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Professional Staff Making a Difference: Cultural Change in Higher Education

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Higher education scholarship is focused largely on professors who guide students in their learning and students who participate in the educational process. The contributions of professional staff (i.e., those supporting the work of faculty and students) have not been as well understood, particularly those who reside in academic departments. We explore the work and impact of three staff-led problem-solving teams within an academic unit at one U.S. public university. Professional staff led these three grassroots teams on co-operative education, mentorship, and intercultural competency; in each, staff represented the majority of team members. We report on our research on these teams between 2017–2019 which culminated in interviews with 20 team members. We applied cultural models’ theory to orient our data collection, analysis, and validation. In this theory, interviews help uncover the existence and extent of a sense of “sharedness” with the potential to reveal a consensus view of the culture, hence the name “cultural models.” Interview statements are validated against other data—two sets of drawings interviewees created during the interviews. Through interviewee discourse and drawings, we describe the internal dynamics and connections accessed by members of these three teams. By specifying how staff were able to work together and what the cultural models illustrated about organizational-culture change, we help fill the gap in the higher education literature about this university subculture.

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  1. Subsequent uses of the phrase “professional staff” will be shortened to “staff,” consistent with the terminology in U.S. colleges and universities.


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We appreciate the willingness of our study participants to offer their perspectives about team interactions in words and in drawings. Their ability to crystalize their experiences made our analysis task so interesting and enjoyable. We are also grateful to our reviewers who helped improve the quality of our work.


Our work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1519412. For the third author, this material is based upon work supported by (while serving at) the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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All authors whose names appear on the submission 1) made substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data; or the creation of new software used in the work; 2) drafted the work or revised it critically for important intellectual content; 3) approved the version to be published; and 4) agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth K. Briody.

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Author Briody and Rodríguez-Mejía declare they have no financial interests. For author Berger, this material is based upon work supported by (while he served at) the U.S. National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Briody, E.K., Rodríguez-Mejía, F.R. & Berger, E.J. Professional Staff Making a Difference: Cultural Change in Higher Education. Innov High Educ 47, 297–325 (2022).

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