Moving along the institutionalization arc

In the early years at the Learning Exchange, we were flying by the seat of our pants. There was a daredevil quality to what we were doing. It was exciting. Gradually we learned what worked and what did not. Some aspects of our work became routine; there were fewer unknowns and fewer surprises. We began to build an infrastructure around our work. We were on the path to institutionalization.

The institutionalization imperative

The discourse on community-university engagement focuses a lot of attention on whether the scholarship of engagement is institutionalized in the academy. Rubrics define the signs and stages of institutionalization. Efforts are made to assess the degree to which engagement has become institutionalized at particular universities. Widespread adoption of community-engaged principles and practices across post-secondary institutions is seen as the ultimate goal of the community engagement “movement.”

Similarly, the social innovation discourse sees the stabilization and sustainability of innovation as a goal. Durability and impact are seen as necessary for something to qualify as genuine social innovation. Innovation that does not get scaled out (replicated or expanded) or scaled up (resulting in systemic change) is not considered legitimate “social innovation.”

The movement of the Learning Exchange along the arc towards the conservation end of the adaptive cycle was not motivated by any belief that institutionalization per se should be our goal. Changes in the way we worked were driven by pragmatism. For example, we were so impressed by the activities and accomplishments of the students in our community service learning programs that we wanted more students to get involved. We knew that students were keen, too.

In order to engage more students, the staff team needed to become more efficient. We had to stop re-inventing the wheel and organize our work better. So, for example, we replaced hand-written lists of student participants with a computerized database. We instituted online registration. We designed templates for orientation sessions and manuals for staff and student leaders. (For more detail on how we built the infrastructure for these activities, see Growth in the Trek Program and Reading Week.)

Similarly, after exploring various approaches to providing learning opportunities for local residents, the Learning Exchange institutionalized the approach that was found to work in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Here, too, our efforts to expand the ESL program were driven both by demands from learners and our belief that we had found an approach that was effective.

In our work both with students and with Downtown Eastside residents the staff team believed we had found ways to get results that were in line with UBC’s vision and our emerging sense of purpose. It made sense to build infrastructure on the platform we had created.

As our programs grew, so did our staff team. This prompted another form of institutionalization, since we had to develop ways to bring new staff up to speed on what we were doing and why. So, for example, we developed a staff manual and a comprehensive orientation process for new staff. We also focused monthly staff workshops on activities designed to reinforce our organizational culture.

barsOnce my team and I became convinced of the value of what we were doing, my focus as a leader shifted from trying to figure out what we should be doing to trying to demonstrate the merit of our work. We wanted to make sure we could continue. At first, my primary concern was whether and how the Learning Exchange could fit into the Downtown Eastside. Once we found a niche there, my concern became whether and how the Learning Exchange could fit into the university over the long term. There was a change in the nature and focus of my work. Instead of focusing mainly on what was happening in the constrained sphere of our daily activities in the Downtown Eastside and at UBC, I had to pay more attention to a wider territory and a longer time span. Being strategic took on different meanings.

For example, I spent more time crunching budget numbers. I tried to estimate what funds we would need to sustain different levels of growth over different time spans. I went looking for external donors, with support from the President’s fund-raising team. In addition, instead of asking faculty and community colleagues what they thought the Learning Exchange should be doing, I told them what we were doing and tried to enlist them in the work. Instead of feeling secure in the knowledge that Martha Piper and her executive were behind us, I began to worry about what might happen when Martha’s term as President came to an end.

For the Learning Exchange, institutionalization entailed solidifying our internal infrastructure (which, as Director, I could more or less control). This process was relatively easy because of the energy, commitment, and talent of the members of the staff team. Becoming institutionalized also entailed the more complicated process of becoming ensconced in UBC’s infrastructure (a process over which I had very little control). Instead of flying by the seat of our pants, we were now relying on complicated instruments and directions from a variety of control towers.

(My focus in this article is on the process of becoming institutionalized in the university, which is typically the concern of authors in the Community-University Engagement field. I do not want to ignore the question of how our work became “institutionalized” in the community. For my discussion of these dynamics, see From the margins to the centre: Community Service Learning and From the margins to the centre? The storefront.)

Conditions that facilitated institutionalization

Several factors contributed to the Learning Exchange becoming institutionalized within the university, a process which took many years (and which is still not complete).

The Learning Exchange was accepted in the Downtown Eastside. Surprisingly quickly, the storefront became a valued, trusted part of the community. People at UBC were impressed that we were able to overcome the initial resistance to the university’s presence.

The academic literature on Community-University Engagement and Service-Learning provided a frame of reference. This literature established the legitimacy of our activities in terms that faculty members and administrators understood. For example, on a visit to UBC, George Kuh, originator of the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) emphasized the value of Community Service Learning as a “high-impact” activity that would remedy some of the problems apparent in UBC’s low NSSE scores.

UBC’s vision also gave us legitimacy. UBC’s aspirations to prepare students to be global citizens and to promote the values of a civil and sustainable society were central to our work. My team and I were very careful to emphasize the connections between the Trek vision and its successor, Place and Promise, in all our communications. Fortunately, our work became an emblem of how UBC’s aspirations could be pursued.

The President’s commitment to align budgetary allocations with the university’s vision was crucial. When Stephen Toope succeeded Martha Piper, he promised that the university would put its money where its mouth was. This commitment was the basis for the Learning Exchange finally being granted an annual budget allocation commensurate with its level of activity and plans for continued growth.

Receiving funds from external donors helped. In particular, substantial gifts from a major bank and from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation enabled us to expand and strengthen our programs. These gifts also raised our status in the university.

Many faculty members became champions and collaborators. Nothing can become institutionalized in academic environments without faculty support. Having support from the President is not enough. Fortunately, key faculty members and administrators worked closely with the Learning Exchange to implement Community Service Learning activities and other activities in the Downtown Eastside. This base of support was crucial to our success.

Creating our organizational infrastructure helped. Having a strong infrastructure in contexts where solid infrastructures are the norm is itself legitimizing. In the beginning, the Learning Exchange was valued at UBC because it was innovative, nimble, and unique. But those qualities have a shelf life. If we had still been making it up as we went along after five years, I think we would have been seen as disorganized and lacking in focus and I would have been seen as a poor leader.

The shadow side of institutionalization

Becoming institutionalized means being accepted as part of the status quo. But being a change agent means you are trying to change the status quo. You may simply be trying to create an alternative to the status quo because you believe the existing regime does not include enough options. Or you may explicitly be trying to undermine or subvert the status quo because you believe it has serious flaws.

Institutionalizing an innovation requires that those who have been sustaining the status quo accept the innovation as legitimate. The crucial question for the change agent during the process of institutionalization is whether the status quo has truly been changed (i.e., have the criteria for legitimacy changed?) or has the innovation been co-opted by the status quo.

In the case of the institutionalization of the Learning Exchange and Community Service Learning at UBC, I think what happened was a bit of both. In retrospect, I wish I had been more alert to the possibility that the integrity of our work might be diluted as we became institutionalized.

Forgetting our roots

Reading Week Strathcona GardenThe tension associated with the drive for innovation vs. the drive for institutionalization can be seen in the following story. When we organized the first Reading Week project in 2002, we did not do a great job of preparing the UBC students for their experience in the Downtown Eastside. This was our first attempt at such a project and we were a small team with a lot on our plate. Fortunately, we learned a great deal from the way our colleagues at the University of Guelph prepared the students they brought to the project. I considered this another instance of trial and error learning and did not lose sleep because of our less-than-perfect performance.

However, in 2011, when I saw several hundred UBC students being poorly prepared for their experience during Reading Week, I was less sanguine. By this time, my staff team was so large that I was not directly involved in planning the Reading Week kick-off event.

I was disheartened to see that UBC students were not encouraged to think critically about the school-based projects they would be doing or the inner city contexts they would be working in. At the kick-off, instead of students being told that, “If you are comfortable, you are not learning,” the simplistic message was, “You should be so proud of yourselves. You are so cool to be spending your Reading Week break helping poor children.”

From my point of view, what happened was that, as new people joined the staff team and more colleagues from UBC became involved in helping to organize Reading Week projects, the ideas and attitudes that drove the original Learning Exchange staff team (including the idea that UBC had a lot to learn from the community) became diluted by the influence of the more normative stance, which was that UBC’s role was just to bestow largesse.

Forgetting the importance of people and relationships

The institutionalization process we were involved in had a more insidious effect. When a significant number of the original staff members left in 2007, the Learning Exchange was in crisis. I found myself in the midst of what the adaptive cycle would describe as creative destruction. Unfortunately, my response to the crisis was perhaps not the wisest.

When I was faced with the threat of collapse at the Learning Exchange, I became highly directive. I focused on sustaining our programs and keeping all the balls in the air. I saw the goal as being to get the new staff to fit within the existing infrastructure, to follow the rules the original team had laid out.

Given that the Learning Exchange was moving along the path to institutionalization, I thought the most important thing was maintaining the impression that everything was under control.

In contrast to the period when we focused on innovation, by 2007, we had a lot to lose. Instead of feeling open, alert and responsive to the forces at work, I was intent on preserving what we had created. In addition, the success we had enjoyed had made me comfortable to the point of complacency. I had lost some of my drive to effect change. I had been seduced by the institution. Being caught by surprise by the staff departures, my instinct was to take charge and repair the most visible damage.

On the surface, the strategy worked. The operation continued producing consistent results as indicated by quantitative measures such as the number of participants in programs, dollars raised, and levels of student satisfaction. But, as I saw during the kick-off for Reading Week in 2011, the organization paid a price.

bars 1After having several years to reflect on what happened, I now wonder whether I should have taken the same approach to rebuilding the team that I took to building the team in the first place. Perhaps I should have given myself and the new staff the time and space to get to know each other and the context. I should have asked questions about how we collectively wanted to fulfill UBC’s vision given the passions and talents present in the newly-reconstituted team. I should have found ways to build the new team’s sense of ownership of their work and a new sense of team spirit rather than focusing on people’s compliance with existing procedures.

Unfortunately, I was so focused on the destruction around me, I did not see the need for renewed creativity. My drive to change the status quo in the university, to do things differently became subverted by my preoccupation with getting the Learning Exchange institutionalized. I had become an agent of the institution rather than an agent of change.

Practices not structures are the key

Saying I had ceased to be an agent of change is a dramatic way to conclude the story of the 2011 Reading Week kick-off. But it does not adequately reflect the subtleties and complexities of the situation. The reality was much less black and white. It is impossible to determine whether and how the outcomes of the crisis of the staff departures might have been different. Maybe my response was, in fact, what was needed.

But the story does reveal the challenges inherent in the movement from innovation to institutionalization. I fell into the trap of thinking that our work was succeeding because of the structures we had put in place. I temporarily forgot that the real cornerstone of our success was people and relationships. I also neglected to attend sufficiently to the tension between changing the status quo and being acceptable to it.

Fortunately, much of the work of the Learning Exchange continued to be guided by the practices the original team identified as crucial. These practices formed the foundation for our working relationships within the team as well as our collaborations with external partners. I believe these practices are good ones to follow whether you are on the innovation arc or the institutionalization arc or somewhere in between. They offer a safeguard against dangers like inattention and complacency.

For more on the issues discussed here, see the other articles in The Learning Exchange as social innovation.