book spotlight: remaking college: the changing ecology of higher education, edited by kirst and stevens
Recent orgtheory posts excepted, we pay way too much attention to a tiny handful of higher education institutions in the U.S. (Not to mention too much attention to the U.S. relative to the rest of the world.)
Academic chatter often assumes research universities are the prototypical higher ed organization, even though only 23% of students are enrolled in such universities (RU/VH or RU/H). By comparison, more than a third are enrolled in community colleges, and nearly 10% in for-profit institutions.
At the level of public attention, focus gets even narrower. A New York Times search gets 310 hits for “community college,” versus nearly 13,000 for “Harvard.” Recently historian David Perry surveyed two months of NYT op-eds containing the word “professor” and found
zero by community college or lower-status teaching school profs, zero by branch campus public profs, and a handful by top liberal arts schools (Smith, Dickinson) or lower-tier R1 publics (Colorado State, South Carolina).
So kudos to Michael Kirst and Mitchell Stevens for noticing that the world of higher ed is bigger than that. Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education, published a couple of months ago by Stanford UP, focuses on the institutions that are underappreciated by the media and scholars: comprehensive colleges, community colleges, for-profit colleges. By bringing together a diverse group of academics — several of whom take an explicitly organizational approach — to focus on broad-access institutions, they have done the field a real service.
The essays cover a range of ground and approaches. Several, including an orienting one by W. Richard Scott, conceptualize higher ed as an ecology or field. I’ll just highlight a couple I particularly enjoyed here.
In “The Classification of Organizational Forms: Theory and Application to the Field of Higher Education,” Martin Ruef and Manish Nag use topic models based on IPEDS data to generate new sets of categories for U.S. postsecondary institutions. From mission statements, for example, they infer not only two distinct clusters of liberal arts schools and two of community colleges, but several additional types of institutions — globally-oriented colleges, Christian colleges, medical tech schools, student-oriented universities — that might otherwise go unnoticed. Like other good work that identifies patterns from texts, it prompts a rethinking of cultural identity beyond assumed categories.
Regina Deil-Amen makes a significant contribution just by hammering home how atypical the “typical” college student really is. Nearly three-quarters of first-year undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges or for-profit institutions. 53% are not enrolled full-time. Only 13% live on campus. 13 percent! Her quotes of interviews with lower-income and Latino students, who are dealing with family stresses and financial struggles, are telling:
My family has a lot of financial problems, so that’s another stress that I’m constantly dealing with. I have to call them like, ‘Mom, are you gonna be able to pay rent this month?’…I’ve actually used some of my loans to help them pay their rent this year. (p. 146)
These firsthand accounts reinforce how inaccurate the picture of a dependent 18-year-old striking out on her own for the first time actually is.
I also enjoyed Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s reflection on measuring college performance, where they emphasize that they
have vehemently argued against the desirability of an externally imposed accountability schema. We are deeply skeptical of increased centralized regulation of this character—fearing that the unintended consequences would far outweigh any benefits—and have instead called for institutions themselves to assume enhance responsibility for monitoring and improving student outcomes. (p. 170)
I’m not sure they know how to measure college quality either, but it’s a thoughtful piece.
Higher ed really is a diverse organizational ecology, and it’s going to take a lot of work to map out the whole landscape. But I’m very glad that people like Kirst and Stevens are moving us in that direction.
This post is intended to provide concrete tips for researchers looking to gain initial access to an organization, particularly for those doing fieldwork or qualitative interviews (but perhaps the suggestions will apply for survey research, as well). It extends Katherine Chen’s earlier post on gaining access to organizations.
If you have experience in this area, I hope you will contribute suggestions. I imagine that corporations will be of most interest to readers, but of course there can be challenges to accessing non-profits such as universities and the government, so please chime in if you have insights to contribute.
Here’s my experience: To successfully gain access to a multinational corporation to do an ethnography, I identified appropriate companies to study and then took the following steps:
- Network with anyone that had connections to the companies. This actually didn’t get me anywhere.
- Work to access multiple companies at one time. This was time-consuming but worthwhile because it took 6+ months to get into the company I studied, from my first efforts to reach out to a company to the day I was in the door.
- Prepare a research proposal document that looks like a business proposal. It includes my research objectives, what I would need from the company, potential “deliverables,” and my credentials. I researched business proposals to look at how they are formatted. My proposal was about 5 pages long, with lots of white space and just a few bullets on most pages. I put my university’s logo on the bottom of every page. I packaged it in a glossy folder from my university, along with my business card and a letter from my dissertation chair, on university letterhead, attesting to my abilities and trustworthiness. I attached a brief cover letter to the front. If you can demonstrate any connections to a business school, I imagine that would help
- Identify the right person in the organization, send them my proposal, and follow up. It may take a phone call or two to identify the right person because contact information often isn’t online.
Ultimately, two of the four companies I approached agreed to let me in, and I ended up studying one of them, “Starr Corporation.” I got lucky—around the time I approached the company, the director of diversity management was planning to do an internal evaluation of the company’s diversity programs, but the department’s budget was limited. She saw me as potentially fulfilling that role, and she saw my proposal as serious and professional.
After Starr said yes, we negotiated:
1. A letter, approved by their legal department, outlining the company’s anonymity and guidelines for my access. My university IRB provided no assistance whatsoever at this stage, which I thought was outrageous. I ended up consulting a lawyer I knew to look over the letter (I strongly recommend doing that), and I got someone in the university’s patents office to review it, as well… I gave the company the option of being anonymous, and they wanted that. The company added a sentence stating that I would not be paid to do my research. I didn’t anticipate this, but in retrospect it is not surprising at all.
2. An understanding that I would produce a final internal report (i.e. Powerpoint presentation) on the company’s diversity programs.
Once I was in the door, my status was analogous to a consultant. I got an ID, an identity and password, my own cubicle with a computer and, crucially, access to the company’s intranet, including its computer program for scheduling interviews. I had a point of contact within the diversity department who identified appropriate events for me to attend and individuals to interview.
How did you gain access?
Also, do you have suggestions of books or articles on gaining access to organizations? I only am familiar with general discussions of this topic. I particularly like Gaining Access: A Practical and Theoretical Guide for Qualitative Researchers, which is what the title suggests.
Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur is an associate professor of sociology at Rhode Island College. She is the author of Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education.
My state, Rhode Island, is in the process of beginning an experiment with performance funding for public higher education. Because of our small size, we have only three institutions of public higher education: The University (URI), The College (RIC—my institution), and The Community College (CCRI), and thus our performance funding initiative cannot involve comparative metrics or those based on what “the top” institution in the state is doing. Therefore, the legislature instead decided to craft a performance funding formula based on their own goals for higher education outcomes. The current version of the bill—considerably improved from prior versions, due in large part to the concerted efforts of my colleagues who testified before the relevant state House and Senate committees—includes among its metrics the 100% and 150% of normative time graduation rates; the production of degrees tied to “high demand, high wage” employment opportunities in our (very small) state; and an additional measure to be decided by each of the three institutions in consultation with internal constituencies; with the potential to adjust the weights of these measures to reflect institutional missions, student body demographics, and “the economic needs of the state.”
But this is not a post about performance funding, at least not really. Rather, it is a post about what “success” means for colleges and university.
While at a conference in California during grad school, a fellow attendee had to run back to her hotel room at mid-day. To me, she explained that she had to pump breastmilk for her baby, who was back at home in the Midwest with the other parent. This was one of my first encounters with breastfeeding workers, one that “normalized” the amalgamation of parental and work responsibilities. Given pediatricians’ recommendations of breastfeeding until babies reach at least 6 months or preferably 1 year old, if possible, and parents’ return to work after a 3-month-long leave (or earlier), employers and employees are likely to confront the practicalities of pumping – how to pump, when to pump, where to pump, and how to store the milk.
Despite changes to legislation and workplace policies, some workers still face daily challenges when pumping. As recounted in a freshly minted Culture and Organization publication by Prof. Noortje van Amsterdam at Utrecht School of Governance, the Netherlands, finding a place to pump and storing the milk was fraught with anxieties (i.e., “have I produced enough?”, “will the students notice if I have changed my shirt?”) and shame, as well as awkward exchanges with gatekeepers to offices and the canteen fridge.
After hitting the 6 month milestone, van Amsterdam ended pumping. To her surprise, one of the building workers, in charge of the canteen fridge, tells her that he misses their previous interactions over the milk storage. Such an exchange evidences how what might feel difficult or awkward to one party becomes part of a welcomed routine for another party.
One morning, I run into Ben in the hallway. “You’ve stopped expressing, haven’t
you?” he asks.
“Yes. I’m all done,” I reply.
“I do miss you, you know”
And in spite of everything that happened, this makes me feel a little better.