View from the Perspective of Early Grant Recipients and Staff Members
By John Immerwahr
This report is based on a series of interviews with individuals-both grant recipients and staff-who were associated with the Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) during the years between 1973 and 1978. This period of FIPSE's history was, for many of these individuals, a kind of "golden age" of innovative and creative thinking about higher education, and they recall their experiences with enormous fondness. In fact, many said that their association with FIPSE still shapes their lives today. The objective record supports this perception of something remarkable about FIPSE's early years. The NTS Research Corporation, for example, found that the rate of subsequent institutionalization for the early FIPSE projects was 70%, compared to rates of five to 15% for other federal seed money programs.
What special qualities made FIPSE so successful and so memorable? This study elicits these early participants' perspectives to help isolate some of the factors that may have contributed to FIPSE's accomplishments. All in all, I talked to 20 individuals who had been associated with FIPSE either as grant recipients or staff.
In trying to explain FIPSE's influence, both on the field and on their own lives, the respondents repeatedly stressed its uniqueness and its differences from other similar organizations. Some of the factors they mentioned most often were:
- FIPSE gave a large number of fairly small grants; the grants went to a remarkable diversity of institutions, and to individuals in those institutions who were lower in the hierarchy, and closer to the learners.
- FIPSE tried to respond to the field's interests, rather than driving its own agenda.
- FIPSE's process encouraged creativity, risk taking, and networking.
- FIPSE had a tiny central organization, with an outstanding staff of dedicated young professionals who acted more as collaborators than as traditional program managers.
I interviewed eight individual grant recipients (all of whom had received grants between 1973 and 1978) during a group discussion meeting in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28, 2000. I also interviewed seven additional former grant recipients by telephone during the months of October and November, 2000. These individuals were selected by Virginia B. Smith, David O. Justice, and Carol Stoel. In addition, I interviewed five individuals who had been FIPSE staff members during these early years. These interviews were conducted by telephone in December 2000 and January 2001. Since I interviewed only a small fraction of the grant recipients and just a few of the staff members, the views expressed here cannot be taken to be statistically representative of the experience of all grant recipients or staff. However, the individuals who were interviewed expressed their views with virtual unanimity. Even though the events they were discussing happened a quarter of a century ago, the picture that emerged was remarkably consistent.
In the two chapters that follow-one on the recipients' views and one on the perceptions of early FIPSE staff members-I try to highlight some of the conversations' themes. Although I briefly summarize each theme, for the most part I have let the respondents speak for themselves by giving representative quotations. Their remarks have been edited on some occasions to better capture the sense of what was intended and, in a few cases, to disguise their identities. This research was part of a larger project funded by The Ford Foundation and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.