The remarkable efficacy of organisational change networks

I was recently reminded of the most cited article in my academic field, sociologist Mark S Granovetter’s 1973 “The Strength of Weak Ties”. The occasion was a National Science Foundation-supported Knowledge Exchange where researchers gathered in Alexandria, Virginia in the United States, to discuss ‘organisational change networks’ (OCNs).

What struck me most was the remarkable efficacy of such networks, which is consistent with the argument Granovetter advanced 50 years ago. Observers of US higher education might take from recent headlines that we are distracted and beleaguered. Let me offer an alternative perspective.

Like other OCNs, the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities (UERU), which comprises 115 member US research universities, strives to create change in US higher education and is the sponsor of the Boyer 2030 Commission Report, The Equity-Excellence Imperative: A 2030 blueprint for undergraduate education at US research universities.

The comparative, longitudinal and ultimately life-cycle-oriented study of organisational change networks is six years in the making, while the networks themselves have been around for decades.

Furthermore, these networks and the people who power them today are beneficiaries of initiatives and collaborations stretching back at least to when Granovetter began his pioneering social network research and, in any case, have deep roots in endemic tensions in liberal-democratic society.

Today’s scepticism and even reactionary policy initiatives notwithstanding, US higher education is, via mature networks, on the move.

Tipping points

There is a paradox at the heart of Granovetter’s effort to shed light on how everyday social interaction is linked with social systems and vice versa. This paradox was evident to Granovetter and will be familiar to readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference (2000), or Damon Centola’s recent Change: How to make big things happen (2021).

How is it, after all, that ephemeral relationships characterised by irregular, emotionally neutral, non-intimate interaction, with low expectations for reciprocity – what sociologist Damon Centola summarises as “casual acquaintances”, even “random connections in your orbit” – can facilitate great consequences?

The answer popularised by Gladwell is that weak ties are the basis of networks and networks are what spread change-oriented ideas in the first place, connect us across social as well as geographical distance, and facilitate (de facto) aligned change. This is how “little causes can have big effects”, in Gladwell’s words, and why change builds and builds long before it becomes manifest, often in what seems a flash, the result of Gladwellian tipping points.

Using these terms, imagine UERU as a relatively loose connection of 115 core and probably four or five times that number of more distant higher education colleagues spanning public and private research universities in the United States. Senior-most leaders in undergraduate education interact sporadically, both online and occasionally in-person, but they are nonetheless sufficiently organised and engaged to align with shared goals and to undertake collaborative work.

Furthermore, imagine that, despite differences among them ranging from academic discipline and institutional type to social identities and life experiences, these leaders hold in common often a biographically rooted commitment to the transformative potential of undergraduate education – in broad strokes, its excellence – as well as a commitment to the idea that all people, not only those already privileged, deserve a fair chance at benefiting from such excellence, including, importantly, that our institutions should do whatever they can to help each student be ready to engage and be successfully persistent in higher education – a value proposition commonly conveyed through the notion of equity.

From this perspective it is easy to appreciate why UERU members coalesced around the idea of the simultaneity of equity/excellence, as they did in contributing to and in sponsoring the Boyer 2030 Commission Report.

We conclude that universities, at least in a democratic society, cannot be excellent if they are not also inclusive and equitable.

The reverse is also recognised as valid: unfettered access, an open admissions policy, say, without the support necessary to realistically persist and ultimately benefit from transformative higher education – what, following Professor Cathy Davidson, the Boyer 2030 Commission called “world-readiness” – is promise and potential unfilled, the harm often compounded by heavy student loan debt burdens, discouragement and an understandable degree of cynicism.

Expansive consequences

Imagine the UERU network as strategically positioned at a key leverage point within institutions that are themselves strategically positioned within US higher education.

That is, imagine UERU’s undergraduate vice provosts (by many titles) and their lateral university colleagues as mediating strategic and implementation levels of university-wide change in undergraduate education, itself the too-often-unacknowledged driver of research university growth and development, ie, the principal locus of an institution’s connection with the public at large and with their elected representatives, largely through their alumni and community constituents; the economic engine of available university finances (net revenue) and the leading source of essential skills and leadership for the credentialed, professional workforce in myriad complex organisations and fields of expertise and responsibility, ie, the driver of the knowledge economy in toto.

The Boyer 2030 commissioners understood these relationships implicitly and were able to direct their attention to salient organisational factors internal to research universities and understand the potentially enabling and constraining elements of a research university environment comprising university boards, systems and consortia, accrediting bodies, federal and state policies, commercial rankings and commercial vendors, classification systems, disciplinary societies and other organisations and entities.

Between empowering undergraduate vice provosts and their colleagues in one direction and attempting to influence higher education environments in the other, the Boyer 2030 Commission positioned itself as a de facto mediating network among existing higher education networks, with the express goal of catalysing long overdue change within and among US research universities.

Even the focus on US research universities may be deceptively limiting. Tipping points can have unexpectedly expansive consequences. What happens at even 115 US research universities directly affects millions of undergraduate students, including international students, and may also leverage change at regional, liberal arts and community colleges (which often partner with one or more research university) and indeed may help position US higher education as a new type of global leadership.

The Curricular Analytics Project

One of the UERU initiatives of greatest interest to federal higher education policy-makers is the Ascendium-funded US$1.99 million UERU Curricular Analytics Project (CAP), which is an organisational change network within the UERU network, indeed, a network-within-a-network that reaches in and through universities at a critical level thus far unexplored.

The paradox here is that the weaker CAP network ties become – ie, the more relationships between increasingly distant colleagues are mediated by abstract data and data visualisations of equally abstract course sequences, blocking courses, chains of prerequisites and similar structural features of objective university curricula – the greater the potential for transformative institutional change in the direction of equity/excellence. The more impersonal, the more motivating!

Let me explain. CAP is comprised of 30 public and private research universities which have joined together to map curricular structures over thousands of separate degree programmes and then work together to analyse time-to-degree, completion rates, completion gaps between groups and other patterns in student academic achievement to empirically assess whether and to what extent typically unexamined curricular structures create unnecessary and in principle easily resolved inequities.

If faculty in each and every academic programme have access to data and comparative contexts essential for their interpretation, they can fulfil their exclusive responsibility to oversee development of curricula in ways which also permit them to realise equity/excellence goals.

Fewer convoluted pathways to graduation equals cost savings for students, which equals greater accessibility. Fewer unnecessary prerequisite courses can mean more space for integration of undergraduate research, internships, education abroad, tutoring, student leadership and myriad additional high-impact practices.

In some cases, faculty may find that status quo curricular structures meet with their approval, whereas in others they may wish to add structure to better scaffold learning so that students are required to build and apply core knowledge rather than spread themselves thin over perhaps too many elective disciplinary sub-specialties. What is best for the undergraduate student?

The Curricular Analytics Project cultivates a network connecting hundreds of embedded unit-level faculty decision-makers by providing them with abstract information and supportive contexts for its evaluation. Due to their apparently culturally objective as well as disciplinarily relevant nature, Curricular Analytics’ complexity scores, degree maps and similar tools are received in diverse academic contexts as illuminating and useful, not as irrelevant or threatening.

The strength of CAP lies, then, in its impersonal data and data analysis, although neither the data nor its analysis would be available were it not for the longstanding core commitment of originators, innovators and leaders.

Bedrock democratic values

UERU is only one of many networks that weave in and between colleges and universities of all types, facilitating the spread of ideas and leading-edge practices and creating leverage points for transformational organisational, and ultimately for cultural, change.

The Knowledge Exchange was replete with examples of networks building change-making potential over time while conserving past advances and nurturing future change-makers.

From strengthening teaching and learning in STEM education to bolstering education-to-career transitions in community and technical college contexts, OCNs are strengthening specific capacities as well as building collective capacity in ways that will permit the fulfilment of a wide variety of institutional missions and help us all meet post-secondary students where they are.

The OCN study shines a light on the important work done by organisational change networks in making concrete and undeniable US higher education’s commitment to bedrock democratic educational values, highlights the progress being made below the level of sensational headlines, and, perhaps unintentionally, creates a meta-OCN comprised of the alumni of their study, who are now ‘weakly’ connected and more self-aware concerning the sociological underpinnings of their work.

Steven P Dandaneau is executive director of the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities (UERU).