The Multi–Institutional Study of Leadership (MSL) was initially conceived as a means to enhance institutional practice by better aligning the theory–research–practice cycle. A team of colleagues at the University of Maryland recognized the significant gaps between theory and research as well as research and practice in the current paradigm of college student leadership development. Their observations sparked dialogue around the limitations imposed by the lack of national data against which student development and institutional effectiveness could be benchmarked—and against the material consequences of this on intentional practice in leadership education. MSL emerged as a means to specifically address questions regarding students’ educational needs and to identify elements of the higher education environment that contributed most significantly to leadership outcomes.
The first iteration of the study was administered in the spring of 2006 and included more than 60,000 participants across 52 institutions of higher education in the United States. Data collection occurred again in 2009, 2010, and 2011. In 2012, the MSL moved to a three-year data collection format (2012, 2015, 2018) as a means to enhance institutions’ usage of findings and more purposefully shape the survey instrument and subsequent contributions to literature. In 2009, the MSL went international in its scope with cultural and language-based adaptations leading to data collection in Canada, Mexico, and Jamaica.
To date, data collection has occurred at approximately 250 institutions with over 300,000 student participants.
MSL is one of largest studies of college student leadership to date and was further significant for its use of theoretically grounded measures. The impact of MSL extends beyond the arena of leadership education as well. Researchers have used data to explore a wide array of critical topics from campus climate and sense of belonging to student involvement and diversity education.
A number of organizations have contributed to the development of the MSL. The National Clearinghouse of Leadership Programs played a central role as the sponsor of the MSL. Further support for MSL 2006 was provided by the C. Charles Jackson Foundation, ACPA: College Educators International Educational Leadership Foundation, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, University of Maryland, and LeaderShape. The 2009 iteration received continuing support from the C. Charles Jackson Foundation and the NACA Foundation.