Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Organizational Change and Survival through Collectivism and Critical Agency Networks

by Judy Marquez Kiyama, Assistant Professor of Higher Education, University of Denver

Earlier this year I attended a scholarship dinner aimed at raising funds for a local community-based organization. The venue for the dinner, like the organization itself, was in the center of a low-income/working class, Latina/o community.  This particular organization focuses on making higher education accessible regardless of immigration status. As I took in the powerful stories and community activism that permeated the event, I looked around and realized that there were people sitting at each table who have been active and present in my own educational journey since my transition as an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona. These same people remained active, present, and engaged over time and were here supporting another equity-based educational cause. And the network has grown; this dinner included supporters from multiple education institutions, professionals in the community, family members, and children.

Fast forward a few months and I found myself back in this same community collaborating again with a university-based outreach program that works with K-5 families to provide college access information in an effort to cultivate college-going practices. The program partners with a local school district, once again rooted in a low-income/working class, Latina/o community. I quickly realized many of the same people who are responsible for the development and sustaining of this particular outreach program were also in attendance at the scholarship dinner. The program has cultivated cross-departmental collaborations inclusive of faculty, staff, students, and K-12 administrators in ways rarely seen in higher education organizations (see Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). Jenny Lee, Gary Rhoades, and I have termed these groups “critical agency networks.” These networks are relational, activist in nature, cut across different department cultures and administrative silos, and work towards organizational, equity-based change.

The particular outreach program referenced above is in its 12th year and has served over 1000 families. The program must patch together resources and operates on a minimal budget that has not increased over the 12 year period. In an interview with a school district administrator, she emphatically declared that this college outreach program has transformed the school district as students at every grade level have the aspirations and knowledge to make college a reality. My reflections left me with many questions. How does a program with minimal resources sustain this type of impact over time? Likewise, how does a program of this sort sustain within a rapidly changing organizational context? More importantly, what do the lack of financial and human resources allocated to outreach efforts signal about the land-grant purpose of this public institution?

It is no longer shocking news to hear that state aid for public higher education has been drastically reduced. Earlier this year Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin revealed the plan for a $300 million cut in state support for higher education. Arizona also proposed major cuts in state support, drastically reducing funding for the flagship universities and eliminating funding for some community college systems. It is no surprise that institutions are exploring new ways to generate necessary revenue as a response. In an era of drastically diminishing resources and an abundance of neoliberal practices, how do we sustain the public, land-grant missions of these institutions?

There is no arguing that financial resources matter. However, within the particular institutional and community context that much of my research has been situated, there exists a critical, collectivist network. These collaborations continue to sustain outreach and equity-based programming despite these drastic state reductions in support, despite increases in market-like behaviors, and despite the organizational changes that have occurred at the institution over the last 10 years. Oversight for the program comes from mid-level managerial professionals (Rhoades & Sporn, 2002), yet faculty play a key role within the network.

This leads me to more questions. Are collectivist, critical agency networks one response to neoliberal policies and practices? Collective action around a need for organizational or political change is not new.  In the 1960s and 70s, the women’s liberation movement and women’s consciousness-raising groups were focused on the need for political change (Weiler, 2003). Astin and Leland’s (1991) research points to similar examples of the networks women created through professional organizations to fight for gender equity. Similarly, Hart’s (2007) work establishes the powerful role of women academics and their collective partnerships with university and community leaders to transform the academy across academic disciplines.

While the narratives above highlight individual outreach efforts, the research that I’m doing underscores the role of the networks associated with sustaining these outreach programs and the necessity of consciousness-raising through collectivism, not only for political change but for organizational change and organizational survival. These collectivist groups are developing and growing because of grassroots, bottom-up efforts (see Kezar & Lester, 2009, for more on grassroots change and leadership), all with the common goal of equity and social change in education. Given the cross-disciplinary role of faculty in these networks, I’m left wondering, will we see enhanced collective efforts on the part of faculty in response to reduced support and increasing market-like demands? What might this look like across different faculty lines and across different institutional types? Can critical agency networks and collective action become sources of support, a way to cultivate consciousness-raising, and ultimately, a means to demand organizational change?

Earlier blog posts by Ryan E. Gildersleeve (January 2014) and Jay Dee (July 2014) emphasize the need for a broader focus of research, one that explores issues of higher education organizations, administration, and leadership. Sam Museus (February 2014) called upon the importance of coalition building and collective action. Likewise, Gary Rhoades (2014) has stressed that collective agency needs to be part of a larger research agenda on professionals as “collective agency is central to catalyzing institutional change” (p. 925). Thus, together with my colleagues, Ryan E. Gildersleeve, Sam Museus, Gary Rhoades, and Gerardo Blanco Ramirez, we will explore some of these issues in an upcoming AERA session. We aim to talk not only about a broadening research agenda, but the impact of neoliberalism on faculty life, and the responses to it. We hope that you will join us for: Neoliberalism and Faculty Crises in Higher Education: The Market State, Knowledge Economy, and Professoriate (Sat, April 18, 10:35am to 12:05pm, Swissotel, Event Centre First Level, Zurich D). We will be live tweeting during the session using the hashtag #facultycrises.


Astin, H.S. & Leland, C. (1991). Women of influence, women of vision: A cross-generational study of leaders and social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dee. J. (2014, July 13). Organization, administration, and leadership: Addressing the relevance gap in higher education research. Community of Higher Ed Scholars, blog of AERA Division J.

Gildersleeve, R. E. (2014, January 16). Building a research program of consequence in the study of higher education (or, thinking beyond student-focused research). Community of Higher Ed Scholars, blog of AERA Divison J.

Hart, J. (2007). Creating networks as an activist strategy: Different approaches among academic feminist organizations. Journal of the Professoriate, 2(1), 33-52.

Kezar, A. & Lester, J. (2009). Promoting grassroots change in higher education:  The promise of virtual networks. Change,  41(2), 44-51.

Kiyama, J.M, Lee, J.J. & Rhoades, G. (2012). A critical agency network model for building an integrated outreach program. The Journal of Higher Education, 83(2), 276-303.

Museus, S. (2014, February 4). (Re)envisioning a collective agenda focused on systems and transformation in higher education. Community of Higher Ed Scholars, blog of AERA Division J.

Rhoades, G. (2014). The higher education we choose, collectively: Rembodying and repoliticizing choice. The Journal of Higher Education, 85(6), 917-930.

Rhoades, G. & Sporn, B. (2002). New models of management and shifting modes and costs of production: Europe and the United States. Tertiary Education and Management, 8, 3-28.

Weiler, K. (2003). Freire and a feminist pedagogy of difference. In A. Howell & F. Tuitt (Eds.), Race and higher education: Rethinking pedagogy in diverse college classrooms (pp. 215-242). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Publishing Group.

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