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Informal, Loosely Structured Groups Take on Big, Complex Issues

Leadership and Management

Informal, Loosely Structured Groups Take on Big, Complex Issues

Faculty are essential to addressing the large issues facing higher education institutions, such as increasing student diversity, budgetary challenges, and changes in course delivery methods. The challenge for academic leaders is engaging faculty on these institution-wide issues without creating an undue burden on them or imposing too much control over the agenda. Bonnie Irwin, dean, and Patricia Poulter, associate dean, of the College of Art and Humanities at Eastern Illinois University have begun working with faculty on their campus to identify issues and facilitate conversations to explore ways to address some of these larger issues.

An underaddressed concern

“One of the things we do as leadership partners is scan the literature, share books, and try to keep on top of the larger issues facing higher education in general, not just here on our own campus,” Poulter says. “But we understand that that’s not something that most faculty are engaged in. … How do we take this information, synthesize it, and help pass on the importance of it without feeling like we’re telling people ‘You need to engage in this’ or ‘This is something that’s really exciting that you should participate in’? The social movement idea [as expressed by Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach] is something that really resonated with us—start with a few concerned citizens and work from there.”

One area that Irwin and Poulter identified as an area of concern was student diversity. Piggybacking on the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U’s) Making Excellence Inclusive principles (www.aacu.org/compass/inclusive_excellence.cfm), they selected a few faculty members to begin talking about ways to meet the challenges of serving an increasingly diverse student population.

Over the past seven years, diversity on campus nearly doubled “and there’s been a lot of anxiety on the part of faculty who feel they are not quite prepared for the changing demographics of our students, and some of this was making us uncomfortable here in the dean’s office,” Irwin says. “Faculty were making comments that I hope were not intentional in their offensiveness, but sometimes saying things that were probably not appropriate. So we were concerned about what might be going on in our classrooms as well. That’s where the whole social movement model came in,” she says.

Community of concerned citizens

Irwin expressed some of her concerns in a meeting of the college. “I talked a little bit about privilege, and then we handpicked a few people who we knew were those concerned citizens—people who shared our discomfort with some of the rhetoric that had been going on and really wanted to do something about it. Then I opened it up to volunteers and had a few others step forward, and we realized that the community of concerned citizens was actually larger than the one that we were able to identify.”

This group originally consisted of 10 people and has since expanded to 15. They meet regularly, but there is no set agenda. “We started this without a clear set of goals, although the overarching goal is that we really take to heart AAC&U’s Making Excellence Inclusive. We believe every student benefits from high-impact, deeply engaging experiences, and we were dismayed by some of the basic information showing that that wasn’t occurring. We haven’t had many first-generation students engaging in study abroad or minority students engaging in undergraduate research,” Poulter says.

Rather than a set agenda, shared readings and email exchanges loosely guide the discussion. “We opened the conversation about issues with some broad, somewhat leading but not entirely leading questions. It’s been really exciting to watch how the faculty have taken ownership. People are coming to these conversations with ‘Hey, I just read this …’ or ‘This is a format that I think would really help this particular group of students.’ They’re brainstorming. They’re coming to the table with ideas. They’re sharing about the different cultures in the departments on campus and they’re learning from each other. The important thing is that they’re taking this back [to their departments], discussing it with their colleagues. They’ve engaged in the issues. They’re taking some ownership, and we’re in a position now where we’re doing more listening,” Irwin says.

“What’s exciting is that everybody who has come to the table has a sense of possibility—that indeed what we are about in the academy is making things better. There’s not a sense that things are so difficult. [The emphasis is on questions such as] What information do we need to have at our fingertips to make informed decisions? How are our first-generation students participating in high-impact experiences? What is time to degree? What are our retention rates? How do we identify at-risk students and what do we have in place to help them? Even though these are big, thorny, and difficult issues, it was our feeling that we couldn’t wait for the rest of campus to catch up with us. We had people who were dedicated to addressing issues and we also felt that if we didn’t model it in our college we weren’t sure who would. The arts and humanities are a perfect place to start discussing really deep human issues,” Poulter says.

Developing trust

A key to making these conversations work was developing trust. Trust comes from transparency—“getting my faculty to a place where the person they see at a party or grocery story is the same person who sits behind my desk,” Irwin says. “We have a structure here, but at the same time I reveal those parts of myself that I think make me more human. What we’re really doing is the same things that good teachers do in the classroom. I don’t mean that to sound patronizing—that faculty are like students—but in some ways, in these larger issues of higher education, that’s exactly what’s going on because we’ve done all this research; we know more about this particular topic or set of issues than our faculty do.”

In the first meeting, Irwin asked each participant to share his or her story, which helped the group bond. “Even though some of these folks have known each other for years, they learned things about each other that they had not known before,” Irwin says. “I asked who was a first-generation college student, who struggled, who changed majors? People were telling their stories and the emotional bond in that room was palpable. So that has led us to a place where people want to come to these meetings. … They now are at this place where it doesn’t have to be formalized because they have their own intrinsic motivation for being there.”

Expanding the group

Because of the nature of the topic, Irwin and Poulter made it a point not to invite those with contrary opinions to the group. “We decided because this is going to be a very sensitive topic that we were going to start with no contrary voices at the table until we had some grounding. Now I feel that people are ready to start hearing some of the contrary voices, but I think if we had started there we’d still be arguing. The idea was to do some sharing first and then start to bring in some contrary voices,” Irwin says.

Looking to expand the group, Irwin encourages members to bring guests to meetings. “That’s how we’re hoping to grow this. There will be some people who never engage in a particular issue, but one of the leadership principles I live by is trying to find the right role for everybody. Every faculty member has an investment in the institution, and we need to find the right place for them [to contribute]. Sometimes that’s outside our formal governance and committee structures. Sometimes being on a curriculum committee is not really what a faculty member wants to do, but may want to be engaged somewhere else. Part of our job as deans is trying to figure out where people fit, where they will feel empowered and valued and will put in that effort and make a commitment. That takes intentionally getting to know the faculty, and that’s something we take pretty seriously,” Irwin says.


The work of this diversity group and other similar ones on interdisciplinary learning and distance education will eventually influence the institution through the traditional governance and committee avenues. For example, one of the participants in the diversity group works in the office of faculty development, and as the conversation proceeds, she, along with another group member who also serves on the faculty development advisory board, is looking at ways to be more intentional about providing assistance for faculty who want to make their teaching more inclusive.

The group discussed findings of a study that found that average students benefit more from undergraduate research than do more successful students. This had led to the group looking into setting aside funding to provide more undergraduate research opportunities, which, Irwin notes, will require approval from a formal committee.

Irwin also sees these discussions influencing her development efforts. “When I’m out talking to donors, I’m trying to establish a fund in the college to support the work of students who come from less privileged backgrounds in high impact practices such as study abroad, undergraduate research, and community engagement,” Irwin says.


Irwin and Poulter offer the following advice based on their experience with these groups: 

  • Identify issues that cannot be addressed through traditional structures. “Sometimes the most layered, challenging, and complex issues don’t fit well into the traditional committee structure because there are committees that address part of an issue but not all of it. It just becomes so unwieldy,” Poulter says.
  • Do your homework. In order to lead a discussion on an issue, you need to be well informed about it. “Bonnie and I talked about [diversity] and picked each other’s brains about this for months, so by the time this rolled out to the college we were able to talk about it very comfortably, passionately, with data, and with support from the literature,” Poulter says.
  • Find appropriate resources to address the issue. Is there an approach in place that might suit the issue, such as a model for a task force or faculty learning community?
  • Start with a core group of interested people. Figure out who needs to be in the room and start with a core group of people who you know are going to be invested, but then make sure you open it to other interested parties,” Irwin says.

“This idea of invitation is key. If one starts by making a broad call, you’re going to get the same people who always show up and you’re not going to get very far. Making personal invitations to individuals to start, and then opening it up to other interested parties or working through that network of core individuals to bring in other people, is key.”

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