Tuesday, February 4, 2014

(Re)Envisioning a Collective Agenda Focused on Systems and Transformation in Higher Education

by Samuel D. Museus, Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Denver and Fellow of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Research Coalition (ARC)

During his speech at the Council on Ethnic Participation business meeting at the 2013 Association for the Study of Higher Education conference in St. Louis, Missouri, Dr. Shaun Harper told the story about one of his mentees who decided to put off enrolling in graduate programs because he wanted to spend the next few years of his life making a real difference. He went on to talk about how many people who have chosen to pursue a doctorate in higher education have done so in order to have a positive impact on their communities, and many of us would argue that we entered the field to have a positive impact on higher education and society in general as well. However, Dr. Harper also noted that the field has not effectively engaged those passions to promote significant impact and we, as a community, have not engaged in the kind of activity that effectively addresses some of the most critical issues facing higher education. For me, his speech prompted a (re)envisioning of the nature of scholarship in higher education. In this essay, I build on Harper’s discussion, my own research agenda, and previous blog posts by Drs. Kezar and Gildersleeve, to offer some thoughts about how our scholarly community can (re)envision a higher education scholarly enterprise to more effectively serve our students, our institutions, our communities, and society at large.  

Systemic Problems Require Systemic Solutions
In her November essay, Kezar astutely noted that we are lacking a broader systems perspective in higher education scholarship, and this is readily apparent. In their previous pieces, both Kezar and Gildersleeve asserted that there is a plethora of higher education scholarship that examines students at the individual level being presented at national conferences. Yet, it is difficult to deny that the populations we study are heavily influenced by major systemic trends that surround and place immense pressures on postsecondary institutions and their leaders to adapt. Indeed, the rapid racial and ethnic diversification, widespread globalization, and pervasive digitization placing pressures on the higher education sector have no reservations in forcing college campuses to change the way they do business and deliver education in the 21st century. Unfortunately, institutions of higher education often take a reactionary – rather than an informed, complex, and visionary – approach to responding to these forces. For example, this reactionary institutional behavior has manifested in many institutions bringing increasingly diverse students to their campuses without transforming their organizational environments to reflect that diversity, or heavily recruiting international students without systemically and systematically integrating those students into the fabric of institutional life, or making fiscally responsible decisions that generate revenue without making morally responsible and strategic decisions about how they can bring in revenue while preserving academic freedom and supporting liberal arts disciplines that matter so much to the well being of society but are not aligned with the increasing market mentality of college campuses. These are systemic issues that require more intentional and meaningful systemic solutions. If these forces continue to place pressures on higher education leaders and we fail to generate meaningful, strategic, and large-scale methods of responding to them, our students and society will suffer as a result.

So, what does all this mean for the higher education scholarly community? And, how does our community of scholars respond to this conundrum? Kezar presented useful recommendations for advisors, discussants, and individuals in other positions in higher education to begin shifting their work to reflect more systems-level thinking. And, Gildersleeve offered very useful practical recommendations for individual scholars who are (re)constructing their scholarly agendas in a more systemic way in his January essay. Here, I compliment those suggestions with recommendations for the scholarly community to engage in a collective and systemic paradigmatic shift in order to make our research more relevant and responsive to the demands placed upon us by external forces.

(Re)Envisioning a Community Focused on Transformative Scholarship
I begin my (re)envisioning with a personal story. When I was in my doctoral program at Penn State, I was deeply concerned about the individual challenges faced by students of color as they navigated postsecondary environments and I did an extensive review of the higher education literature on diversity, campus environments, and college student success. From this review, I drew an overarching conclusion that our field had failed to generate an empirically based and complex understanding of the ways in which postsecondary institutions can and do construct campus environments to help diverse student populations thrive in college. Put another way, at the expense of sounding utopian of naively optimistic, I felt that we needed to illuminate what cultural and programmatic characteristics could be infused throughout a college or university environment to help diverse students thrive. For decades, higher education scholars – like Vince Tinto, Alexander Astin, and George Kuh – had stimulated vital research and discourse around student integration, involvement, and engagement. Similarly, for some time, postsecondary education researchers – such as Walter Allen, Sylvia Hurtado, Amaury Nora, Laura Rendon, and Daniel Solorzano – had produced ground breaking and valuable research that shed light on the problematic nature of racialized environments. But, a cohesive and coherent picture of what institutions can do to construct curricula, programs, and practices that maximize those students’ success in college was elusive.

The initial result was my dissertation, which built on the work of the aforementioned scholars and examined institutions that exhibited high and equitable persistence and graduation rates to understand how they had constructed campus cultures that facilitated success among diverse populations. Then, after conducting several other studies of campus environments and diverse populations as an early career faculty member, I generated the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) Model and Survey (Museus, 2014), which incorporate knowledge from over 30 years of scholarship and several qualitative studies to convey how institutions can cultivate environments to help students thrive and provide tools that can constitute the foundation for the transformation of academic departments, residence halls, student affairs offices, classrooms, and other spaces across college campuses. I am now working with other scholars, my research team, and national leaders in student affairs to bring this knowledge onto college campuses for purposes of institutional assessment and transformation.

My point in sharing an overview of this one strand of my scholarly agenda is threefold: (1) to highlight that there was always a long-term vision of systemic transformation driving my agenda, (2) to demonstrate the reality that we have an ability to link the individual (e.g., diverse students’ success) to the systemic (e.g., organizational culture) and center this intersection in our empirical endeavors to advance such transformation goals, and (3) to illuminate the potential in reframing the way we think about progressive scholarly agendas in our field. Echoing and extending some of the valuable insights previously offered by Gildersleeve, I underscore that we do not have to stop studying individual students, but we can (re)center some of our agendas on the intersection between student experiences and institutional culture, or student lives and cultural communities, or student identities and classroom curricula, or student outcomes and federal or state policy. And, in doing so, we can help generate knowledge that is conducive to positive systemic transformation. Yet, individual researchers making conscious choices to engage in such an agenda is not sufficient, for the traditional structures that individual higher education scholars must navigate do not necessarily value or reward such agenda (re)envisioning. Thus, as a community of scholars, we also need to think about how we can (re)structure our own systems – our scholarly arenas and discourses – to promote such complex and transformative scholarship. I offer a few thoughts to begin this thinking and discussion.

Creating Space for Critical Conceptual Analysis of Systems: First, empirical research dominates our field. Even frameworks originally constructed to deconstruct pervasive systems more often than not drive empirical studies that examines individual experiences. Take, for example, the case of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Today, higher education scholars using CRT frequently apply this framework as a lens to examine individual racialized experiences and this work is undoubtedly important. Some of us have applied the framework to examine more systemic processes in our work. But, the utilization of CRT to illuminate the ways in which race and racism permeate broader federal and state policies or colorblind institutional cultures, policies, and structures are also important in underscoring systemic problems and are much more difficult to find. Undoubtedly, empirical qualitative and quantitative analyses are critical contributions to the higher education knowledgebase, but the potential of critical conceptual analyses of higher education systems is seldom realized.

In addition, young scholars need to produce, produce, and produce to get promoted and tenured. While many of us periodically emphasize scholarship quality over quantity in public forums, the reality is that many institutional cultures and promotion and tenure processes are at least partially driven by quantity and most pre-tenured faculty members know that one or two transformative articles or books might not get them tenure. The combined disproportionate emphasis on empirical inquiries and the generation of quick results and publications makes doing traditional student-focused research appealing (at least) or career-saving (at most). As a community, we need to do better at creating mechanisms for scholars to engage in deep critical analysis of social forces and deconstructing of systemic structures in higher education scholarly, policy, and practice arenas to shed light on pervasive problems and construct solutions to them.

Constructing New Theories that Catalyze New Scholarly Conversations: Theories that explain processes and experiences within the context of the larger contemporary social forces discussed above are difficult to find. My agenda discussed above evolved to address what was an absence of comprehensive, coherent, quantifiable, and culturally relevant and responsive theories that explain the impact of campus environments on diverse student success. But, where are the frameworks that explain the complex impact of globalization and academic capitalism on faculty life and outcomes? Where are models that help provide a framework for understanding how organizational change evolves in the context of current neoliberal ideologies and trends? Where are the evolving bodies of scholarship that test, retest, critique, and refine these models? Such models are critical for communicating critical evidence-based information to policymaker and practitioner audiences because they can convey a significant amount of information in condensed form and bridge the gap between spheres of influence.

Surely, some scholars have produced such scholarship in their work, but the generation of such frameworks has not been the norm in our field, has not been the focus of doctoral training in higher education programs, and has not kept pace with the increasing influence of contextual social forces influencing higher education. It behooves our community to think about ways that it can promote the generation of new contemporary frameworks that examine the impact of policies and organizations on today’s administrators, faculty members, and students, and the collective testing and analysis of these frameworks.

Engaging in Coalition Building and Collective Action: In Harper’s speech, discussed at the beginning of this essay, he referenced the low success rates of Black males in higher education and asked the question, why have we not built a national coalition to facilitate real systemic transformative change to address this issue? This is a great question, and reflecting on it can lead us to think about the possibilities of coalition building. Coalitions can offer vehicles for collaboration, enhanced visibility of scholarship, support networks for young scholars, and a broader reach and impact of scholarly works. These are just some of the reasons that my colleagues and I started the Asian American and Pacific Islander Research Coalition (ARC), which has already resulted in strengthened friendships within our network, emerging relationships with organizations in the practice arena working with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students, and a renewed or enhanced sense of hope among some of us that we can have a transformative impact on policy and practice in a way that will help more AAPI students and communities thrive in higher education. However, such coalition building is an immense amount of work and again our field is not currently structured in a way that supports such activities. The question is, how can we, as a scholarly community, create structures that reward the sweat and tears that go into forging such collaborations?

Breaking Down Barriers to Scholarly Isolation: We produce research and literature (and therefore ideas, models, and solutions) that are primarily consumed by other higher education scholars, and often does not reach policymakers and practitioners. Yet, our scholarship cannot be transformative if it is not consumed and integrated into policy and practice. As Chair of the ASHE evaluation committee for two years, it was readily apparent that policymakers and practitioners are few and far between in our scholarly arenas. Similarly, a handful of us attend conferences like the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) or the National Association of Personnel Administrators (NASPA), but we are not well represented in those arenas. As a result, practice is often more grounded in hunches than a comprehensive understanding of theory and evidence. Similarly, a few scholars have relationships with philanthropic foundations and policymakers, but such relationships are not yet prevalent within our community and few young scholars have the means to cultivate them. As a result, those in the philanthropic and policy world who want to support or utilize groundbreaking and transformative work will never be exposed to the vast majority of cutting edge ideas that emerge throughout our field, which limits the impact of our collective work.

I do not intend to argue that AERA and ASHE or ACPA and NASPA should transform primarily into a venue for discussing the application of research to practice or research to policy. But, I am arguing that our community – especially the leaders of it – should think of new ways to create space for more higher education researchers to cultivate relationships and engage in work with policymakers, practitioners, and foundations to collectively develop research that leads to real solutions for pervasive policy and practice problems. I must commend current ASHE President, Caroline Turner for moving the field in the right direction with the focus on catalyzing dialogue between researchers and policymakers at ASHE 2014, but such efforts are not yet commonplace.

In sum, I am arguing that we must (re)envision a scholarly community that is aimed at generating knowledge that can help institutions transform to thoughtfully and effectively respond to the immense social forces surrounding them in the present day while advancing core values of higher education, such as equity, public service, vibrant exchange of ideas, and the cultivation of socially responsible lifelong learners…. 

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