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Origen: Ashoka

A Field Catalyst for Systems Change in Higher Education

This article originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review

Higher education has long been a crucial part of social progress, through its core functions of teaching and learning. But as society’s needs change, a new type of post-secondary institution is growing in prominence: one that also plays a key role as a civic actor, driving local and regional community development.

It takes more than good intentions, however, to develop a community-driven agenda. It takes rewiring institutional structures and cultures for collaboration. Yet to achieve that, a field catalyst is needed to spark and amplify the development of a new social infrastructure. To change the hierarchical systems and incentive structures of a centuries-old institution requires fundamentally reordering the “components and structures that cause a system to act a certain way” (as Wharton and Evans describe systems change). Since systems rarely change on their own, aligning action with intent requires a “field catalyst,” or what Hussein, Plummer, and Breen have described as “an intermediary organization that amplifies the efforts of others, that helps to build “a marketplace for ideas and a framework for action.”

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Ashoka insight

The McConnell Foundation’s activities have been framed by a focus on relationships, favoring collaborations built on trust, and working with those who share similar values. For us, understanding the postsecondary system means understanding relationship dynamics. We have learned many lessons about navigating postsecondary, and share those here as mental models about how schools work, making visible different relationship dynamics.