-Principal Investigator, in part because of the innovative survey work being conducted at OSR-CS. In 2006, Steven Brint, a Professor of Sociology at UC Riverside, joined the principal researchers. In late 2001, CSHE presented a proposal for a Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) project to be located at CSHE with one of its primary goals to develop what became UCUES and later what is known as the SERU Survey. The UC Office of the President and the Student Affairs offices on each of the eight undergraduate campuses subsequently funded the proposal jointly.

The SERU Project principal researchers established a university-wide advisory committee chaired by Neil Smelser (Professor of Sociology, UC Berkeley) with faculty, administrative and student representatives, and proceeded to work closely with an institutional research work group and interested faculty to develop the survey as a pilot. The Survey was first administered in the spring of 2002 as a sample, online survey under a contract with the Social Science Survey Center at UC Santa Barbara.

Since then, the UCUES has become a census, online survey sent to all UC undergraduates and administered by OSR-CS at UC Berkeley in coordination with the UC Office of the President and each participating campus. The UCUES is among the few, if only, surveys designed as a longitudinal study on the student experience at research universities.

In 2008, the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California, Berkeley identified the need to broaden participation to fully better understand and contextualize the student experience in the research university. They expanded the number of institutions administering the Survey by inviting members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) to join the SERU Project. Initially five joined (Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers) and by 2010 the University of Oregon and the University of Texas at Austin had also joined. 

In 2015 CSHE and the University of Minnesota Office of Institutional Research signed a five year agreement to jointly manage the consortium. A SERU board was formed and Ronald Huesman from the University of Minnesota was named a SERU Principal Researcher and Managing Director to oversee the administrative functioning of the consortium.

The expansion of the number of institutions administering the Survey has continued to grow, with 25 institutions in 2019 (including membership availability to all Research Intensive Universities). The creation of a consortium focused on the student experience in research universities has provided members with a unique and extremely rich source of data to utilize across a wide area of institutional self-improvement and evidence-based management activities as varied as assessment, accreditation, accountability, and program review. Although still referred to as the UCUES in the UC system, the survey instrument is largely known outside of the UC System as the SERU Survey.

A SERU/UCUES Institutional Research Work Group helps coordinates the implementation of the Survey at the UC campus level, provides input into the development of the survey instrument, and reports results for their campuses. Coordination with each of the campuses, and the support of the University of California Office of the President, has been crucial in making UCUES/SERU Survey a regularly administered survey.