Faculty Resource Network

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Building Bridges and Removing Walls: Innovation in Higher Education


Advancing Women and the Underrepresented in the Academy
A National Symposium
November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina


Tracey D. Moore, Chairperson, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Arkansas Baptist College
Ebony C. Turner, Program Manager, Education and Training, Dillard University
Valarie M. White, Assistant Dean, Louisiana Technical College

Women and underrepresented groups encounter an array of issues that serve as walls to advancement in the academy.  This paper highlights some perceptions expressed in a recent focus group seeking innovative ways to building bridges that address and overcome barriers common in the academy.

Every institution sometimes faces complex problems and issues.  Within academia, women and the underrepresented experience a unique set of problems that need to be addressed. Consequently, such barriers prevent successful assimilation and advancement of the subject population at the academic institution where they are employed, and necessitate the need for bridges that provide assistance to women and the underrepresented to cross and/or transcend their unique problems.

The application of four key tenets, complexity theory, community of practice, generative learning, and exchange analysis, in building these bridges suggests a new paradigm for addressing existing problems, leading to long-term solutions.  In a presentation at New York University’s Faculty Resource Forum National Symposium (Moore, Turner, & White, 2007), there were several barriers to success in the Academy identified by a focus group composed of women and underrepresented individuals in higher education and the public sector.  The participants of the workshop were diverse in gender, ethnicity and professional roles and included a mixture of African Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Caucasians.  Professional roles included an assistant provost, the president of an education institution, junior and senior faculty, a foundation director and government employees.  All views expressed were central to the recurring theme of diversity.

In today’s environment, the global marketplace has created a flat world that is dynamic and diverse in nature (Friedman, 2005).  Diversity is a desirable goal within and outside the walls of the academy.   Accrediting bodies recognize the importance of diversity in higher education.  Invariably, such recognition requires a demonstration of the level of commitment, as well as the actions that support diversity (Misra & McMahon, 2006).  “The very nature of the academy derives from a diversity of thought shaped by the experiences and environment of the people who work there, the people who receive its services, and the people who are its trustees and supporters.” (Diamond, 2002)  The issue of diversity continues to be a persistent challenge in higher education.   If diversity is embodied in the nature of the academy why do so many walls and barriers exist within that are centered on the issue of diversity?

Every institution presents limitations that create barriers for faculty attempting to integrate and advance within the academy. In many instances, walls and barriers manifest in the form of discrimination.  Pincus (1994) asserts that the typology of discrimination occurs on three levels — individual, institutional, and structural (Pincus, 1994).   Pincus (1996, p. 186) defines this typology as follows:

Individual discrimination refers to behavior of individual members of one race/ethnic/gender group that is intended to have a differential and/or harmful effect on the members of another race/ethnic/gender group.  Institutional discrimination, on the other hand, is quite different because it refers to the policies of the dominant race/ethnic/gender institutions and the behavior of individuals who control these institutions and implement policies that are intended to have a differential and/or harmful effect on minority race/ethnic/gender groups.  Finally, structural discrimination refers to the policies of dominant race/ethnic/gender neutral in intent but which have a differential and/or harmful effect on minority race/ethnic/gender groups.

Statistics indicate that discrimination in higher education exist as evidenced by consistent disparities in salary, rank, and tenure of underrepresented groups (NCES, 2002). Therefore, gender and race/ethnicity are compelling interests with regard to diversity in higher education.   According to Brown (2004), the campus climate for diversity is most often gauged by the perceptions of faculty and staff.  Moreover, the climate is reflective of the campus leadership’s commitment to facilitating and promoting a diverse campus community.  True leadership commitment results in a transformation of organizational culture that embraces diversity for the greater good.

How can we move from a culture of exclusion to “the web of inclusion”? (Brown 2004; Helgesen 1995)  This very topic was discussed at the recent Faculty Resource Network’s National Symposium on Advancing Women and the Underrepresented in the Academy (Moore, Turner, & White, 2007).  Participants in a focus group engaged in critical discourse centering on their perceptions of barriers and bridges to advancement.  The group identified the following barriers:

  • Disconnect from “other” faculty within the discipline
  • Glass ceiling
  • Unawareness of the need to adapt
  • Competing demands – personal, professional, community
  • Lack of diversity
  • Institutional fit
  • Institutional racism
  • Authority questioned
  • Lack of respect
  • Learning to say “No”
  • Demands to go beyond teaching, research and service

These barriers, as well as and others not mentioned, prevent successful integration and advancement in the academy.  Therefore, in an effort to transcend these barriers, bridges of opportunity are needed to facilitate upward mobility and success for women and the underrepresented. Moreover, the bridges needed to address these barriers should be innovative and remain dynamic.

The focus group was divided into a subset of three smaller groups, identified as a unique community of practice.  A community of practice is a group or network of individuals who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting with each other on an ongoing basis (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder, 2002). The three communities of practice were given the opportunity to address some of the barriers mentioned using the following as bridges: complexity theory, exchange analysis, and generative learning.

Complexity theory draws upon a set of interdisciplinary theories that focus on complex adaptive systems and evolution (Allee, 2003). Generative learning involves thinking beyond traditional boundaries and refers to value-driven learning that seeks what is alive, compelling, and energizing and that expresses a willingness to see radical possibilities beyond the boundaries of current thinking (Allee, 2003). Additionally, exchange analysis allows for the assessment of overall patterns and system dynamics of value exchange and supports the determination as to whether the value-creating system is healthy, sustainable and expanding (Allee, 2003). Each community of practice sought to apply these tenets in building bridges of opportunity for the barriers identified.

Community of Practice-Group A addressed a dual-sided issue: lack of respect and authority being questioned or challenged; Community of Practice Group-B addressed concerns related to institutional fit; and Community of Practice Group- C addressed concerns related to the overall issue of diversity. Each group participant was given a specific role and was encouraged to address the area of concern from that perspective. Constituents represented each designated community of practice that included perspectives from that of business and industry, faculty, students, administration, foundations, local community, and parents.

The topics and roles assigned stimulated critical dialogue by all participants.  However, Community of Practice-Group A embraced their opportunity to engage and address the lack of respect and authority being questioned in the academy.  The lack of respect and questioning of authority occurred at various stages and included responses to less than positive behaviors from administration, senior faculty, and students. The community developed several strategies and utilized institutional resources, foundation support, and community provisions. Community of Practice-Group A developed the following recommendations:

  • Protocol training
  • Formalized and stated classroom management
  • Enforced and reinforced institutional policies
  • Faculty development of transferable skills

Community of Practice Group-B addressed concerns related to their perceptions on lack of diversity on higher education campuses. There were several issues surrounding diversity on college and university campuses. Community of Practice-Group B recommended developing a task force on diversity comprised of stakeholders from the surrounding community, as well as business and industry support. The community decided to seek the assistance of current students in order to diversify the student populace and serve as the impetus for diversifying faculty, staff, and administration.

Community of Practice Group-C elaborated on the topic of institutional fit.  The community characterized institutional fit as the need for the academy to challenge tradition in response to the changing needs of society. As society changes, so do the needs of the student population. In efforts to remain relevant and viable, the academy cannot be bound to the status quo. Instead, it must adapt to the needs of its constituents, internally and externally. Some issues addressed by this group included maternity leave, the development of cutting edge curriculum, and expanding curriculum to ensure that students develop the needed workplace skills.

Women and underrepresented groups continue to face a myriad of challenges that are barriers to advancement in the academy.  There are no quick fixes to removing these barriers.  The issue of diversity remains a compelling one whereby the solutions often take a back seat to an unfinished agenda.   However, innovative and visionary approaches to addressing these challenges can create bridges of opportunity that transcend barriers in the academy.  The viewpoints expressed by this focus group, albeit a small contribution, were significant and presented real-life observations of obstacles encountered on a day-to-day basis by women and the underrepresented in the academy and public sector.  This discourse mirrors the sentiment of many in the academy for the need to continue the dialogue which, in turn, encourages scholarship and policy implications, ultimately effecting positive change for the common good.


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Brown, L.I.  (2004). “Diversity: the challenge for higher education.”  Race Ethnicity and Education, 7(1), 21-34.

Diamond, R. M.  (Ed.).  (2002). Field guide to academic leadership.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Friedman, T.L.  (2005). The world is flat: a brief history of the twenty-first century. (1st ed.).  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Helgesen, S.  (1995). The web of inclusion: a new architecture for building great organizations.  New York: Doubleday.

Misra, S. & McMahon, G.  (2006). “Diversityin higher education: the three rs.”  Journal of Education for Business.  82(1), 40-43.

Moore, T.D., Turner, E.C. & White, V.M.  (2007, November). Building bridges and removing walls: Innovation in higher education.  Paper presented at the meeting of the Faculty Resource Network National Symposium on Advancing Women and the Underrepresented in the Academy, Charlotte, NC.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Gender and racial/ethnic differences in salary and other characteristics of postsecondary faculty: Fall 1998.  (NCES Publication No. NCES 2002-170). Washington, DC: US. Department of Education.

Pincus, F.L. (1994) “From individual to structural discrimination.” In F.L. Pincus & H. J. Ehrlich, Race and ethnic conflict: contending views on prejudice, discrimination and ethoviolence. (pp. 82-87). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Pincus, F.L.  (1996). “Discrimination comes in many forms.”  The American Behavioral Scientist, 40(2), 186-194.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., and Snyder, W. M. (2002).  Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business School Press, 2002.