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Reforming Faculty Work: Culture, Structure, and the Dilemma of Organizational Change

by Michael Paul Wong & William G. Tierney - 2001

The authors present findings from an ethnographic study of faculty work at the Charter School of Education at the California State University at Los Angeles (Cal. State L.A.). Much like the K-12 version of this innovation, this unique higher education organization is a school within a larger public state university that has created a charter relationship with the system chancellor and the university president that releases the school from most system and state requirements in return for increased performance. At the time of the writing of this article, Charter School of Education at Cal. State L.A. is the only higher education charter school in the nation.

This study addresses the dynamics of organizational change in higher education institutions, and whether chartering a higher education organization leads to increased faculty responsiveness and involvement in reform efforts. The authors present three themes that define the culture of the Charter School of Education, and discuss theoretical and practical implications for this reform. They suggest that the changes that matter are as much cultural in nature as they are structural, which in turn implies where change agents ought to focus their energies as they try to develop a more engaged, responsive faculty.

The authors present findings from an ethnographic study of faculty work at the Charter School of Education at the California State University at Los Angeles (CSULA). Much like the K-12 version of this innovation, this unique higher education organization is a school within a larger public state university that has created a charter relationship with the system chancellor and the university president that releases the school from most system and state requirements in return for increased performance. At the time of the writing of this article, Charter School of Education at CSULA is the only higher education charter school in the nation. This study addresses the dynamics of organizational change in higher education institutions and whether chartering a higher education organization leads to increased faculty responsiveness and involvement in reform efforts. The authors present three themes that define the culture of the Charter School of Education and discuss theoretical and practical implications for this reform. They suggest that the changes that matter are as much cultural in nature as they are structural, which in turn implies where change agents ought to focus their energies as they try to develop a more engaged, responsive faculty.


Since 1991, when Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school legislation, charter schools have gained significant ground in K-12 education in the United States (Nathan 1996; Wohlstetter and Griffin 1997). Charter schools often have been credited with the creation of a more competitive, entrepreneurial environment, leading to greater accountability on the part of chartered and local nonchartered schools as well as in school districts (Bierlein 1997). However, charter schools have for the most part been a K-12 phenomenon.

Although St. Mary’s College in Maryland has received a lump sum budget from the state legislature and exemption from state controls for public institutions, it is still not a “charter” college. Even though officials in other states such as Virginia and Massachusetts are considering charter colleges, the School of Education at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), is arguably the only organizational unit in higher education that has a “charter." As we will elaborate, we define a charter school as a freestanding unit whereby the “charter” provides the school a significant degree of autonomy to act as an independent entity.

Given the explosion of popularity and interest in charter schools and the similar pressures experienced by public K-12 schools and public higher education institutions, it is helpful to know more about a unique structural and cultural change that has been grafted onto an existing organization—& school of education in a public university. The issue of accountability raised by the charter schools movement is as important for colleges and universities as it is for K-12 schools. Indeed, at a time when the call to reform Schools and Colleges of Education is high, an experiment such as what is taking place at CSULA may provide indicators about how to orchestrate effective change. The centrality of accountability in the charter school movement may also provide school of education faculty and administrators with the ability to respond to perennial attacks on their relevance.

Accordingly, the paper has three parts. We first outline the questions that define the study, discuss some epistemological concerns with our choice of research methods, and then provide the design of this study. In the second part, we present three themes that define the culture of the Charter School of Education at CSULA. We conclude with a discussion of the theoretical and practical implications for such reform-minded efforts. We suggest that the changes that matter are as much cultural in nature as they are structural, which in turn implies where change agents ought to focus their energies as they try to develop a more engaged and reform-oriented faculty.


The focus of this study is twofold. First, we consider the dynamics of organizational change: What did the creation of a charter school of education entail? Second, we discuss whether chartering a school within a state institution of higher education leads to increased accountability: Are faculty more involved in reform efforts and has innovation been encouraged? In answering these questions, we suggest that structural and cultural changes brought about by the charter have created a climate for innovation; however, charter status does not, of necessity, immediately create an entrepreneurial environment for public higher education faculty akin to what has been described in the literature of K-12 chartered public schools (Goenner 1998; Hart and Burr 1996). Ultimately, for educators working with charter schools, the creation of an environment that values innovation is less important than whether this environment leads to tangible outcomes such as higher performance for students and accountability to the community served by the school (Bierlein 1997). An innovative environment and improved student outcomes have been linked in studies of charter schools at the K-12 level (Wohlstetter and Griffin 1997). Thus, we consider whether chartering as a method of reform leads to a more effective organization.

Given the frame of reference of the study, an ethnographic approach as described by Wolcott (1975) and Tierney (1991) seemed most effective to collect data appropriate to address the research questions. Wolcott (1975) writes that an ethnographic approach to a study might be distinguished from other means of data collection and analysis through the researcher’s “holistic” frame of reference. Thus, rather than describe the interaction between one variable and faculty work within the Charter School of Education, we “record and report not only the interaction, but also something of the setting and, especially, the meaning the actors themselves assign to events in which they engage” (p. 113).

The culture of a large organization like a Charter School of Education is not solid and monolithic like the building it inhabits, so much as it is co-constructed (Lincoln and Guba 1985), subject to the conflicting interpretations of its participants. Hence, a question pertaining to the emergence of an innovative culture is one that does not lend itself well to an epistemological stance that assumes dualistic affirmative or negative answers to research questions. Morgan and Smircich (1980) describe the subjective-objective debate along a continuum, placing “reality as a concrete structure” at one end and “reality as a projection of human imagination” at the other. We take a position somewhere along this continuum in which the reality of the Charter School of Education is co-created by the faculty, students, and staff who take part in it. One assumption is that the nature of the culture within the Charter School of Education is a subjective construction brought into being through shared creative activity on the part of the culture’s participants. Although not entirely incompatible with an empirical or positivist approach (as discussed in Patton, 1995), this perspective is more likely to create answers appropriate to our research questions through an analysis of culture (as suggested by Rosaldo, 1993) and to transmit the meaning of the Charter School to the reader through the description of the participants’ shared “webs of significance” (Geertz 1973), of which the culture of the institution is constructed.

We should also mention the parameters and context of the study. There are significant differences between the Charter School of Education at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) and K-12 charter schools. These differences highlight limitations with generalizability of this study. Schwandt (1997) describes generalization as a traditional criterion for quality in social science research; although, of course, a more important goal in qualitative research is “not to develop or elaborate on general theoretical knowledge, but to make it possible to develop powers of perception and thereby enhance practical wisdom” (p. 60). An important goal of qualitative research is to generate theory grounded in the data (Glaser 1978). Thus, the focus of our work here is not to argue that ail change efforts need to be similar to or different from what we will describe; but, rather, we intend to enhance one’s understanding about a unique case in order to generate a theoretical perspective about organizational change.


Given our interest in the change process, we concentrated our efforts on internal participants who played roles as change agents within the organization. We paid particular attention to individuals in leadership positions who were involved with the original chartering process, both in supporting the dean’s decision to pursue chartering through the Office of the Chancellor and in creating, rethinking, and maintaining the subsequent governance structure of the Charter School. At the same time, we interviewed individuals who were skeptical of the process in order to gain as full a picture of the change efforts as possible. Given the unique racial and ethnic makeup of the larger institution and the role of the School of Education in providing certified teachers for the Los Angeles area—itself a unique racial and ethnic region in the nation—we also paid particular attention to developing a sample of racially and ethnically diverse participants in data collection.

We conducted thirty-three open-ended ethnographic interviews and observed various settings and meetings over the course of eighteen months. Approximately fifteen of the interviews were with faculty within the school; another five interviews were with administrators and department chairs in the school. The remaining interviews were split between individuals from other schools within the university who had a relationship with the school such as a joint appointment or institutional leaders such as deans of other schools or faculty leaders in organizations such as the faculty senate. The interviews followed detailed protocols with questions decided beforehand along with a consistent script that focused the dialogue on the issues of responsiveness, culture, accountability, and innovation. We employed a snowball sample to generate the list of individuals we interviewed, and we also spoke with actors tangentially involved in the process (e.g., faculty new to the school of education, faculty who were skeptical of the process, and faculty who were riot in the school of education). In a later work we focus on interviews with individuals in the community to gauge their own perceptions and assumptions about charter reform; within this text, however, we provide only those views of individuals within the organization.

In our protocols we developed questions that addressed issues of accountability in terms of the faculty member’s relationships with various internal and external constituencies. We explored the second focus-—the dynamics of organizational change—through a variety of ethnographic methods including interviews with faculty members, observations of faculty-staff, faculty-student, and staff-student interactions and unobtrusive methods such as analysis of documents. These documents included articles written about other charter schools and the Charter School Movement, the Charter School’s web site, and internal mission statements and other documents produced by the Charter School of Education.

We turn now to the data describing the culture of the Charter School as constructed through interviews, observations, and document analysis. In the remaining part of this paper we discuss three themes as they arose from the interviews, conversations, and observations of the Charter School of Education. We conclude with a discussion of the theoretical and policy-related implications of the findings.


In 1993 Dean Allen Mori of the School of Education, California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), responded to inquiries from then-Chancellor Barry Munitz to charter a campus of the California State University (CSU) similar in substance to charters that had been created with K-12 schools since 1992. Although no CSU campus responded by creating a charter, Dean Mori and CSULA President James Rosser proposed to Chancellor Munitz the creation of the nation’s first Charter School of Education at GSULA (Selkin 1997), which was eventually approved in 1995. Given the CSULA School of Education’s prior focus on urban school reform and its experience with developing charter schools, the idea seemed to be a good fit for the organization. The School of Education’s prior involvement with the Accelerated Schools Project and the operation of the Los Angeles Accelerated Schools Center within the School of Education also gave the school’s leadership some K-12 templates on which to model its future organizational structure.

Although not all faculty at the School of Education had been personally involved in charter schools, active involvement in educational reform, even applied to the school itself, was not seen as a surprise to most. Located in urban East Los Angeles and the producer of “one of the largest pools of teachers in California and the largest bilingual teacher pool in the state (and reportedly the second largest nationwide)” (Selkin 1997), CSULA has long occupied a unique position in the training of education professionals in Los Angeles and in U.S. urban education in general. Between July 1998 and June 1999, the Charter School of Education received 1,300 applications from its student population of 2,850 for recommendation to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC). Although figures are not yet available for this year, the CCTC reports that the CSULA Charter School of Education recommended 652 teachers for both multiple and single subject teaching credentials in 199•-1997, 668 in 1995-1996, 646 in 1994-1995, and 645 in 1993-1994.

The Charter School of Education’s 85 faculty are responsible for 15% of the overall campus student enrollment of 19,000 and 57% of the graduate level student enrollment of CSULA. Similar to the student population of CSULA in general, the School of Education is 40% Latina/o, 30% European American, 15% Asian Pacific American, 10% African/Black American, and 5% international. The school is 68% female and 32% male (Charter School of Education website 1999). The combination of this unique population and location, the Charter School faculty’s self image as a reform center for Los Angeles education, and the school’s ongoing involvement with the Accelerated Schools movement—a school reform model—all provided a supportive environment in which to export what had begun as a K-12 reform to the higher education stage (Mims, Slovacek, and Wong 1998; Hafner and Slovacek 1998).

The charter relationship between the CSU and the School of Education is intended to release the institution from “certain CSU system and state requirements to allow it... to engage in creative experimentation” (Selkin 1997). Although, like K-12 charters the Charter School of Education is still responsible under the 1992 California charter schools law for federal and state laws outlawing race, gender, and ability discrimination, the terms of the charter grant the Charter School of Education the autonomy to act as an independent entity. The Charter School can approve new classes, degree programs, and degree requirements without participating in a program curricular review process that formerly took a minimum of over two years (Mims, Slovacek, and Wong 1998). Several faculty were amazed that the school has reorganized the review, tenure, and promotion process to reward collaborative involvement and community service rather than merely participation in governance, publishing, and teaching. Faculty participation in the campus-wide governance responsibilities has lessened and internal governance participation has greatly increased. Finally, since chartering, the Charter School can behave more like a free standing institution establishing collaborative partnerships and relationships and founding new programs directly with other schools and departments.

One of the most dramatic ways in which the Charter School of Education has changed since 1993 is in its organizational structure. Following the Accelerated Schools model that it had applied to K-12 schools, the Charter School of Education has grafted this structure onto itself rather than try to change the entire system. The school maintains traditional divisions grouped around the educational disciplines of Administration and Counseling, Education Foundations and Interdivisional Studies, Curriculum and Instruction, and Special Education. However, the new organization has also added “clusters,” which are collaborations of faculty around shared interdisciplinary concerns, such as literacy or undergraduate teacher preparation. Within clusters, faculty can design courses or redesign the curriculum to address interests that cut across divisions. “Themes” are another addition to the organizational structure, where cadres of faculty come together around areas of common concern such as technology or school reform. Clusters are more informal; they are thought of as short-term gatherings of faculty to discuss a concept or philosophical argument, which may in turn lead to a new way of teaching or form of interaction with a local school. Formation of these clusters and themes is fluid, reflecting the research, practice, and collaboration interests of the charter school’s constituencies. Although faculty self-select to participate in clusters and themes, most recommendations for new initiatives, changes, and innovations are generated in these bodies. These plans are first reviewed by an elected steering committee charged with keeping the school moving in the direction of its shared vision and mediating between the various cluster and theme cadres in order to develop and refine their ideas. Beyond the steering committee, recommendations must be approved by the “School as a Whole” or “SAW,” which is a body consisting of the entire faculty and professional staff of the Charter School. In this way, all members of the organization have at least one opportunity to have input and a voice in every potential action of the school (Minis, Slovacek, and Wong 1998), and, through participation in clusters and themes, opportunities to be involved in the formation of these actions.

In our interviews with faculty at the Charter School of Education, participants continually returned to three themes having to do with the idea of accountability and the dynamics of organizational change: (1) the challenge of creating and sustaining the climate for change, (2) the importance of collaboration in faculty lives, and (3) the excitement involved with being a part of an important progressive movement in education. The faculty with whom we spoke felt that the Charter School had created more work for faculty but that the nature of that work had changed as well. Although the sheer time and energy it took to govern and continually create and recreate the Charter School was frequently overwhelming to the faculty, as we shall elaborate in the next section, they felt that within the Charter School context faculty work had become more meaningful and self-initiated. Pride and ownership of the School of Education and its mission was a common idea connected with this theme, as faculty seemed to identify themselves more with the school than with their professions as professors of a particular educational specialty.

As a trait and an action, collaborativeness and collaboration were important themes in faculty work. As a partial proxy for accountability, collaboration was a core value of the Charter School, although this form of accountability was primarily directed internally insofar as individuals became accountable to one another. The faculty spoke at length about how they felt accountable with other faculty in the School of Education, faculty elsewhere at CSULA, staff, and students both through collaboration and through opportunities for participation within school governance. Participants also spoke of collaboration with external constituencies like teachers, districts, and community members in glowing terms, but this external collaboration was a less universal experience. On the other hand, this collaborative environment raised tensions between the individualism of the mainstream university faculty career path and the communal reward system being developed at the local level within the Charter School.

Finally, as we shall discuss, faculty in the Charter School of Education had a sense that they and the work that they did were one part of a progressive movement on the cutting edge of educational reform. This was universally expressed through pride and ownership in the Charter School’s mission, as well as through performance in external credentialing bodies in excess of the minimum required standards. However, despite their self-image as leaders, faculty often had trouble articulating to their colleagues outside the School of Education, particularly within CSULA, the exact relationship between the two institutions. In what follows, we discuss the three themes that arose from the interviews, observational data, and document analysis.


The work of creating and recreating a Charter School of Education, as well as continuing to maintain it through its governance system, consumed large amounts of time and energy. The extra work, however, was not without its rewards or its motivations. Along with the extra work came what one individual defined as “empowerment.” Faculty expressed ownership of the Charter School’s mission and characterized most of their work as self-initiated. One professor said chartering had been “very stressful, in terms of being able to balance schedules and being able to allocate time effectively. And you’re pulled.” A second professor spoke of the “endless meetings” that nonetheless “felt as if we were accomplishing something—and we did.” A third individual mentioned how trying to work across groups took up time by pointing out, “previously I had not gotten very involved in the school, but I saw this as a chance to create change.” Another professor who held the interview when she had a cold, declared:

This is a very demanding job. There is a popular, public perception that university faculty have, across the board, free time. Now we would take that idea and toss that in the trashcan. Because that telephone rang just fifteen minutes ago. I am technically not in this office on Thursday, but that’s a student who said, “I’m going to call that professor anyway.” The average workload is three classes. If you’re in my area, which is Curriculum and Instruction, you have classes, you have supervision out in the field. Add to that working in collaborative projects, working in university committees, and working in committees within the Charter School of Education, doing your professional work with state and national, international organizations, publishing and doing research, consulting, community service, and that’s why we have colds. Because that’s what you do. And I think perhaps one of the things that we’re continuing to work on is how to make this a do-able assignment, because it is a lot of work.

The same faculty member described this working environment as one that “allows me as a faculty member to really make a difference. I just feel a high level of comfort to make an impact in this particular place.” Another individual commented how she had stayed out of faculty politics and the life of the school previously because of the bureaucracy, “but I saw the Charter as a way to get involved and actually help create change, not window dressing.” Another individual commented that “all these meetings were a painful process. It was so time consuming. But you really felt like something was actually, finally, happening.” Thus, at the same time that chartering quantitatively created more work, it seemed to change faculty work to be more qualitatively meaningful and even empowering. One way that the empowerment of faculty work through the Charter School of Education was expressed was through an increased sense of ownership and pride in the school and its programs.

By way of a historical perspective, one faculty member described the chartering decision as one that had been made with “a lot of debate, a lot of trying to literally squash everything we had known about the School of Education. We started by trying to actually reinvent ourselves. ‘What would you like to know?’ ‘What would you like to be?’“ This speaker addressed the sense of overwhelming choices that accompanied the freeing feeling of possibility in the chartering process. A second person stated, “the dean’s start of the year speech got us thinking. We could never have done this without a clever and visionary dean.” A third person noted that “people had never believed we could change before—real change. The budget crisis and the dean’s belief that we could change created a climate here.” Another professor recounted in glowing terms,

There are times I might be with other colleagues from other Cal. State University campuses and they speak more favorably about my campus before I get a chance to, and often they know more than I do. Many of them have served on accreditation teams reviewing our programs here, and I’m very proud, very proud to be here. I personally have been invited by other universities here in the state to consider being dean of their college’s school of education, and that’s primarily, I think, because of my affiliation with the Charter School of Education here.

Throughout these interviews, faculty members’ remarks were framed within a language of personal ownership of the school. When referring to the Charter School of Education, faculty almost always used words like “we” and “us” to describe it. In the process of explaining a point about the governance structure, one faculty member clarified, “we set it up in the elections process.” Although she could not remember voting on the decision beforehand (it was actually the dean who made the decision and then later involved the faculty). Another professor recounted the decision to charter, remembering, “and so we thought, well, maybe we could do things in an undergraduate format, and get started early, and we’d get some people who were more committed. Maybe we’d be able to prepare some teachers more quickly.”

The use of this language of ownership was not limited to faculty. Members of the administration who we interviewed and observed also mentioned the pervasive sense of involvement not only on the part of faculty, but also administrators and staff. For example, one staff member gave us a tour of the Charter School of Education’s “charter room,” a display and meeting room that served as an historical archive for the school’s accreditation materials, evaluations, and records of the chartering process. The staff member readily offered the tour to us before we could ask to see the room; and she conducted her tour with such enthusiasm, energetically pulling files and folders out of cabinets and handing them to us, that we got the impression of being given a tour of someone’s home or backyard. Again, her language during this tour was filled with usage of possessive terms like “we” and “our.”

Another participant went beyond mere personalized language to describe the reorganization of the Charter School of Education as a self-initiated process: “Now we’ve got lots of things that are workable, and we’ve dumped out a number of things that weren’t.” In other words, one benefit of chartering was to be able to participate in choosing which elements of the school to keep and which to abandon for something better. Her portrayal of this process illustrated another way in which faculty work had been transformed. Faculty at the Charter School described their work as internally, rather than externally, motivated. One faculty member, also illustrating the school’s structure, depicted committee work as “a little less in terms of reacting to issues and more, probably more constructive, more developmental, work.” Elsewhere, the same faculty member expanded upon this description:

Again, we think that in previous years committee work was tedious. It was laborious. But mainly it was because you were assigned to some policy discussion that led nowhere. That work was really coming down to you from someplace else. At this phase of our charter, process committees are kind of defining topics. We’re starting with the issues that come from the community as a whole. ... and tackling these issues rather progressively. I think that’s where I see a lot of the energy going right now, not so much in distracting us from the business of the School of Education, but in making it the business of the School of Education.


Along with changes in the amount and nature of their work, faculty consistently mentioned the new mood of intentional partnership that they had seen in the Charter School of Education since chartering. One faculty member praised the new working environment, responding,

I know most of the people in the other divisions better than I ever have. The crossover between faculty in other divisions is working. We always talked about wanting to do it. But it’s so easy to get caught up in your own programs and your own students. But now there’s all this structure for you working with other people all the time.

This participant compared this state with the school prior to chartering: “there was really no structure for you to be involved with the other people. You had to structure yourself and it was easier not to. You were in your division and you spoke to other people in the hall, but you didn’t do much with them.” A second professor added, “I came in, taught my classes, did my work, and went home. Now it’s entirely different.” A third laughed, “we have to work together. It’s more time, but it’s meaningful. We’re also rewarded for it.” Another professor noted that chartering had been,

actually a positive experience because ... until that time, a lot of us were more involved in our own divisions. Even though we were collaborating with schools and doing lots of things like that, we mostly worked with people in our own division. One thing a charter school definitely did do was open up those divisions to promote cross-divisional interaction.

Talking across academic divisions gave faculty opportunities to work through intellectual differences in a forum in which the resulting decision or compromise might take tangible form the next day.

However, for these faculty members collaboration meant more than a good working relationship with their colleagues within the school and their students. Collaboration was also reflected in the promotion of individual voice within the governance of the school, the assertion that hierarchical divisions between faculty and between faculty and staff were being purposely eliminated. Beyond the staff member’s “ownership” of the charter room, staff were central participants in all school decisions that affected them through their participation in the “School As a Whole” governing body—a democratic, “issues-based” forum that was open to all of the school’s constituencies. One faculty member detailed the history of this involvement:

When we planned this whole charter school, we didn’t do, initially, a very good job of including staff, and then we learned, and we included them, and I think that’s been another benefit of the charter school. We have staff on each of the standing committees, and we have staff that attends our [School As a Whole] meetings. At first there was a lot of mistrust. But we had something that impacted staff and there [were] only two staff at the meeting. Well, the next meeting there’s a whole bunch of staff at the meeting. They were ready to talk about what they wanted to talk about! I think that has to improve the quality. We have staff that are learning about different clusters and things. You know, when a student conies in and a staff member is understanding, and is invested in the whole process, they’re going to be more responsive to the student’s needs. ... And it’s just really nice to work with your colleagues and, you know, sort of forget. It doesn’t matter to me you’re staff, you’re faculty, you’re this position, you’re that position. Fact is, you’ve got good ideas, you’re at the meeting, you’re productive. We’re all in this together. So that definitely is one of the benefits.

For this faculty member, the opportunity to collaborate with staff as equals was a strength of the charter process.

Faculty also directly benefited from this intentional lack of hierarchy. One senior faculty member challenged us to ask any junior faculty member whether their voice was heard and respected as much as anyone else’s. We did. An Assistant Professor responded, “I think I have as strong a voice as anyone else would have. If it was up to me, I don’t think I am silenced in any way.” Another professor told us a story about having been a new faculty member when the school was chartered. One day, the dean entered the participant’s office during a meeting and started giving her some information that she did not really need. The participant had told him, “Oh, we really don’t need that information, and you can go now.” The dean stepped back, laughed, and said, “Can you believe this charter school? Here is a junior professor, just got hired, and she’s telling me that I can go now,” and then he left. She saw this as an example of the lack of visible hierarchy within the Charter School. At the same time, an additional individual also mentioned that although she supported the concept and felt that she was listened to, she was not certain that it was the charter school that created such changes or the faculty. Regardless, what one senses when speaking with faculty is that a particular dynamism exists now, whereas such excitement most often is not the norm in other schools.

Along with this collaborative environment there seemed to be a tension, vehemently acknowledged by some faculty, and just as vehemently denied by others, between the traditional signifiers of faculty professionalism (a strong research agenda, high quality teaching, visibility in university-wide governance) and the collaborative, community-based values of the CSOE (participation in local governance, consultation and even teaching in local area schools, and participation in the founding of new charter schools). This tension was apparent in participants’ language as it changed from “we” to “I” and back again in our conversations about faculty’s careers. One professor commented,

When you’re doing professional work and you’re consulting with the district, that’s all part of your additional expertise to the school, your additional contribution. So we have a way that those kinds of activities can count all of the different categories in our [Review-Tenure-Promotion (RTF)] process. I’ve been publishing, I’m writing a lot of books, I’ve got an article, a chapter in that book, and so we are publishing. Some of the work has been an asset to my career. I do publish, I do write. I do teach. What I’m doing with these new collaborative classes, I’m right now doing research with the science department. And they’re changing their whole program based on work that we did team teaching the class.

Although this faculty member showed visible pride in the modification of the school’s RTF process to reward more service-based faculty activities, discussions of career inevitably returned to research and teaching, even within the local charter school context. What was most compelling in this exchange was how the interface between the values of individualism and communalism competed for attention in this faculty member’s attempt to describe her career path: “‘We’ count collaborative work in the RTF process, but T publish, write, and teach, even though both were ostensibly done collaboratively.”

This lack of fit had been addressed locally by modifying the RTF process to reflect and reward faculty activities outside of teaching and research, but external to the Charter School of Education—within the larger university—it was difficult to show how this credit might be rewarded. One faculty member explicitly addressed the competition between working within two different reward systems—that of the charter school and that of the faculty career:

I was that fly in the ointment, you know, because I did that kind of thing. They didn’t like to hear it right at the end of such a great feeling of accomplishment. We were all “accomplishing something great.” And I thought, “not great!” If you want to accomplish something great you have to work your butt off and publish!

To this professor, “accomplishing something great” was defined in terms of one’s career within the mainstream individualized career path regardless of how that work was rewarded at the local level. In another instance, the same participant recounted working alone for a summer, without pay, to establish a research institute, only to abruptly abandon the project after being informed that she would have to run in an election in order to be the Director of her own institute. Later, she reflected on her feelings just prior to withdrawing from the project:

And at that point I thought, “I am out of here.” If I write a paper, and I am the author, nobody’s going to vote if I am the author, I am the author! The dean, no democracy, is going to vote me out of my own book or paper. This is my work, I have designed it, I have done it all, now they’re coming to vote me out. And I said, “I am out of here.”

This story particularly highlighted the tension between individualism and communalism within the charter school, especially when individual careers were at stake. In the interface between the new conception of faculty work as necessarily including collaborative activity and the expanded participation that came with the charter’s governance system one had to share credit for faculty work or even have work move or be moved in directions that were out of one’s control.


Faculty in the Charter School of Education expressed a perception that they and their work were part of a progressive movement that was improving education, not simply in their School but also in schools throughout the region. However, despite their reformist stance, faculty had difficulty articulating the reciprocal roles of the CSOE and CSULA. This created tensions between the Charter School and the larger host institution; ultimately it was a barrier to the collaboration that seemed to be the keystone to their leadership.

The facility senate of the university, in particular, felt that the Charter School had gone around agreed-upon decision making structures and in effect had decided to be separate from the larger university. One individual pointed out, “I believe collegiality is good and review from my peers is helpful. The dean does not.” Another person observed, “Consultation is essential at a university. The charter school dean assumes that consultation is unnecessary.” A third person commented, “I don’t know what the need for this is. We have changed our processes so we are quicker than before in approving things. It just seems they want to do things their way, rather than collaborate across departments.” A fourth person noted, “I understand some of it. Education was always thought of as quite low. A charter school promotes self-esteem, it has the support of the president, and the faculty in the charter school seem happy and excited. But at some point they have to think about working with the rest of us.”

The dean and charter school faculty, however, felt it was imperative they get a charter if they were to position themselves on the cutting edge of educational leadership. Although their reasons did not necessarily agree, faculty consistently connected the specific situation of the CSULA School of Education with schools of education in a statewide and national context. They were clear in their intention to use their uniqueness to play a leadership role among schools of education, especially in the public sector. One professor declared, “we’re changing things, from the usual university midterm/ final kind of work, to portfolios, performance assessment, authentic assessment, all that’s going on here, and that’s not going on in the rest of the university except in very limited ways.”

The leadership of the dean was important to faculty in challenging them to think beyond merely changing the Charter School. All of the participants, albeit with differing language, related a challenge that the dean had issued to the School of Education just prior to chartering that ranged from, “what would you do if you could change the world?” to, “If you didn’t have to follow all the red tape, what kinds of things would you do?” This challenge framed the chartering of the School of Education within a narrative of the Charter School as a pioneer for the other schools of education nationally. On responsiveness, one faculty member described the uniqueness of the Charter School of Education: “The accountability is unique in that we probably have far more responsibilities for accountability than any other.... group. We really are trying to move to the very edge of what we can do in that area.” Another framed the Charter School’s work within a national picture:

You know that, historically, schools of education housed in universities do not enjoy high status as professional schools, even though we may contribute grandly to a university’s overall FTE. The nature of the work we do, which some might not consider discipline focused, but professional in nature, somehow is perceived less or as lesser than the work of disciplinary faculty. That’s the history in this country. In the context of this university, becoming a charter school of education has had the effect of essentially giving legitimacy to a school of education and its faculty, within the university and in the broader community as well.

The Charter School of Education had just passed two important accreditation reports with quite positive evaluations, which the faculty saw as a validation of the strength of their program. Faculty attributed this finding to the school’s self-initiated goals and mission and the response of the Charter School to attacks from other departments within the university by being more responsive than the other schools at CSULA. Accountability was manifested in exceeding minimum accreditation standards. One professor echoed the other participants when she mused, “accountability is definitely something that we are held to. In fact, I think the accountability we are held to is probably more rigorous than it would be in the existing structure because we must respond now. This is no longer business as usual.”

Another faculty member connected the theme of collaboration to responsiveness to one’s colleagues: “And we care about our work and we’re a hard working faculty, but the collaboration that has resulted from the Charter has enhanced our ability to excel. We want to know, more about how we can still improve our practice here.” A third faculty member described the controversy of being able to approve a course without consulting the standard university committees:

When we want to modify a course or propose a new course, we just inform them. That’s a big problem for many people. The fact is, during the chartering process, what I’ve seen internally is that the process for proposing a new course is now more involved, more, I think, professionally done, helps with more clear standards. So we’ve improved our internal process to such an extent that we’re now able to, you know, modify a course and have it done by the following quarter.... So, the accountability, internally, has really improved. We’ve really taken the responsibility to do a better job with that. Even if we lost the Charter tomorrow, that process is intact.

The controversy of approving new courses without university committee approval translated across the experiences of faculty as they struggled to define the reciprocal roles of the CSULA and the Charter School of Education. Along with the enthusiastic reception outside of CSULA to the work of the new charter school, faculty almost unanimously pointed out a chilly, at times openly hostile, reception from other faculty within CSULA who questioned the necessity of chartering and the presence of an entity that was both “insider” and “outsider” within the institution. One faculty member contrasted the mission of the School of Education with that of the rest of the comprehensive institution:

We are a graduate school. And we are a commuter campus, so a lot of the things that serve our faculty do not necessarily serve or impact the other faculty. And when we trot out to promote ourselves and support ourselves, it can be seen that we are not supporting the work of the rest of the university, and that’s not the goal. We feel like if they would listen to us (laughs) and, you know, be willing to see our point of view, that they would see that we’re not in opposition to the rest of them, that we’re just trying to do the best job we can.

Another faculty member described the Charter School of Education’s current role within the university as completely isolated, creating an island within the larger institution:

I think a university shouldn’t be a charter school that’s separating itself from the outside world, but I cannot see how this school had no links to the outside world and now people are angry on the campus because what we are saying is we don’t need you. And of course people say, “what are you doing now on this campus? Why aren’t you a normal school as you were before? And we know you don’t need us. We don’t need you.”


We turn now to a discussion of the implications of the culture that has been portrayed here. Faculty work within the Charter School of Education has changed, both in the sheer amount and in the pride and ownership with which the faculty viewed their individual role and that of others within the school. Similarly, the kinds of faculty work that were valued within the School of Education changed. Collaboration and participation were highly valued, and faculty viewed the opportunity to collaborate and to be rewarded for it as a unique benefit of chartering. Finally, the context of their work within the larger field and profession of education changed as faculty saw themselves as part of a larger movement to improve the role and quality of education within the state and national scene.

There is a troubling side to these changes, however. As collaboration and participation have become highly valued activities for faculty, there have been tensions between these new, communal values and the traditional individual-based criteria of faculty success. The definition of a successful or effective faculty member has become more openly contested ground. The dispute about the proper role of a faculty member has translated to the Charter School of Education’s external relations; as faculty see their relationships with CSULA’s power structure deteriorate, their individual relationships with faculty outside the school have improved, becoming more collaborative.

As their work has changed in nature and increased in scope and intensity, the faculty of the Charter School also have undergone something of an identity change as their identities as professors have been questioned, rethought, and recast. For some faculty, questions such as, “if we spend all of this time helping to recreate the School of Education instead of teaching, will I still be a professor?” were part of this process of identity exploration. For others, chartering opened up new opportunities to exercise skills such as collaboration that had not been valued or rewarded in faculty work prior to chartering. One participant said that the process had challenged her to exercise skills that she did not even know she had. For others, even aside from workload, the scope of the new range of opportunities and the weight of the national stakes involved in being the sole chartered higher education institution were at times overwhelming.

As accountability and collaboration were intentionally valued, entrepreneurial behavior was mentioned as an important issue within the Charter School of Education. Given the extensive literature of entrepreneurism within K-12 charter schools, the import of this side effect of chartering within the Charter School of Education dovetailed with what some suggest takes place in charter schools elsewhere. Manno, Finn, Bierlein, and Vanourek (1998), for example, argue that the consumer orientation, public accountability, and results orientation of charter schools are their strongest qualities and the source of their potential for reform of public education. At CSULA, participants saw the school’s relationships with external constituencies like partner schools and districts as greatly improved. As noted earlier, the faculty have been involved with launching new charter schools, maintaining a focus on the accelerated school, developing software and websites, and raising funds for various activities. Our assumption is that a culture of engagement as a process leads to increased forms of interaction with external constituencies.

Perhaps the most troubling implication of this study was the contradictory relationship between the Charter School of Education and CSULA. Faculty characterized their relationships with other CSULA faculty as individually improved but institutionally poor. Those faculty that had an opportunity to participate in a collaborative project or to co-teach a course with Charter School faculty were portrayed as enthusiastic supporters of their experience with the school. However, the relationship of the Charter School with the campus-wide committees in which School of Education faculty still participated ranged from tense to hostile. The faculty senate and other deans expressed misgivings about the approach taken by the charter school. “Rather than give and take,” summarized one individual, “it’s all take.” Given that the larger university community at CSULA was part of the immediate community of the Charter School, the inability of the school to maintain a collaborative relationship with this important entity was a significant challenge that remains to be resolved. Related to this issue was the potential conflict between the school’s aspirations of leadership in the state and national scene and the school’s mission as part of a comprehensive university to teach and train educational professionals, especially given faculty difficulties around managing workload.

The faculty we interviewed well understood that the Charter School’s main reason for chartering in the first place was to respond more effectively to the needs of its community. Chartering appears to have had some success in the K-12 sector, and it was hoped that this success could be translated to a public higher education institution. Although faculty had some strong impressions of improved relationships with external constituencies and more meaningful work, it is harder to prove that accountability has increased. That is, a charter school ultimately should be able to point, in part, to improved teaching as judged by particular outcomes—standardized tests, increased retention rates, increased college-going rates, and the like. A charter school of education’s goal is to improve teaching in the schools, and such measures are not readily apparent. To be sure, the creation of a culture within the school that values collaboration is important to create a faculty culture that is open to collaboration with constituencies external to the Charter School. And yet, collaboration does not necessarily equate with increased accountability. The organization needs to connect the culture of individual ownership and pride in the Charter School and its work with external constituencies in a way that shows demonstrable gains in areas such as teaching effectiveness, student learning, and the like.

Manno and Associates’ (1998) identification of effective charter schools as consumer oriented, publicly accountable, and results oriented might point the way for the Charter School’s leadership toward the school’s next cultural iteration. Future study of the institution might address the interface between the Charter School of Education and its external constituencies and how to prove that the Charter School has increased outcomes related to teaching and learning. As importantly, additional work needs to be done with regard to how a unit geared toward change such as a charter school might be able to interface effectively with the larger organization in which it is embedded. Our initial work has explored the Charter School’s uniqueness as an organizational unit, but we did not look at the Charter School of Education’s uniqueness as a chartered institution within a public institution. Finally, researchers might explore how to reward individual faculty for communal, community-oriented work, especially when their training, career paths, and professional reward system up to this point have all prepared them to behave like individualists.

We conclude by returning to our initial foci: What are the dynamics of organizational change, and how does chartering lead to an organization that is accountable and innovative? Frequently, individuals focus on structural reform as structural when one tries to achieve lasting change; cultural changes are seen as the window dressing that highlights a symbolic shift. In this light, when an institution moves from centralized budgeting to revenue-centered management, for example, the assumption is that the consequences will be real and immediate. When a new leader leaves his or her door open or walks around a campus in order to get to know people, the assumption is that such actions are symbolic gestures meant to suggest a new openness or perhaps a break from the past.

One might assume that charter reform is a structural change because “real” changes take place—approval of courses is smoother and quicker, faculty are rewarded in ways that previous rewards structures did not take into account, and different constituencies make decisions that have budgetary implications. However, our analysis also underscores the important cultural shifts that have taken place in the Charter School of Education. People’s interpretation of the reality of the school is different from the past. Faculty perceive their work in a different way from what they have done.

Obviously, charter reform is a structural change. But our suggestion here is that all too often institutional leaders assume that structural change brings about cultural reform, and that is not always the case (Tierney 1999). Our simple point is that one may not of necessity create the structure of a charter in order to bring about the cultural shifts that have occurred at CSULA. Rather, when culture and structure work in concert, leaders are better able to create the conditions for change.

Charter reform as has been discussed here had “real” consequences with regard to accountability that in turn were interpreted by the actors within the organization. Individuals work in cultures that are in constant states of formulation and reformulation. When individuals desire to bring about constructive change, they would be well advised to consider what structural and cultural levers might be utilized that enable constituents to act differently and interpret their worlds differently as well. The Charter School of Education is a unique organization within higher education that is still shaping itself and defining its own mission and goals. The initial success of the reform ought not suggest that every dean of education should begin to implement charters. Rather, the lesson to be learned here is how the careful attention to the structure and culture of one’s organization can help create the conditions for meaningful change, which will in turn enable faculty to be more innovative and to be accountable to multiple constituencies.

The authors wish to thank Joe Aguerrebere, Kenny Gonzalez, Gib Hentschke, Ken Kempner, Dan Tompkins and Penny Wohlstetter for helpful comments on an earlier draft of the paper.


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MICHAEL PAUL WONG is a doctoral student in higher education in the Rossier School of Education and Assistant Dean in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at California State University, Fullerton.

WILLIAM G. TIERNEY is Wilbur Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 6, 2001, p. 1081-1101
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10835, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:05:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Wong
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL PAUL WONG is a doctoral student in higher education in the Rossier School of Education and Assistant Dean in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at California State University, Fullerton.
  • William Tierney
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM G. TIERNEY is Wilbur Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California.
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