Institutionalization: Holy Grail or dead end?

When I started working on UBC’s Downtown Eastside initiative, I was excited by the potential to change how some things worked in the university. UBC’s leaders wanted to change the way the university related to the external community. They also wanted to change the way undergraduate students were taught.

These were the two elements of UBC’s new vision that excited me the most. I wanted the process and outcomes of academic research to be more inclusive of community people and their perspectives. I believed this would lead to research in the social and health sciences being more relevant to public policy issues and more effectively used in the implementation of social programs. I also wanted undergraduate students to be more engaged in real-life contexts, seeing how academic knowledge and “street smarts” can complement (or disrupt) each other. I felt aligned with the idea that universities had a responsibility to cultivate citizenship and social responsibility among its graduates.

From midwife to mother

In the beginning, I was not that concerned with the long-term survival of the Learning Exchange. I remember responding to a colleague’s question about what I saw as the long-term future of the Learning Exchange by saying that ultimately, if community engagement really took hold at UBC, it would not matter whether the Learning Exchange survived as a distinct entity or not. But gradually, my relationship to the Learning Exchange shifted. Being concerned with the details of overseeing a growing organization—managing the budget, navigating risk, developing the staff team, making decisions about programs—focused my attention on practical and strategic issues.

I still had my eye on the goal of changing the university, but my hands were fully occupied with tasks that were right in front of me, and my heart started to attach itself to the evolving form of the Learning Exchange. I became identified with the Learning Exchange. I felt a pride of ownership. It was mine. In the beginning, I felt like a midwife facilitating the birth of something new that was expressing its own life force. By the time I left my position, I felt like the Learning Exchange’s mother. I remember saying to a colleague at the time of the reorganization that led to my departure, “I feel like I’m presiding over the dismemberment of my baby.”

A cautionary tale

By the time I left my position I had been working long hours doing tasks that were not much fun. I was isolated from students, Downtown Eastside residents, and the members of my own team. I had gone from the thrill of feeling like a tightrope walker balancing on a thin rope, arms stretched wide in the open air to the dreadful feeling that I was bound in a straitjacket.

I could explain my state in 2011 as simply being that of an individual who was burned out. Or I could suggest that the problem was that I am more suited to leading the creation of new entities than overseeing ongoing operations. But I think the situation is more interesting than that. I think my experience provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of the drive to institutionalize change in large bureaucratic systems like universities. Although I have reservations about some aspects of the discourse on social innovation, I think this discourse has some important insights to offer those who are trying to get community engagement adopted in the academy. (To read about my reservations, go to Drawing on the world of commerce and The system is the Tao.)

Institutionalizing Community-University Engagement

IKB Ladner tower BuchThe Community-University Engagement (CUE) movement focuses a lot of attention on the need to institutionalize community engagement in the academy. Rubrics to assess the degree of institutionalization point to indicators like whether community engagement appears in vision statements and strategic plans, whether a central unit exists to support faculty and student engagement in community-based activities, and whether faculty members’ community activities count in decisions about promotion and tenure. If a university or college has not signalled its support for CUE by making these kinds of institutional commitments, the conclusion is that CUE is a marginal activity. Getting CUE institutionalized is the Holy Grail. It means that CUE has become a legitimate activity for scholars to undertake and that engaging in social and public policy issues is a legitimate role for post-secondary institutions.

When I first got involved in UBC’s Downtown Eastside initiative, I hoped the intiative would lead eventually to profound, systemic changes within the university. I hoped that, as a result of their direct experience with people in community settings, faculty members and students would come to appreciate the intelligence and creativity that can be found outside the academy. I hoped that knowledge gained through life experience would come to be valued as much as knowledge gained through the scientific method. I hoped that some of the walls around the ivory tower would gradually, inevitably collapse.

At the time, I thought I was not worrying much about where UBC was positioned on any of the rubrics. But, in retrospect, I realize I was influenced more than I knew by the discourse coming from the field of CUE. As a recovering positivist, I was vulnerable to the assumption that what mattered were objective indicators of success. As someone raised in a culture based on mechanistic metaphors and assumptions about linear, incremental growth being the ideal, I was, in fact, evaluating how the Learning Exchange was doing against the indicators offered by the CUE literature.

The unfortunate effect of my unwitting alliance with the discourse on institutionalizing CUE was twofold. First, I started focusing on the wrong things. Second, I thought we were doing pretty well at UBC so I became complacent. I forgot that learning was more important than being successful. And I forgot the key message we gave to students—“If you are comfortable, you are not learning.”

I think if I had been introduced to the concepts and ideas central to the social innovation discourse earlier, and if I had been better able to navigate the tensions between the mainstream cultural models in my mind and the ideas that reading Getting to Maybe set in motion, my behaviour as a leader might have been different. And the evolution of the Learning Exchange might have been different.

A rigidity trap

rebuilding the staff teamA cynic might say that academic institutions are not living systems. True, they are tradition-bound, conservative, and slow-moving. But they do move. As social institutions go, universities have been remarkably adaptive and resilient over a very long period of time. But they are not exactly nimble. Universities have cultural norms about “the way things are done around here” that tend to encourage “in the box” thinking.

I was dismayed when I realized recently that, in my later years as Director of the Learning Exchange, I fell into what the social innovation field calls a rigidity trap. After reading Getting to Maybe I decided that the Learning Exchange, especially the storefront programs, had become too stagnant. I began to think about what we could do that would bring back some of the innovative spirit we had when we started.

I came up with three ideas. One was to create a series of short videos aimed at educating faculty members and students about doing Community Based Research (CBR). The videos would portray typical scenarios that occur when academics try to do CBR. The idea was to present some of the common mistakes that get made in a humorous and non-threatening way. The second idea was to build Learning Exchange staff members’ capacity to facilitate group dialogues involving people who tended not to understand each other (e.g., government policy-makers and homeless people). This idea was linked to the third idea: to create ways to support small and diverse groups of people to do short-term, focused projects that would effect change in their communities. The dialogues and projects were intended to get people from diverse backgrounds (e.g., different ages, ethnicities, or socio-economic classes) engaged in “learning exchanges” that would eventually help to unlock seemingly intractable social policy impasses (like what to do about homelessness).

When I left my position, all three ideas were in development. But all of them faded from view not long after I left. At first glance, I could say that the problem was that I had not adequately transmitted the vision for these initiatives. Or my team mates did not have enough ownership of the ideas. This may be true. But as I was writing about how the Learning Exchange moved from innovation to institutionalization, I realized that I had not approached the pursuit of these ideas in the same way I approached the early development of the Learning Exchange.

My approach to these three new ideas was to flesh out the idea, develop a plan to secure funding, hire consultants or enlist other outside experts to help develop plans for the roll-out of the ideas, and then delegate the responsibility for the roll-out to people who were “under” me. This entailed everyone involved, including me, spending endless hours in meetings debating all the ins and outs of each idea: what, why, when, where, who, how, and how much. I did exactly what most people in universities do when they want to create a new initiative.

Even then, if someone had described this bureaucratic strategy and asked me whether this was a good way to achieve change, I would have snorted dismissively. I knew better. But I still got caught. In moving to the centre of the institution, I lost my own centre. I did not “just do it,” which was what my team and I did in the early years of the Learning Exchange.

How did I fall into the trap?

After 2007, when the staff team grew quickly and our programs stabilized, my role became more institutionally-focused. I spent more time at UBC than in the Downtown Eastside. I spent my time overseeing overall operations, fund-raising, and positioning the Learning Exchange and Community Service Learning (CSL) within the university structure. I got into the mode of directing others to do the work rather than doing the work myself.

My growing identification with the Learning Exchange also contributed to my failure to clearly see what I was doing. As noted above, I came to care deeply about the fate of the Learning Exchange as a created entity, something that was a reflection of my efforts.

In the early days I was doing daredevil stunts myself. I was “inside” the risk as well as being inside my own skills and talent (or they were inside me). I knew what was happening (with a visceral knowledge) and what happened next was directly related to my own actions. I may have been identified with my actions, but I was not particularly identified with the Learning Exchange as an entity.

In later years, the situation was different. Instead of me being on the tightrope, I was watching my child walk it. Instead of the clear-cut fear of the actor in danger, I experienced the murky anxiety of the bystander. I wanted my child to survive, to do well, to have its value recognized. But I was not sure this baby had the requisite knowledge and skills to keep its balance. I had something to lose, something of myself that was not actually me. The inherent vulnerability in the situation was not something I could directly influence anymore. In order to manage the anxiety, I wrapped myself in the comfort of the strategic veils that were so readily available in the environment: get funding, enlist experts, talk and then talk some more.

I think the most serious problem was that my ideas were not grounded in any imperative originating from either the community or the university. These ideas did not emerge from relationships with people on the front lines. There was no force behind them other than my own interest in doing something new. Others were involved not because they had been part of a discussion about a problem that brought forth a great idea, but because the task had been delegated to them.

All this took place in an institutional context that resists change. Creativity and risk-taking might be rewarded in the realm of science but they are discouraged in the administrative domain of universities. The bright illuminating blaze that was my original motivation became a smoking remnant that prompted me to close my eyes and go to sleep.

Change in living systems

The insights gained from studying complex adaptive systems can offer an antidote to the risk of falling into rigidity traps in large institutions like universities. There are subtle but important differences in the way the field of social innovation talks about institutionalization compared to the way the Community-University Engagement (CUE) field talks about it.

butterfly medThinking of the goal of innovation being the durability and resilience of an ecosystem that has integrated new, diverse species is different from viewing the goal as being to expand the boundaries of an existing system so it can accept a few new varieties of life that do not really threaten the status quo. There is a difference between viewing the system you want to change as a hierarchical, mechanistic, conservative structure that just keeps getting bigger and stronger and seeing it as a living, permeable organism that is vulnerable. There is a difference between the drive for legitimacy, stability and permanence and the drive to fit within the resources of the environment and to reach maturity knowing this is a precursor to death. There is a difference between striving for an endpoint that signals perfection and trying to be in harmony with cycles of increase and decrease. And there is a difference between pushing to bring your own ideas to fruition and supporting the flowering of ideas whose time has simply come.

Holy Grail or dead end?

The answer to this question depends partly on the nature of the institution. Being at the conservation end of the adaptive cycle, being a mature ecosystem is obviously not in itself a bad thing. What is problematic is that institutions like UBC are so prone to rigidity traps. They are not really supportive of institutional innovation. They do embrace novelty. They sometimes jump on the latest bandwagon (including the one labelled Community-University Engagement). They often put new labels on the same old wine. But this is not innovation.

Part of the problem is the lack of understanding about how institutional change happens. For example, I have heard countless people at UBC talk about the need to change academic culture. This comment was often made in discussions about CUE. But the conversation never turned to the question of what the people in the room were going to do to change the culture. No one seemed to know how to effect change in this domain.

But, and this is significant, UBC did support and celebrate the creation of the Learning Exchange and the growth of Community Service Learning. So there is openness to innovation in such institutions. I even saw a hunger for it in some quarters. The stumbling block is a lack of knowledge and skill. This is another way in which the social innovation discourse can contribute to the CUE project. We need to think differently about the fundamental nature of the project itself.

The discourse on social innovation and complex adaptive systems suggests that the question I pose is not really the right question. The point is not to innovate or institutionalize for the sake of doing either. The point is to understand one’s place in the system(s) in which one is embedded and act accordingly. We, as actors, are not outside the systems we want to change. We are not just acting on them. They are acting on us. And they act through us. We are actors. Not authors or directors. The script is being written by forces we only dimly perceive, if we perceive them at all. This recognition is humbling. Change agents do have agency; they can influence systems. But the imperative for innovation or institutionalization needs to come from the system. The point is to respond to crises and opportunities in the environment and to use the resources at your disposal in wise and helpful ways.

Arriving at the conservation end of the adaptive cycle is neither a Holy Grail nor a dead end. And it is both. Yes, you have arrived at a place that will be satisfying, with abundant fruits and vibrant foliage, and diverse companions. But you are inevitably only one step away from decay, destruction, and death. It is wise to be alert to this and be ready for it.

For further reflections on these topics, see The Learning Exchange as social innovation and other parts of the Reflections section.


Westley, Frances, Zimmerman, Brenda, and Quinn Patton, Michael (2006) Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. Random House Canada