Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 22-31
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Faculty Grassroots Leadership in Science Education Reform:
Considerations for Institutional Change, Culture, and Context*
David B. May1, Danielle Susskind2, Nancy S. Shapiro1
1Office of Academic Affairs, University System of Maryland, Adelphi, USA
2Division of Academic Policy, Maryland State Department of Education, Baltimore, USA
Email: dmay@usmd. edu
Received May 29th, 2013; revised June 28th, 2013; accepted July 5th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 David B. May et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
A multi-institution project was implemented with the goal of improving science education through redes-
igned courses, inquiry-oriented pedagogy, and outreach to public schools. We examined the nature of
faculty grassroots leadership in science education reform in the four main higher-education partners of the
project: a community college, a master’s level university, and two different research universities. The
main focus of the study was the interplay and role of top-down leaders in positions of authority (typically
administrators) versus grassroots leadership among faculty and how these two converge and interplay to
create organizational change. The convergence of bottom-up and top-down leadership is affected by in-
stitutional culture and context. Cross-comparative findings from the four cases are presented, including
the context for change in each case, the role of administrative leadership on each campus, factors that ei-
ther facilitated or hindered the emergence of faculty grassroots leadership, and the institutionalization and
sustainability of these reforms. We then address the broader implications of the study with respect to un-
derstanding how grassroots leadership and traditional forms of authority and leadership can complement
each other and facilitate organizational change. We contend that faculty grassroots leadership emerges on
different campuses when there is sensitivity to the contextual differences. In particular, some attention
needs to be given to the campus culture and the nature of faculty interactions at that site. The context for
change at each institution and the role of administrative leadership and support shaped the conditions un-
der which faculty grassroots leadership had emerged and, ultimately, the degree to which it w as sustained
over time. In addition, the faculty ownership of this project was essential to its success because, ultimately,
the faculty needed to embrace the goals of curricular redesign and inquiry-oriented pedagogy for the de-
sired institutional changes to be sustained.
Keywords: Course Reform; Faculty Engagement; Leadership; Science Teaching; Higher Education
This article presents four case studies of faculty grassroots
leadership in a science education partnership involving multiple
higher education institutions and a K-12 school system in which
top down and grassroots leaders work in concert to create
change, a relatively unexplored area. While we know a great
deal about top down change efforts, we know much less about
top down efforts merging with grassroots efforts within institu-
tions and organizations. Grassroots leadership efforts have a
long history, but have not been documented or well understood.
For example, higher education faculty have had a long history
of grassroots involvement in educational reform efforts, in-
cluding the alignment and review of courses and curricula (both
at the K-12 and college levels); the development and delivery
of workshops, institutes, and courses for K-12 teachers to in-
crease their content knowledge and pedagogical skills; partici-
pation in learning communities with K-12 teachers; and direct
service as a content resource or teaching mentor in K-12
schools (Greenberg, 1991; Wallace, 1993; Timpane & White,
1998; Verbeke & Richards, 2001; Wiseman & Knight, 2003;
Zhang et al., 2007). Most prior research suggests that grassroots
leadership among faculty is often thwarted by institutional cul-
ture and existing rewards structures (Frank & Shapiro, 2007).
So while grassroots leadership can and does happen, it is un-
common because of existing institutional structures. Many have
suggested we need research about how grassroots leadership
can be encouraged and what role top down leaders can play.
This article begins with a review of the research and litera-
ture on change in higher education which suggests why grass-
roots leadership is so important, the ways that top down leaders
might support such leadership, and the role of institutional cul-
ture and change processes. It continues with an overview of the
research methodology for the study and the presentation of four
cases of faculty grassroots leadership from a multi-institutional
partnership—one occurring at a community college, one occur-
ring at a master’s level university, and the remaining two oc-
curring at two different research universities. The cross-com-
parative findings from the four cases are then discussed, in-
cluding the context for change in each case, the role of admin-
*This research was supported by National Science Foundation Grant DUE
0227325 a warded to Nancy Shapiro.
istrative leadership on each campus, factors that either facili-
tated or hindered the emergence of faculty grassroots leadership,
and the institutionalization and sustainability of these reforms.
Finally, the conclusion addresses the broader implications of
the study with respect to faculty grassroots leadership theory
building and practice.
Higher Education Change in Context
This section reviews literature related to the authors’ main
assumptions about change when developing the research study:
1) Change in higher education requires more than top down
leadership; 2) Grassroots leadership may require support from
top down leaders; 3) Institutional culture shapes change proc-
esses and leadership; and 4) Change processes may also require
change in institutional culture to be sustainable.
Difficulty of Top-Down Leadership Efforts in Higher
As Eckel and Kezar (2003) have observed, top down leader-
ship efforts aimed at change are typically not successful in
higher education due to the way that colleges and universities
are structured. While traditional management theory and prac-
tice in the United States tend to be more top down and empha-
size the role that individual leaders and organizational proc-
esses play in change, there are limitations to applying such
frameworks that do not incorporate the unique cultural perspec-
tives of higher education. Early in the study of higher education,
Cohen and March (1974) discovered that college and university
environments were “organized anarchies” that were not recap-
tive to top-down leadership and hierarchy and operate similar to
other professional bureaucracies were with defining character-
istics as a service mission, professionalism, goal ambiguity,
problematic technology, and environmental vulnerability. Weick
(1976) likewise identified those higher education institutions as
“loosely coupled systems” with complex parts that are tied to-
gether frequently and informally rather than along tight link-
ages or hierarchical lines. Furthermore, Kezar (2001) identified
a number of organizational characteristics of colleges and uni-
versities that make top down change processes difficult includ-
ing their multiple power structures, distributed decision-making
and authority, shared governance processes, professional and
administrative values, and the presence of competing goals and
outcomes. Such analyses all reinforce organizational complexi-
ties of colleges and universities and the need for distributed
leadership to create change.
The Role of Top-Down Leaders
While the primary focus of this article is on faculty grass-
roots leaders, who have been the subject of little study, shared
leadership models in higher education suggest that top down
leaders may still be important to support bottom up leadership.
This is particularly important in light of barriers related to fac-
ulty roles and reward structures that earlier research suggests
may create barriers to faculty practicing grassroots leadership
(Frank & Shapiro, 2007). Change processes in higher education
can become protracted when grassroots leaders are distributed
in various places across campus, and it often takes a positional
leader with some level of authority to unify these efforts (Kezar,
2001). In addition, change efforts at the grassroots level often
require top down support in order to be institutionalized, as
they typically have broader administrative implications—in-
cluding enhancements to infrastructure, development of new
policies, and increased fiscal and human resources.
This dilemma of blending top down and bottom up leader-
ship is captured by Hearn (2006) in his research on leadership
and change that identified one of the major challenges for in-
stitutional leaders is balancing external demands for account-
ability, which often call for executive style leadership, with
more traditional processes of shared governance and distributed
leadership on college and university campuses. Most academic
leaders, including college presidents, have come up through the
ranks of the faculty themselves, and therefore understand this
unique cultural context of shared governance (Peck, 1983).
The Role of Institutional Culture and Context
One of the premises of this article is that organizational cul-
ture and the context for change in higher education play a sig-
nificant role in shaping the extent to which faculty leadership in
educational partnerships is valued and rewarded. Kezar and
Eckel’s (2002) study suggested that change processes in higher
education are largely shaped by institutional culture. They found
that while there are various general tactics or strategies that
work to create change in organizations, change strategies in
higher education seem to be most successful when they are con-
textualized for the specific institution. In examining 26 colleges
and universities that were involved in varying types of institu-
tion-wide change initiatives, Kezar and Eckel found that insti-
tutional leaders are more successful when they choose strate-
gies and tactics that are relevant and a fit with the culture. They
observed that change strategies that consider institutional mis-
sion, history, and values are better positioned to facilitate
change because these strategies are more likely to resonate with
members of the c ampus community and be me t with less resis-
Building on Kezar and Eckel, Merton, Froyd, Clark, and
Richardson (2004) in their study of curricular change processes
in undergraduate engineering education found that organiza-
tional culture was a critical variable in understanding these
change efforts. Without a clear understanding of institutional
culture before launching these curricular change initiatives, they
saw faculty leaders struggling with such issues as persuading
fellow faculty to use the new teaching innovations, gaining the
necessary departmental and college level approvals, needing to
create new structures to coordinate and sustain the programs
over time, and keeping up wit h collaborative relationship s a cr os s
disciplinary and college boundaries. They observed, “The point
is that there was no one strategy, no ideal change model, or no
universal process that could be applied to each situation that
would guarantee successful adoption of these new curricula”
(Merton et al., 2004: p. 2). Rather, faculty members had to un-
derstand their institutional context well enough to know what
approaches would be most effective, and implement culturally
relevant strategies for overcoming obstacles and barriers when
they arose. In their study of faculty curricular reforms at a re-
search university, Frost and Teodorescu (2001) even went a
step further in their views on culture. They asserted that c hang es
involving the curriculum and the teaching and learning envi-
ronment should be considered as forms of institutional culture
change in and of themselves, as these investments of faculty
time and effort serve to enhance and legitimize the value that
the institution places on such activities. All these studies collec-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 23
tively suggest the important role of understanding change in
higher education will need to respect and work within the s ha red
governance environment and will be shaped by the institutional
Changing Institutional Culture
At the same time, neither top down administrative leadership
nor faculty grassroots leadership may yield sustainable change
or result in the widespread adoption of new ideas or methods
unless a cultural shift takes place in tandem with such devel-
opments. Gaining support for culture change is a complex proc-
ess. As classic writers in the field of change management such
as Lewin (1951) and Schein (1997) have noted, the culture of
the organization must change or shift in such a manner that the
desired state replaces the existing state. In applying these per-
spectives on change management to higher education, Ewell
(1997) described institutional change as requiring constant and
consistent leadership, a fundamental shift in perspective, indi-
viduals and organizations to relearn their roles, and systematic
ways to measure progress and guide improvements. Further,
Burack and Saltmarsh (2007) posited that in order for institu-
tional changes to turn into institutionalized practices, they must
become routine, widespread, legitimized, expected, supported,
permanent, and resilient, as opposed to those that are marginal-
ized, occasional, isolated, unaccepted, uncertain, weak, tempo-
rary, or at-risk. Likewise, Levine (1980), in examining the in-
novation process at 14 colleges and universities, stressed that
innovation efforts in higher education do not tend to become
institutionalized unless such changes are congruent with under-
lying shifts in culture and therefore consistent with institutional
values, norms, and goals.
In addition, it is important to note here that the culture within
the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
disciplines has been cited as a roadblock to change in such
types of reform efforts. STEM faculty themselves have stated
that while their institutions may publicly support faculty in-
volvement with K-12 schools and teachers, there are very few
incentives for faculty to substantively participate in such activi-
ties (Frank & Shapiro, 2007). The premiere faculty rewards
structure in the STEM disciplines is shaped by external funding
for scientific research, development, and discovery—work that
does not directly contribute to this end is viewed as a deterrent,
particularly for tenure-track faculty. Further, K-12 outreach has
traditionally been seen as something that faculty in colleges and
schools of education should be responsible for, rather than
drawing upon a broader base of institutional support and re-
sponsibility. This disciplinary lens adds yet another layer of
complexity to the process of changing institutional culture, yet
it is important to recognize the role and potential impact of the
academic disciplines, each of which offers its own forms of
faculty rewards and recognition, shapes the professional iden-
tity of faculty members, and defines and legitimizes the nature
of faculty work. Given the importance of disciplinary differ-
ences to change in higher education, it is important to under-
stand the context of change within the STEM disciplines and
provide background on this area, which we review next.
Faculty Grassroots Leadership in
Education Reform
Recent alarms about America’s global standing and competi-
tiveness have resulted in urgent national “calls to action” for
developing a better trained workforce, a more scientifically
literate citizenry, a stronger research and development infra-
structure, and an expanded pipeline of students, educators, and
other professionals in the STEM fields. These issues have been
well documented in several high-profile reports over the past
decade. For example, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the
much acclaimed report from the National Academies (2007),
examined trends related to the nation’s contribution to the
global workforce, and advised that if urgent action were not
taken immediately, the United States could expect to lose its
advantage as a world leader in science and technology. In addi-
tion to such policy-oriented reports that call for STEM reform
nationally, there is a growing body of research literature that
focuses on change in STEM education and instructional prac-
tices on college and university campuses (see Henderson,
Beach, Finkelstein, & Larson, 2008, for a recent synthesis).
Given this national and international context, increased at-
tention has been paid to the role that colleges and universi-
ties—and their faculty—should play in strengthening the STEM
education system and expanding the STEM pipeline, not just in
higher education, but across the entire educational spectrum,
including K-12. In response, the federal government has estab-
lished several incentive programs to help prime the pump—
raising the stakes for colleges and universities to participate in
STEM education reform efforts. In many of these programs,
higher education faculty have been called upon to play an ac-
tive leadership role—by reforming courses and instruction at
the college level, by getting involved in the preparation for
future teachers, or by lending their expertise to the professional
development of in-service K-12 educators. However, such ac-
tivities are not traditionally valued as faculty “work” in the
Research universities clearly present one of the more chal-
lenging contexts for the emergence of this work, given the clear
demands for research and scholarship that dominate the institu-
tional mission and culture. Yet, the landscape is gradually shift-
ing: faculty at many other types of four-year institutions are
increasingly held accountable to similar incentive structures
that reward faculty work in research universities (see Neave,
1979, for a discussion of the concept of “academic drift” in
higher education, the tendency for institutions to imitate other
types of institutions—particularly research universities—in or der
to gain prestige and status). Similarly, community college fac-
ulty are frequently called upon to partner with K-12 schools
through such activities as providing professional development
workshops for teachers or offering content courses for teacher
recertification. Even for community college faculty, however,
K-12 involvement is not typically included in their academic
Thus, faculty who choose to become involved in these initia-
tives—who are typically rewarded for research, scholarship,
and teaching—are finding more of their time invested in activi-
ties that fall outside of the traditional boundaries for faculty
work. While it is typically faculty members themselves—
through the process of peer review for juried publications and
tenure and promotion decisions—who determine the value and
relative worth of the various strands of activity that define fac-
ulty work (Fairweather, 2002), it appears that for the most part,
traditional faculty reward structures have not yet been recali-
brated to incorporate these emerging roles and responsibilities
(O’Meara, 2006). In addition, very little is actually understood
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
about the role that faculty play in carrying out this work at the
grassroots level, or factors that have served to help or hinder
their engagement. By examining this phenomenon in the con-
text of one multi-institution science education partnership, this
study seeks to build an emerging understanding of the role of
faculty grassroots leaders in such change efforts, as well as the
complex interplay between faculty leadership, top down leaders,
and institutional culture and context.
Research Methods
The purpose of this study was to examine the emergence of
faculty grassroots leadership in the context of one partnership
project. The partnership itself involved approximately 75 STEM
faculty across four public higher education institutions (one
research university with a Carnegie classification of very high
research activity, a second research university with a classifica-
tion of high research activity, a master’s level university, and a
community college). The partnership also included two inde-
pendent STEM research institutes in the state’s university sys-
tem and a large suburban school district enrolling approxi-
mately 138,000 students. The primary goal of this partnership
was to improve science education at the secondary and college
levels by enhancing the quality of the curriculum and instruc-
tion through professional development and communities of
practice for teachers and faculty that emphasized inquiry sci-
ence teaching and learning (see Handelsman et al., 2004, for
research on inquiry instruction as a best practice in the sci-
The partnership that was the focus of this study was part of a
broader set of projects funded by the United States National
Science Foundation (NSF) Math and Science Partnership (MSP)
program. By facilitating linkages between colleges and univer-
sities and K-12 school districts, MSP grants are designed to
engage higher education faculty in areas of vital importance for
improving STEM education, including K-12 teacher prepara-
tion, K-12 teacher professional development, and STEM cur-
riculum reform at all levels. These partnerships currently in-
volve approximately 150 colleges and universities across the
United States, and more than 550 school districts and 3300
individual schools in 30 states and Puerto Rico.
This study was designed as a “post-hoc” case study involving
four higher education institutions. It followed the tradition of
case study methodologies by considering a phenomenon within
its “real-life” context—where the boundaries between phenome-
non and context are not always clear—and by drawing upon
multiple sources of evidence to examine this phenomenon (Yin,
2002). The authors characterize this particular case study ap-
proach as “post-hoc” since it built upon events that had already
occurred over a finite period of time (i.e., the duration of the
partnership) and drew upon secondary data sources. The data
informing this case study were gathered over a period of six
years and included a broad range of quantitative and qualitative
sources that in some cases were collected by the authors, in
some cases by external evaluators, and in other cases by the
project participants themselves (i.e., faculty and administrators).
In the analysis for the study, the authors considered annual
reports; external evaluation reports; culminating site chapters;
classroom observations; project artifacts (e.g., syllabi and labo-
ratory manuals for new and revised courses, minutes from
meetings); surveys and interviews with project administrators,
faculty, and deans; and a project-wide social networking study.
It is important to acknowledge that these data sources were
originally collected with broader evaluation purposes in mind
that were beyond the immediate scope of this study. The chal-
lenge before the authors, then, was to develop and apply a
framework that would guide the discovery and analysis of in-
stances where faculty grassroots leadership had taken root over
the course of the project. Drawing upon case study methodolo-
gies outlined by Yin (2002), this research framework included a
series of “within-case” analyses that focused on searching for
unique patterns within each of the four institutions in the study,
followed by a “cross-case” analysis that allowed for the explo-
ration of common themes as well as points of departure across
the four institutions.
For the within-case analysis, the authors initially engaged in
inductive coding to allow them to consider each institution’s
data individually—forming descriptive categories for the data
and tracking emerging themes across various data sources. In
the initial coding process, the authors made two overarching
assumptions. The first assumption was that the nature of the
work generated by the partnership (e.g., working with K-12
teachers, inquiry-based course reform) falls outside of expected
and rewarded faculty roles and responsibilities, and therefore,
taking such initiative could be defined as an act of grassroots
leadership. Second, the authors assumed that faculty grassroots
leadership could exist as an input or an outcome of the partner-
ship. In some instances, faculty leadership at the grassroots
level may have already existed to facilitate the emergence of
the partnership work on campus, while in other instances, it
may have been the partnership work itself that facilitated the
emergence of grassroots leadership.
The authors then moved to a cross-case analysis, which fo-
cused on the analysis of emerging patterns, themes, and find-
ings across the four cases to uncover patterns of similarity and
dissimilarity that emerged, and to examine factors that appeared
to contribute to processes and outcomes across the four settings.
It was during this process that the authors moved to a more
deductive approach to their analysis of the data—considering
the findings and their interpretation in light of the four very
different institutional role and missions represented in the case
study. Drawing upon the research literature on leadership and
organizational change in higher education presented earlier in
this paper, this analysis included the extent to which factors and
influences such as institutional mission and context, leadership
priorities, faculty culture, administrative support, and recogni-
tion and reward structures were aligned with faculty grassroots
leadership efforts in each setting.
Four Cases of Faculty Grassroots Leadership
The cases that are presented in this section offer insight into
the authors’ emerging understanding of faculty grassroots lead-
ership at four different institutions involved in a single science
education partnership project. The cases begin with the “Cata-
lyst” (occurring at the community college), continue with the
“Sponge” (occurring at the master’s level university) and “Ma g-
net” (occurring at one of the research universities), and con-
clude with the “Pied Piper” (occurring at the other research
university). The authors found that in some instances, adminis-
trative leaders on campus served as the “activators” who led the
charge for change and developed specific strategies for engag-
ing faculty at the grassroots level, while in others, it was faculty
leaders already working at the grassroots level that led these
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 25
efforts and moved the change agenda forward (see Kanter, 1988,
for a discussion of forms of leadership in organizational inno-
vation, including the role of activators). In addition, a nuanced
relationship emerged between administrative leadership and
faculty grassroots leadership in each of the four cases, which
seemed to be heavily dependent on institutional context and
campus priorities. Further analysis of how this played out acro ss
different types of institutions in this partnership suggests that
faculty grassroots leadership was, in some cases, a starting po int
for engagement in education reform, and in other cases, an end
product of such engagement.
The “Catalyst”
The first case involves a community college (institution A),
where the primary mission of the institution is to prepare stu-
dents for the workforce or for transfer to a four-year college or
university. As a teaching institution that was heavily invested in
building the STEM and teacher education pipelines, both the
college’s priorities and mission were clearly aligned with the
broader goals of the MSP partnership. While there was a high
degree of “random interest” expressed in MSP partnership ac-
tivities, however, there was very little direct involvement by
STEM faculty at the college, at least initially. Although the
MSP grant provided considerable funding to support faculty
members to join K-12 teachers in learning communities, the
lack of emerging faculty leaders precluded participation in the
broader partnership, and the college found that it could not
spend the grant funding.
After two years of an essentially dormant partnership at this
institution, one of the college’s science deans (who also served
as the campus liaison for the partnership) decided to try a dif-
ferent approach by recruiting a faculty project leader from out-
side the college. A retired high school science teacher from the
partner school district was soon hired. Quickly assessing the
needs and interests of fellow faculty, the new project leader
developed and implemented a program centered on teaching
and learning seminars and faculty professional development.
Through the seminars, participating faculty reported on their
progress with designing and implementing inquiry-based cur-
ricula in the sciences, while having the opportunity to gain
feedback, discuss challenges, and share teaching approaches
with their colleagues. Through these new initiatives, the faculty
project leader served as a “peer coach” to participating fac-
ulty—meeting with them periodically, observing their teaching,
and providing feedback and support on the implementation of
new inquiry techniques in their courses. Without the interven-
tion of the campus leadership (in this case the science dean) this
productive strand of faculty activity would not have developed.
The external hire served as a “catalyst” for what emerged as a
robust faculty development program that eventually touched
almost 70% of the science faculty at the institution.
This “catalyst” had the time to foster networks across the
campus. By bringing faculty from different disciplines together
into communities of practice, new faculty leaders began to
emerge. For example, faculty in the che mistry department st a r ted
working together to revise their courses for non-science majors
and to experiment with portions of their courses for engineering
majors. Here is an example of faculty making a shared com-
mitment to curricular reform that would not have occurred if
the faculty members stayed in their traditional silos. Similar
activities took hold in the departments of physics, engineering,
and geosciences. Later, a more formal faculty learning commu-
nity emerged at the college, and the emergence of these new,
faculty led communities led to new collaborative grant applica-
tions which secured additional external funding for their work.
There is strong evidence in this case study that the intervention
of campus level administrators led to a robust and productive
surge of faculty leadership, which was then rewarded by the
winning of competitive grant funding. A year after the end of
MSP project (and now without a dedicated faculty project
leader), these collaborations have continued to grow and evolve.
Across the community college, at least 18 STEM faculty mem-
bers are still directly involved in redesigning courses and cur-
ricula as an outgrowth of the MSP project, and these faculty
leaders now have both resources (grant funding) and access
(through deans) to sustain their work.
This case illustrates that a new project’s alignment with in-
stitutional mission and priorities may be necessary, but not
sufficient, for fostering an environment in which leadership and
shared ownership initially emerged among faculty. In inter-
views with participating faculty, researchers learned that the
constraints of high teaching loads precluded them from taking
leadership for this project despite their interest and support, in
theory, for the project. In this case, it took an external change
agent hired by an academic administrator to reframe the pa-
rameters of faculty leadership in the project. By hiring the right
individual to serve as a “catalyst” for mobilizing faculty at the
grassroots level, the college was able to harness faculty com-
mitment and momentum for STEM education reform that oth-
erwise may have re mained dissipated across the campus.
The “Sponge”
The second case comes from a public master’s university
(institution B) in the partnership that boasts one of the strongest
teacher preparation programs in the state, and which, like many
successful institutions, is striving for increased prestige and
recognition. Campus-based learning communities existed on this
campus prior to their involvement in the grant-funded project,
and a dedicated group of STEM faculty members interested in
innovative teaching and learning models, inquiry instruction,
and interdisciplinary collaboration already existed on the cam-
pus. The new project drew strength from these faculty leaders,
and challenged them to draw additional faculty members into
the community. Because these faculty leaders had already pre-
pared the way for faculty learning communities, this institution,
unlike the other three case studies, was able to “hit the ground
running” when the NSF grant funding became available. Be-
cause of this institutional context, the researchers expected to
see a rapid expansion of faculty participants across disciplines
on this campus.
Project leaders were not disappointed. The faculty learning
community nearly doubled in size, and they expanded their
reach beyond their departmental boundaries out to other higher
education partners and to meetings with high school science
teachers. The discussions focused on issues related to science
teaching and learning, and faculty collaborated on redesigning
their own courses with the intention of increasing inquiry and
improving student learning, interest, and attitudes. Participating
faculty eventually redesigned seven existing courses and cre-
ated three entirely new inquiry-based courses in science. At the
end of the funding period, most of the faculty indicated a desire
to continue the learning community, and to expand their efforts
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
into new areas. For the first time in the institution’s history, the
faculty who had voluntarily participated in peer learning com-
munities also received financial support to continue their work.
This funding allowed the group to expand its faculty base into
other STEM disciplines and to add components aimed at build-
ing teaching skills among undergraduate STEM majors.
It would appear that this case study is an example of a suc-
cessful model of faculty leadership, however in spite of these
positive outcomes, some faculty participants felt that campus
leaders viewed their work with the grant as a low priority rela-
tive to other faculty roles and responsibilities. In this institution,
the faculty culture was competing with the aspirational goals of
the administrative leadership, which had shifted ground, and
began rewarding research over teaching in an attempt to “move
up” in classification status. During the first three years of the
grant-funded project, the campus leadership was determined to
raise the prestige of the institution by increasing research pro-
ductivity. One unfortunate consequence of this conflict between
the faculty culture and the administrative culture was that one
of the most engaged faculty members was denied tenure, in part,
because of her heavy investment in the teaching/learning com-
munity. At the end of the third year of the project, a new pro-
vost was put in place, and the faculty learning community re-
gained some of its standing.
This observation, that informal communities of reform-
minded faculty interested in improving the teaching and learn-
ing environments on campus are subject to the priorities and
values of higher level administrators, appears to be a recurring
theme of this research. Without support from institutional ad-
ministration, even self-sustaining communities of faculty are
often marginalized, and struggle to sustain their focus over time.
University administrators need to be made aware of the tre-
mendous influence they can have in fostering faculty grassroots
leadership that makes positive contributions to the institution.
In this particular case, because the faculty learning commu-
nity had been in place for several years prior to the grant and
because it included tenured faculty members, it was able to
weather the changing priorities of the administration, and ac-
complished several tangible outcomes, including new and re-
vised courses. Like a “sponge,” this faculty learning community
was able to “morph” over time—absorbing external resources
when they became available, expanding its existing capacity to
include additional colleagues, and changing its form to accom-
modate emerging priorities. At the same time, since this group
has always existed outside of the formal hierarchy and structure
of the institution, the participants themselves have questioned
the extent to which their efforts have been valued and recog-
nized by the broader campus community. One role of an exter-
nal funder (in this case, NSF), is to raise the level of public
recognition for such work so that the instituti on can derive pre s-
tige from this important faculty work in teaching and learning,
as well as the expansion of its research agenda.
The “Magnet”
The third case involves a public research university, classi-
fied by Carnegie as having a high level of research activity
(institution C), in which top-level campus leaders and adminis-
trators had increasingly placed priority on educational partner-
ships and teaching reforms, particularly in the STEM disci-
plines. Despite this top-level support (president and provost),
relatively few STEM faculty on this campus seemed to have an
interest in becoming involved in the MSP partnership. The
original leadership for the project was housed in the univer-
sity’s education department, which ultimately proved problem-
atic for fully engaging STEM faculty. Initially, only one STEM
faculty member was recruited—a biology professor with lead-
ership experience in educational partnerships and teaching and
learning reforms.
It became clear that a leader with stronger connections to the
target faculty was needed, and after two years the NSF project
landed in a very unlikely home—the university’s community
outreach and service-learning center. This outreach center has
been a magnet for faculty, students, and ad ministra tors who wa n t
to do community service with public schools and various non-
profit organizations. It is an endowed center that also regularly
receives external funding, so faculty are used to receiving no-
tices that new projects are underway. In some ways, the center
serves as a clearinghouse for bringing together various oppor-
tunities for community engagement, and any faculty and stu-
dents who have the inclination to do community service. The
center is a high functioning organization with great visibility on
campus, and placing the grant-funded project in this new con-
text provided the “magnet” that was needed to attract the atten-
tion of those grassroots faculty who are motivated to reach
across boundaries.
This case is an interesting example of why it is important to
allow for institutional context to inform decision-making a round
faculty grassroots leadership. One assumption underlying fac-
ulty grassroots leadership is that tenured faculty who have strong
ties to departments are “safer” in exercising faculty leadership
than others on campus. If nothing else, tenure allows faculty a
degree of self-determination and frees them from the over-
whelming pressure to earn tenure. This institution is the excep-
tion that proves the rule. At a university that has made a name
for itself nationally and internationally as a socially-engaged
institution, a center that exists outside the academic sphere of
influence creates an environment where faculty of all ranks can
feel free to enter and participate, finding like-minded colleagues
outside their own departments. In this case, the center director
invited faculty and high school teachers to participate in a dis-
cussion about ideas for their involvement. What evolved out of
these initial efforts were several self-designed mini-projects
among faculty and teachers who shared similar goals and inter-
Several faculty worked on designing and revising their un-
dergraduate courses, including, for example, a special recitation
section of a biology course, and a comprehensive reform of the
introductory sequence in chemistry. Others extended their revi-
sion of curricula to include direct connections with high school
teachers—by enlisting teacher expertise in the course revision
process, by developing lesson plans to be piloted or used by
teachers. In a unique and remarkably successful turn of events,
the connections between teachers and faculty led to college
students being invited into schools to do demonstrations, and
high school students being invited to campus to participate in
classes. The attraction of faculty, teachers, and students to the
project would not have taken place had the project remained on
the main campus in a department. The faculty leadership that
emerged—invitations to exchange resources, students, and time
—was a product of a uniquely situated center that had inde-
pendent credibility, outside the traditional faculty sphere of in-
The center hosted symposia for participating faculty and
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 27
students which addressed the challenges that students face in
their transition from high school science courses to college-
level science courses. More specifically, these discussions led
to the development of a new student fellowship component of
the MSP, in which STEM majors were placed in high school
classrooms to share their disciplinary research in order to ex-
pose high school students to examples of other students “doing
science” and to encourage them to think about pursuing science
as a college major.
In addition to their individual work and their work with high
school teachers, several faculty at this institution also collabo-
rated with each other across the disciplines. Faculty members in
the mathematics and physics departments worked together on
the infusion of inquiry into the training of STEM teaching as-
sistants. When these faculty were invited by their dean to serve
on a steering committee to design a college-wide training pro-
gram for all teaching assistants. In this instance, what began as
a grassroots-level initiative on the part of the faculty—who
were working outside of their traditional roles and departmental
boundaries—evolved into a program that was recognized as
valuable enough by the academic leadership to bring to scale
and institutionalize.
The “Pied Piper”
The fourth case occurred at a public flagship research uni-
versity (institution D), classified by Carnegie as having a very
high level of research activity, where traditional priorities of
research, publications, and external funding shape the premier
recognition and rewards structure for faculty. This was another
case where the contextual home of the project proved to be
problematic. The original leadership for the project was housed
in the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, a some-
what independent center that did not have departmental affilia-
tion, and ultimately proved problematic for fully engaging STEM
Initially, the grant-funded faculty project leader on campus
tried to generate interest among STEM faculty by offering sti-
pends and inviting them to join learning communities with
fellow faculty colleagues and high school science teachers. De-
spite these enticements—and after months of communicating
with deans, department chairs, and individual faculty mem-
bers—it was clear that there was almost no interest in this work.
At the same time, however, the university’s president and pro-
vost were visible supporters of increasing institutional com-
mitment to STEM education, including the production of more
STEM majors and teachers. It was ultimately the faculty project
leader who observed that given the existing culture in the
STEM disciplines, even if faculty were interested in the goals
of an educational partnership, they would be very unlikely to
get involved unless it was directly grounded in their discipli-
nary research or teaching. In short, faculty did not seem to be
responsive to STEM education initiatives that fell outside of the
parameters of their traditional rewards structure.
The program languished for two years. Only one or two
STEM faculty members participated in any of the school-uni-
versity partnership activities, and even those did it as a personal
favor to the project manager. It became clear that for this pro-
ject to take root at this campus, an administrative home needed
to emerge, where faculty could envision some sustainable sup-
port. The research culture was so strong at this institution, that
faculty leaders instinctively knew that the program had to be
incorporated into the campus strategic plan, if faculty partici-
pants were to receive any encouragement or reward.
Finally, in the fifth year of the grant, the associate provost
invited a nationally respected physics professor (and former
chair of the faculty senate) to assemble a group of trusted col-
leagues to discuss in earnest a campus-level agenda for reform-
ing undergraduate science education. At the conclusion of this
initial meeting, the associate provost asked the faculty if they
wanted to continue to meet themselves, and was pleasantly
surprised when they said yes! Eventually the group, which grew
of its own accord to 16 fac ulty members, met for the rest of th e
year on a regular basis, led by the physics professor.
The outcome of the faculty led curricular reform was a series
of six new interdisciplinary core courses for non-science majors,
aimed at exposing students to contemporary world issues and
improving their understanding of and appreciation for the sci-
ence behind these issues. Addressing such topics as weather
and climate, biogenesis, and global energy, these courses were
first taught the following academic year and continue to be
offered as one of the signature programs at this university.
In this example, it took several false starts before a success-
ful mechanism for faculty leadership was discovered—ulti-
mately in the form of one particularly important individual who
brought personal credibility and passion to the project. In this
respect, the “pied piper’s” accomplishments far exceeded origi-
nal expectations. By virtue of his significant personal and pro-
fessional reputation, he generated an unexpected level of active,
intellectual faculty involvement in various aspects of teaching
and learning that fell outside of their regular reward structure.
The institutionalized outcome was the development of a set of
highly regarded and visible courses by an influential group of
faculty leaders who may not have come together otherwise.
Many of these faculty members continue to meet regularly to
evaluate the ongoing implementation and impact of these courses.
This paper describes an externally funded partnership project
that depended on faculty grassroots leadership for successful
implementation and ultimate sustainability. This was a high
stakes project, given that NSF has invested over $600 million to
date in creating school-university partnerships to improve teach-
ing and learning, and that future funding from NSF to all these
institutions depended on successful implementation of the pro-
ject goals. It became clear early into the project that simply
offering incentive stipends or course buy-outs would not be
enough to engage faculty. This study reinforces that while there
are some common characteristics among faculty leaders, nur-
turing grassroots leadership is as much a function of campus
context and culture as it is of individual motivation.
The four case studies illustrate four different models of emerg-
ing faculty leadership, and offer insights into four inter-related
variables: faculty leadership, the role of top-down (administra-
tive) support, the role of institutional context, and the depend-
ent variable of culture change for sustainability.
While faculty leaders exist on every campus, our findings
suggest that they are influenced both by campus culture and the
degree of support or involvement from higher levels of admini-
stration. At institution B, the “sponge” model, faculty had pre-
existing, self-actualized learning communities that did not need
support from the administration, on the face of it. These grass-
roots faculty had discovered the value of collaboration, and
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
while the infusion of funding from the grant allowed them to
expand their reach, it did not change the culture of the institu-
tion. In fact, at a time of transition (with campus leadership
trying to raise the research profile) these faculty leaders stayed
the course and managed to “outlast” the administrative pressure
to alter their mission.
In contrast, campus A, the “catalyst,” had no real source of
faculty leadership at the institution. A community college, with
a large percentage of part-time and adjunct instructors who only
come to campus to teach classes, is an unlikely place to find
faculty grassroots leadership. Yet by a judicious placement of a
catalyst—a new hire whose sole responsibility was to build
faculty learning communities that would lead to the necessary
outcomes for the project (revised courses and curriculum, pro-
fessional development in teaching and learning, and outreach to
public schools), the higher level administrators provided the
necessary starting point for those faculty who were motivated,
but had no way of establishing a critical mass to join together
and make progress toward the grant goals.
This raises the important question of the role of top down
leadership support. It was quite clear that at the research uni-
versities, such support was necessary but not sufficient to en-
courage and nurture faculty leaders. At campus C, the “mag-
net,” grassroots faculty could self-identify and join the project
by attaching themselves to an existing campus structure—the
Center for Community Service and Outreach. When the project
was initially launched in the education department, there was
no way to reach across the disciplinary boundaries to seek out
like-minded faculty participants. However, when the project
was relocated to a non-academic center, on this campus, it was
hugely successful.
In contrast, at the second research university (institution D),
placing the project in a non-academic center (Center for Teach-
ing and Learning) completely marginalized the project. It took
the personal charisma of one person, one “pied piper” to give
the project credibility and attract new faculty members. This
demonstrated that while there was untapped interest on the
campus, faculty grassroots leaders—those potential risk takers
—needed the extra motivation of seeing one of their most re-
spected peers accepting the challenge of course reform around
pedagogical outcomes, which had been simmering among many
faculty members but alway s beneath the surface, overshadowed
by the research priorities of the university.
These four colleges and universities varied significantly with
respect to institutional missions, priorities, teaching loads, re-
wards systems, and culture. Examining the emergence of fac-
ulty grassroots leadership within the varied institutional con-
texts offers some insig hts into ways of encouraging such emer g-
ing leadership. Where institutions with strong faculty independ-
ence (institutions C and D) required a somewhat “light” admin-
istrative intervention, the community college required a more
substantial administrative intervention. Once that occurred, how-
ever, it paved the way for a very productive and faculty-led
curricular reform of the sort that was expected by the funders.
Similarly, where faculty culture is strongest, grassroots leader-
ship needs to be situated in a way that the most vulnerable fac-
ulty (untenured assistant professors, for example) can find some
shelter for their initial advances into faculty leadership roles.
Thus, at institution C, the “magnet” institution, allowing faculty
to find like-minded peers at a well-regarded campus center was
all that was necessary to link more than a dozen faculty mem-
bers who had never worked together before, and launch a new,
sustainable program of outreach to the public schools.
What factors accounted for these varying outcomes across
the partnership? The authors contend that faculty grassroots
leadership emerges on different campuses when there is sensi-
tivity to the contextual differences. Rather than dismiss out of
hand the role that high-level administration can play in encour-
aging faculty grassroots leadership, some attention needs to be
given to the campus culture and the nature of faculty interac-
tions at that site. The context for change at each institution and
the role of administrative leadership and support shaped the
conditions under which faculty grassroots leadership had em er ge d
and, ultimately, the degree to which it was sustained over time.
Table 1 summarizes the interplay among these factors in each
of the four faculty grassroots leadership cases.
This grant-funded project depended on the emergence of
faculty leadership to accomplish the goals and objectives of
redesigned courses, inquiry oriented pedagogy, and outreach to
public schools. Yet, the authors discovered that there was no
single magic bullet that would impart the desired effect on at all
the institutions in the same way. The faculty ownership of this
project was essential to the success of the project, because,
ultimately, the faculty needed to embrace the goals of curricular
redesign and inquiry oriented pedagogy . Those cannot be “force
fed” and be successful. Therefore, as part of the learning that
occurred over the course of the five-year project, significant
attention was paid to the emergence of faculty grassroots lead-
ership and ownership of the innovations. Only by faculty lead-
ership would the desired institutional changes become sustain-
A key objective of NSF’s MSP program was to promote in-
stitutional changes that resulted in recognizing and rewarding
faculty leadership for work with K-12 schools and STEM edu-
cation reform, which tend to be among the most under-appre-
ciated roles in which higher education faculty typically engage.
It is much more reasonable to expect faculty to lead reform
efforts related to the curriculum or shared governance policies
—that grassroots leadership in these areas would grow out of
understandable self-interest and would be legitimized a s part of
their roles as faculty members. How much more difficult is it to
recognize and reward faculty grassroots leadership in an area
that is typically undervalued on a college or university campus?
It should come as no surprise that there are disincentives for
even the most motivated faculty to participate in such work. As
Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland,
Baltimore County (UMBC), stated in his keynote remarks at
the annual MSP Learning Network Meeting in 2007: “A major
challenge to promoting faculty participation in P-16 work is
that the higher education community at large tends not to see
the work of involvement with K-12 as intellectually respectable
or important enough to be considered part of the reward sys-
tem” (NSF, 2007).
Ultimately, while all of the institutions in the present study
sought to involve STEM faculty in innovative educational
partnerships and to help build capacity for engaging in STEM
education reform, faculty grassroots leadership evolved differ-
ently in each of the four cases. When considered as a single
entity, higher education faculty can be seen as reflecting a
common set of values and priorities—laboratory scientists in
the disciplines have their own rules, rewards, and pathways to
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 29
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 1.
Four faculty grassroots leadership cases.
The Catalyst
(Community College) The Sponge
(Master’s Lev el University) The Magnet
(Research University) The Pied Piper
(Research University)
Context for
Aligned with Institutional Mission and
Priorities; Workload Initia l l y Precluded
Faculty Leadership and Involvement
High Degre e of Faculty Interest and
Alignment with Existing Reform
Efforts; Already
Positioned Outside of Form al
Campus Hierarchy
Visible Leadership Support
but Incongruent with
Existing Rewards
Structures; Low Faculty
Interest Initially
Visible Leadership Support
but Incongruent with
Existing Rewards
Structures; Low Faculty
Interest Initially
Role of Campus
Leadership Dean Level Init i ated Faculty Level Initiated Associate Provost
Level Initiated Associate Provost Level
Emergence of
Faculty Grassroots
Facilitated by External
Faculty Change Agent Developed in the Contex t
of an Existing Faculty Group
Developed in the Contex t o f a
Newly Created Faculty Group
through an Exist ing
Instituti on al Structure
Facilitated by Internal
Faculty Change Agent
and Sustainability
New and Reformed
Undergrad uate Science Courses;
Faculty Learning Community
New and Reformed
Undergrad uate Science Courses;
Faculty Learning Community
New and Reformed
Undergrad uate Science
Courses; Teaching Assi s tant
Training Prog ram; Student
Fellowship Pr ogra m
New Sequence of
Undergradua t e Courses for
Non-Scien ce Majors
success, for example. Introducing new priorities (in this case,
the broader public policy arena of STEM education reform)
will motivate individual faculty differently, depending on their
priorities and interests, but also depending on the organizational
supports and incentives that are in place. When considered in
this light, one of the major roles of the broader partnership in
this study was to test support for these changes in higher educa-
tion at the organizational (i.e., college and university leadership)
level. If colleges and universities truly value such efforts, then
recognizing and rewarding faculty grassroots leadership is one
way to help ensure that these faculty change agents will con-
tinue to reach the next generation of curious, engaged, and
creative thinkers—both faculty and students—as a lasting leg-
acy of their investments in STEM education reform.
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