Seeking (Grassroots) Leaders

New book discusses those who lead -- with or without titles -- in higher education.
August 19, 2011

Who is a campus leader? The president? The chair of the Faculty Senate? The senior scholar? The rising star? A new book suggests moving beyond traditional expectations of who leaders are and should be in academe. Enhancing Campus Capacity for Leadership: An Examination of Grassroots Leaders in Higher Education (Stanford University Press) suggests that many colleges could have more leaders if they knew how to nurture them. The authors are two scholars of higher education: Adrianna J. Kezar of the University of Southern California and Jaime Lester of George Mason University. Lester responded via e-mail to questions about the book.

Q: How do you define "grassroots leader"? How are these leaders different from formal leaders who may be elected to represent various constituencies (chair of Faculty Senate, for example)?

A: Grassroots leaders are individuals who do not have formal positions of authority, are operating from the bottom up, are interested in and pursue changes that often challenge the status quo of the institution and society. Grassroots leadership is defined in social movement literature as the stimulation of social change or the challenge of the status quo by those who lack formal authority or delegated power. Elected representatives tend to have a structure in place to enact leadership through rewards, establishing formal positions and responsibilities, and delegated authority. Those in positions of authority also have a formal network of people that are conducting the same work. Grassroots leaders are volunteers and not hired or employed to lead efforts. They typically have to create their own structure, network and support systems.

In our research, we found a variety of individuals in faculty and staff roles who are grassroots leaders. These individuals are, for example, a set of chemistry professors, who realize that students are graduating without an understanding of environmental problems, and these professors come together to devise and advocate for fundamental changes in undergraduate education. Another example is two staff members who recognize that gay and lesbian students are not safe on campus and then develop a resource center to help those students be successful and feel included. A grassroots leader can also be the assistant professor who decides to create awareness and develop solutions for helping custodial staff, after he learns that their recently reduced benefits program compromises their rights, as well as campus service. These are all examples of changes occurring on college campuses that were not well-documented in the literature and were often invisible to discussions of change on college campuses.

Q: Are there common experiences that seem to create grassroots leaders in the campus environment, or common characteristics of those who become these leaders?

A: Grassroots leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and serve many roles on the campuses we studied. Some of the faculty grassroots leaders were motivated by experiences in the classroom or during service activities such as participation on committees that exposed them to inequities in student success, seeing certain student groups struggle in the classroom. Several staff grassroots leaders directly experienced discrimination inside and outside the university context making them sensitive to the need for change. Other faculty and staff had a history of community-based participation and activism and were more inclined to see issues and organize. For example, several of the grassroots leaders who worked on sustainability issues had a strong commitment to sustainability in their personal lives and worked with community-based groups to create awareness of local environmental issues. The message that we want to send is that anyone can become a grassroots leader. An individual's background, experiences, training, and passion does not predispose them from becoming a grassroots leader. Simply, individuals who desire to stay in but change their institutions have the prerequisites to engage in grassroots change.

Q: What are some examples you saw of change promoted by grassroots leaders that might not have happened through more hierarchical leadership definitions?

A: The grassroots change initiatives differed tremendously: diversification of the campus; innovative pedagogies like service or collaborative learning; campus and community partnerships to support community interests; religion and faith on campus; childcare centers and more flexible work conditions; environmentalism and sustainability, and equity for certain groups such as janitorial staff or immigrants. While many of these initiatives could have begun with more traditional forms of hierarchical leadership, their tactics and strategies varied tremendously. Grassroots leaders cannot mandate change, create incentives and rewards, create new positions, or establish budget priorities as can those people in positions of authority. Instead, grassroots leaders need to form coalitions, network, find outside funding, use persuasive communication and data – their strategies differ from those in power. Also, they took an approach that was educational in nature. The tactics they used all relate to the strategy of being educationally oriented, and are grounded in the academic culture: partnering with students, incorporating grassroots organizing into their courses, capitalizing on intellectual discussions, leveraging grant activity, working with student clubs. The character of tactics looks different from the tactics of grassroots leaders in other settings -- corporations do not have students to partner with or grant activity to leverage, for example. Also, we found grassroots leaders need to navigate power conditions more as they face resistance from multiple directions – peers, those in positions of power, and sometimes students.

Another important finding concerns the rise of corporatization in higher education. We found that formal institutional leaders face pressure around revenue generation and accountability and may not pursue changes focused on instruction, learning, community, or social justice. We are not saying these issues are not important to those in positions of authority, but that they have pressure to focus on other priorities or find these issues politically untenable and thus often ignore changes that grassroots leaders pursue. In a sense, grassroots leaders balance the trend toward corporatization on campuses and we believe those in positions of authority should foster and support this leadership given that their own focus is diverted from these issues. Grassroots leaders enhance the overall leadership capacity on campuses.

Q: How can administrators encourage grassroots leaders?

A: In our research, we found that supporting grassroots leaders requires a multilevel approach. Campuses need to consider departmental, school, unit, campuswide, and across-institutional agent approaches. Department/school/unit and campus-wide agents can provide different types of support that relate to the authority given to that level in the institutional hierarchy. For example, faculty grassroots leaders stressed the importance of support from their departmental colleagues while staff often referred to supervisors and directors, as highly influential in their involvement in change efforts. Specifically, department colleagues and supervisors helped grassroots leaders explore their leadership visions, assisted them in brainstorming ways to overcome obstacles, as well as provide specific support, defined roles flexibly, and provided funding and support to go to conferences to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to make their leadership visions come to life. Campuswide approaches function to reduce the structural barriers, such as policies for contingent faculty that reduce their ability to engage in committees or tenure and promotion requirements that do not recognize service and/or activist work. Structural barriers also emerged in the form of unit or departmental silos that prevented cross-function and discipline collaboration. Campuses that helped to create networks and addressed the departmental or unit dysfunctionality was an extremely significant and meaningful support for fostering leadership. One tactic appeared to transcend levels and worked across all campus institutional agents – mentoring and role models -- helps to promote leadership development among faculty and staff who may have a desire to engage in grassroots efforts currently or in the future. We dedicate an entire chapter (chapter 12) to the ways to encourage and support grassroots leadership.

Q: One of the big changes in higher education is the growth of adjunct positions (and the shrinking on many campuses of tenured positions). Does the limited job security, time and resources of the adjunct professor cohort make it more difficult for these academics to become grassroots leaders?

A: Yes, our findings clearly show that adjunct faculty can be strong leaders on campuses and that their leadership is needed if we are to move initiatives forward. Adjunct faculty in professional fields have the practical knowledge from the professions they are drawn and adjunct in traditional academic disciplines have the knowledge and training similar to those in tenure-track positions. Adjunct faculty simply lack the tenure-line positions because of change in the labor market. We did find that campuses currently have many barriers in place to capitalize on adjunct faculty leadership, including the lack of job security, time and resources needed to engage in change efforts. We also found active disempowerment by tenure-track faculty and administrators who silenced adjuncts and tried to minimize their potential contribution. There are cultural change that need to occur to embrace contingent faculty that now number two-thirds of all faculty nationwide. We see this as one of the more troubling threats to faculty leadership.


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