On scaling up an applied research Center
Sometime in late 2016 or thereabouts I was asked to head up a research Center at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison loosely organized around my main area of research - college to workforce pathways and transitions for college graduates. As a pre-tenure faculty with a full plate of teaching and research, plus a commitment (albeit sometimes fruitless) to life outside of work, I hesitated, but eventually went down that path given the opportunity to create a vehicle for student-centric research and policy analysis amidst a discourse of employability and skills gaps that regularly placed the interests of anti-expertise politicians, the business community, and administrators above that of the lives and futures of students.
In short, the goal of the Center was to fill a gap that I saw in the research and policy arena - a student-centered set of data and arguments about college-work issues that could offer a more comprehensive, multi-disciplinary and critical perspective than was currently available.
And as the now former-President who shall not be named rose to power, with the help of disingenuous and dishonest Wisconsin Republicans, using endless streams of disinformation and outright lies to enlist so many Americans to their cult, the need for higher education to truly champion critical thinking and civic engagement became a huge motivation in my work.
But as I began planning, with the help of colleagues and an amazing Advisory Board, how to design and launch a new Center, I found precious few resources or guides about how to do so. We of course ended up launching the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) in April of 2017, but for the most part it has been an organic, follow-our-hunches process of design, planning and growth.
And now fast-forward to mid-2020 with the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are in a position to ramp up and scale up our operations to function on a national level, to potentially provide services and programs for colleges, universities, policymakers and associations across the nation. And I've found a similar lack of resources to help researchers and Center leaders think about this question - should we expand?
Instead of jumping blindly into an opportunity to get bigger, which I think is a not uncommon impulse in higher education, with the help of colleagues and advisors, I've developed our own approach to answering this question. First, I had to pause and think about whether expansion and growth even made sense, organizationally, personally, and for the field at large.
Part of that process involved reflection. As someone not particularly good at recognizing accomplishments (my own, not others), I had to first take stock on what we'd created in 3.5 short years:
* Hosted an amazing interdisciplinary line up of speakers for the UW-Madison,
Wisconsin and national communities including Tressie McMillan Cottom (then VCU),
Byars-Winston (UW-Madison) to just name a few;
* Launched a brand new national symposium on College Internship Research, which
drew hundreds from across the country to Madison to discuss current issues in the
world of internships, first in 2018 and then in 2019;
* Created a new longitudinal mixed-methods study on college internships that aimed to
center and amplify the student experience, first at 3 campuses and then with a NSF
grant and a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at a number of HBCUs,
HSIs, and regional comprehensive colleges;
other researchers and scholars engaged in student-centered research on college-work
* Trained undergraduate and graduate students at UW-Madison but also across the
country in research methods, public scholarship via internships with CCWT;
* Supported the creation and expansion of Community Based Participatory Action
Research (CBPAR) work led by CCWT staff Bailey Smolarek and Matt Wolfgram,
which has blossomed into a multi-campus study, webinar series, and new methods
training programs; and,
student-led writing projects that hopefully are contributing to the international
discourse on employability, skills gaps, career readiness, and related topics.
In the rat race, high-pressure and high-expectations line of work that is academia, I've found that reflecting on accomplishments like these is key, not just for those reports to funders or higher-ups, but also to pause, reflect, savor accomplishments, regret lost opportunities, and think of next steps. And as someone not invested in fame or academic notoriety - which still strikes this accidental professor, adult learner, failed HS/college student with roots firmly planted outside of the ivory tower as one of the more ridiculous and pernicious aspects of higher education - thoughts about these accomplishments are especially satisfying, because I had the good fortune of working with good ideas, good people, and good timing to set in motion some projects that it appeared the world was ready for.
But on their own, past accomplishments aren't a sufficient rationale for expanding. This has been a ton of work, far more than I'd originally anticipated. As an advocate that the notion that scaling up or getting bigger is an end in itself, the natural goal of any research enterprise is absurd, considering the opportunity to get bigger is causing as much trepidation as my initial agreement to do this work in the first place, which effectively changed my job from researcher/teacher to administrator/public relations/manager/project leader/researcher/teacher - not necessarily a shift that was anticipated or desired. And the prospect of stopping, and turning to my dream of writing a book on the sociocultural aspects of internships as space for experiential learning and/or reproducing inequality, is pretty darned compelling.
So why grow and scale up?
As we start doing so at CCWT I posed some hard questions to myself and our staff, and I hope that these questions can be useful for those of you faced with the prospect of expanding your lab, center or program.
Is there the capacity and/or desire to handle the added administrative and fundraising duties that will come with expansion?
Are there multiple leaders and principals involved, so that the work (and inspiration) for growth is distributed across individuals?
Is there a correlation between the increased impact on college students' career prospects and the expanded capacities of the organization? Put another way, will expansion increase the number of people you hope to serve and influence?
Is there a person within the organization (or a consultant who will stick around) who has experience and savvy with organizational or business development? If not, big red flag, go back to start, and find that person.
Is there another organization already doing similar work? If so, are you ready for and/or wanting to engage in a competition? If not, are there opportunities for collaboration and synergizing? Just note that competitive organizational warfare is potentially draining and can introduce a toxicity you may not be ready for. Alternatively, some healthy competition may be just want the field needs.
And my last question, one that I am still honestly sitting with, is perhaps the most important: If you're a leader or principal involved in a potential expansion, do you really want to do this? Like really?
A sign of expansion: Launching a national survey of college internships