||THE INSIDER PERSPECTIVE
As described in the previous chapter, the early grant recipients who were interviewed perceived FIPSE as innovative and supportive, and praised the staff highly. However, while they were positive about FIPSE's impact, they had little sense of how the organization achieved those effects. Essentially, for them, FIPSE was a "black box"; they saw it functioning wonderfully, but they understood little of the structural and managerial practices that produced those results. To explore these practices, four of the staff from this period were interviewed-Charles I. Bunting, David O. Justice, Ray Lewis, and Carol Stoel-as well as FIPSE's founding director, Virginia B. Smith.
In conversations about FIPSE's early years, the former staff members frequently began by discussing factors unique to the organization that would be difficult to reproduce intentionally. Part of FIPSE's success developed from the time in which it appeared. Rocked by the various revolutions of the 1960s, higher education appeared ready for change and new thinking. One interviewee said:
A big part of it was the newness of it. There was a feeling of freedom that could only result from newness. There was nothing out there that we had to work against saying this is the way it goes. We didn't have to overcome anything in the way of existing operations. In addition, you had the newness of it all. This particular technique-of making direct improvement grants, as opposed to demonstration grants-had not really been tried on any large scale.
Others attributed the success to more random factors. As one staff member said, "To a certain degree it was luck, just having the right people in the right place." The organization was blessed with a group of dedicated and knowledgeable individuals who had a great deal of fondness and respect for each other. "Smart people," as one person said, "who hired other smart people." The staff also highly praised FIPSE's directors:
Virginia has an incredibly analytical mind, which saw and was capable of synthesizing all of the proposals. She had the ability to develop categories, so she could see all sorts of categories that were hard for the average person to pull out of the mess. For a staff member it was intellectually appealing to be a player in so many different categories. . . . Russ Edgerton had a strong and insightful view about organizations and he made a powerful contribution.
Chuck Bunting, who served as deputy director during part of this period, was instrumental in maintaining our ability to function independently from the bureaucratic structure. He was able to intercept a lot of the kinds of things we would normally have had to struggle with, creating a little elbowroom for us within the bureaucracy.
In addition to these special circumstances, the early staff members also pointed to the importance of structural factors that had little to do with the individuals or the times. The respondents stressed six major themes, which are summarized below and illustrated by selected quotations.
|Many Smaller Grants
|FIPSE was originally conceived as a foundation with a budget of $100 million a year, but that annual budget was reduced to only $10 million, and the legislation provided only funding and did not specify any organizational structure. This reconfiguration raised an important choice, whether to give many small grants or a few large ones. Ultimately FIPSE decided to give a large number of small grants. This had a number of important results:
- Smaller grants were much more likely to attract applicants who were themselves farther down on the "food chain" and therefore much closer to the learners, rendering these grants more accessible to a wide range of individuals and institutions who would not have been able to apply for larger grants. This vastly diversified the creativeness of the applications and projects.
- Because the grants were smaller, they often served as "seed money" rather than as the projects' major operational budgets. In many cases, this meant that a grant's most important function was to give projects legitimacy and recognition within their own institutions. The grants' small sizes put the focus on ideas rather than funding.
- Projects with smaller grants could more easily continue or be replicated when funding was discontinued.
There were advantages to having the smaller $10 million instead of the original $100 million. I'm not so sure we could have been successful with the larger amount; we would have had to shop some of it out and not have the involvement with the projects, as we managed to do with the smaller conception of FIPSE. We had gotten advice from old hands: give 10 grants and fold up your tents. Instead, we made many smaller grants-a big grant was $300,000-and we gave them enormous amounts of support and involvement, and got involvement, participation, and exchange among them, as is well documented. With $100 million we couldn't have done it.
If we had had $100 million it never would have happened; people who would have given larger grants would be different people. Many of the traditional people who usually got all the money wouldn't bother with FIPSE because the grants were too small, and yet some of the people who had great ideas were further down in the organizational structure. But when the president of a college finds out that someone has received a government grant in a competitive competition, all of a sudden the president pays attention. A lot of what FIPSE did was to act as a magnet for creative and innovative people. This was a time when there wasn't a lot of opportunity within higher education for change, yet in the broader society there was a lot of change and support for change in higher education.
FIPSE was unlike NIE [National Institute of Education], which made demonstration grants. Big grants were for the purpose of doing something and saying, "Now this can be done, and now everyone can do the same thing." For example, they developed a satellite system for communication to be used by higher education. The trouble was that the money was too much, so no one else cared because they knew they couldn't do it themselves. Making replication possible is more than showing something works; it is showing that something has an important function and can be afforded by the institution.
The idea of many small grants was crucial. Part of the reason was the richness of the ideas-you could fund 10 ideas with big grants or 80 with smaller grants. Part of it was the desire to have broader impact. Generally speaking, people don't spend money too well if you give them a lot. The smaller grant extracts more in terms of institutional contributions. Also, the more grants you give, the more districts you have supporting the organization, which was also a peripheral side effect.
The project directors conferences that were so much admired also grew out of the fact that we were giving so many small grants. The only way we could supervise that many grants was to bring them all together in one place.
The grants were small and the projects were done by the people who were interested in the work, and the money received by them. It wasn't the big kind of thing a college president would get involved in.
Another distinguishing feature was the small size of the grants. It was eventually a deliberate strategy-when you were providing seed money, not operating support, it meant that the ideas would take pre-eminence, not the funding. It helped us. The activity had to be owned by the institution.
In the early years we were able to fund some things almost 100%. I would bet that some of those did not survive. A smaller grant sometimes just helps get the project going. In some cases all we were doing was giving the green light. Then the institution would come up with more money after the project's pockets had been emptied.
|Listening to the Field
|The FIPSE staff greatly emphasized the concept of "listening to the field": that programs and ideas should come from those working most closely with learners, rather than being dictated by the staff itself. One reason for this approach was that the staff believed that there was enormous untapped creativity in postsecondary education, and that the best projects were often those that the staff planned or anticipated least. In part, this attitude also grew out of a realistic understanding that ground-level reform could not be achieved effectively unless those closest to the learners were deeply invested in the approach. Following the ideas of the field thus assured a higher level of ownership among those who were actually working on projects.
We knew that no one had all of the answers. As we became aware of the richness of our projects, we saw that the answer lay in putting together these answers.
We felt that the answers were out there with the practitioners, that the categories must come from the field, not from ourselves. But then we found that our best projects always came from the comprehensiveness of the programs. If you are not careful you tend to believe that it is your wisdom that is making the decisions. We kept being pulled back from being overly directive, and we found that our best projects came from being most non-directive.
Our approach was based on a faith or confidence that people who were close to the ground-which is where learners really work-had good ideas. It was the difference between an institutional focus rather than a focus on learners. If you could get proposals from people who are closest to the learners, you'd make a difference.
I wouldn't say that it was entirely that we didn't have the ideas ourselves; we had plenty of ideas but we never knew what was right for a particular institution. The other thing was that in order for an idea to work, it had to come from those at the institution.
If you are interested in bringing about change and innovation, it is essential that you tap into resources, not just the dollars, but also the extra insights that are necessary to real change. You need to listen to people who are doing it on the front lines. It isn't as though we had no direction. Sorting through hundreds of applications gives you a lot of direction.
Today most foundations are increasingly saying, "We know what is good for the country and we want to find someone who will do it if we pay for it." That is misguided; they know one thing, but it overlooks the role of the person on the ground.
We were also working toward a change of attitudes, but you can't impose actions from the outside that will change the attitudes from the outside. Just as in psychiatry, unless you want to do it, it won't happen. We wanted these things to matter, and to matter they had to have the support, and the people who were doing them should feel that they owned the projects.
FIPSE's guidelines were contrary to the prevailing view, which was that you needed specific, measurable, prescriptive goals and objectives. We thought that was the wrong approach, if the purpose was to bring about change and improvement.
Because the staff didn't get too specialized, they had to keep learning from the field. It fit the organization. What was emphasized was to get the broad skills. It was tricky in some cases. When we funded things on math and writing, we would have to bring in an expert, but we kept an organizational balance between generalists and experts. We didn't have any higher education specialists. Most had training in a substantive discipline, and many had gone to small liberal arts colleges.
|An Empowered Staff
|All early grant recipients commented on the creativity, energy, and support of the FIPSE staff. As mentioned above, some of this was doubtless an accident of history, but in large part the organization fostered this spirit through conscious decisions and policies. Many staff members were recruited from outside the government bureaucracy, and many were generalists rather than narrow specialists. A high percentage of the professional staff came from the five non-civil service positions. When staff members were hired at FIPSE, a great deal of energy was spent in getting the entire staff to work as a cross-functional team, so that staff members had a strong sense of the purpose of the entire organization and each felt that his or her voice made a difference.
It was a new approach with new people. We used to have a lot of interaction about proposals and ideas. If a staff member said something, and the director said something else, they could disagree, so you could get that kind of interaction that sometimes gets cut off quickly in more structured organizations.
Several of the staffers had been on the planning committee, they recruited themselves in as a continuation of that. We practically never advertised a position. The five non-civil service positions were extremely important. Usually in a federal organization, new spots go to people with previous civil service standing. Someone might move from Title III to Student Aid; they become fungible goods within the bureaucracy. The non-civil service positions were put in to make it clear that the people should have a closer tie to the field. Since the professional staff was well under 10, about half were non-civil service at any one time.
The staff were generalists-with a lot of rotations. It was something I have always believed in. I don't like silo organizations. It seems to me that we wanted to keep people growing within an institution. Part of it was so they had a sense of how the parts functioned in relation to each other.
They were also convinced that they had the right to make these decisions on their own; my impression was that there was independent thinking. They weren't trying to think what someone else wanted; they were trying to think through each of the things they saw. They thought they could make a difference.
We had many staff meetings, partly to share information, and to make sure that everyone was clued in. Staff meetings were the most interesting meetings that one could go to; we would talk about them endlessly. There was a level of interest in the work. We had retreats for staff, in terms of rewriting the guidelines. They were fascinating, led by the director, and were not about filling out the forms. They were substantive. We would also share a lot of tasks; if you ran the project directors meeting one year, you would do something else next year.
We asked ourselves, how could we break the usual civil service mode, and make changes around personnel appointments? We stretched and pushed the regulations to the nth degree; we found things in the legislation which people didn't usually try. In addition, we gained authority to bring in a few people from the field on a short-term basis. They were like foundation officers.
We had five non-civil service positions. They were completely filled, enormously helpful. In later years, if we got another civil service position, then we moved people from the non-civil service position to a civil service position. Then we also had one-year positions from the Institute for Educational Leadership.
|A Unique Position in the Hierarchy
|FIPSE's place within the federal hierarchy also played an important role. Bureaucratically, FIPSE functioned at the same level as other, much larger organizations. The organization's director reported directly to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of HEW for Education, rather than reporting through intermediate offices. This gave FIPSE a remarkable degree of independence and authority that normally would be given only to a much larger organization, and it also provided much easier access to the Secretary of HEW. But despite this high bureaucratic status, FIPSE remained a small organization with fewer than 15 or 20 staff members, allowing much more flexibility, informality, and creativity than would be possible within a larger organization. In effect, this unique position in the federal bureaucracy gave FIPSE some of the political advantages of a large organization, while retaining the functional benefits of a small organization.
We were in an unusual position. Sometimes, it was important to go directly to the Secretary of HEW. Even where we were, it was difficult to get to the Secretary. Had we been three levels down it would have been impossible. When they decided to slash programs, it was important that the Secretary understand what we were doing, and to see that we were in some ways doing the same things he wanted to do.
If policy wonks had looked at the management plan and organizational chart, they would have said, "This can't be."
Although the FIPSE director sat at the same table as the director of NIE, we had certain advantages. If we had the $100 million like NIE, we would have had much more oversight. We were not subject to as much of that as larger programs.
One of the keys to FIPSE was the breadth of its legislative mandate. Its purposes were written broadly, and unlike other programs, the legislation didn't identify how these broad purposes were to be accomplished. Normally, federal programs have a particular parentage; someone wants something in particular. Often by the time that is implemented, the program has outlived its usefulness.
|"Hands-off" Management from Above
|Senior officials in HEW seemed content to let the organization operate with relatively little supervision, partly because the projects were not big enough to attract significant attention. Presumably, if the organization had had a more significant staff and budget, it would have attracted more notice. Alternatively, if it had been lower down in the bureaucracy, it would have received more active scrutiny from the bureaucrats directly above it. Instead, it had a much freer range of operation than either larger organizations at the same bureaucratic level or smaller organizations at a lower level in the hierarchy.
Those were the days of "benign neglect" in the Nixon administration. We were helped by the fact that we were a kind of orphan. A foundation was originally proposed by Pat Moynihan, but the idea never really caught fire. It was, however, that proposal for a national foundation that evolved into FIPSE. It was this history that created the fact that the language of the legislation was so broad. This was both very exciting and dangerous. It meant that almost anything could be justified for funding.
We were too small to care about. Any one thing we did was too small to attract anyone's attention. We had no one thing that everyone cared about. It wasn't completely hands-off; people above us had to be assured that we had a similar ideology to theirs in terms of costs and needs.
You had a "hands-off" time; people who were in charge trusted Virginia to do something good. In those days they trusted the Secretary, and the Secretary trusted Virginia. We were not in the Office of Education, we were directly under the assistant secretary, a tiny agency with equal stature to the Office of Education, or to NIE.
|An Independent But Non-Political Board
|FIPSE also had an advisory board. Since the board was advisory, its members could be appointed without political confirmation and, as a result, escape some of the political turmoil experienced by other boards. A diverse group of distinguished individuals, both educators and non-educators, was recruited. Although the board was technically advisory, in practice FIPSE relied heavily on it, seeking approval for large grants. This built a sense of ownership among the board members, who then served as advocates for the organization within the field of higher education.
We didn't use the board on grants under $50,000. On groups of grants or grants that we thought were important, we would bring in the grant proposal and describe it to them. We wanted a little more connection with the field and we wanted some friends in court, so they could be ambassadors to the field, which can only happen when they saw themselves as owners. It was our way of checking perceptions of those outside our group as to how we were doing.
The first year we took everything to the board-that gave the agency a feeling of importance. Staff liked it because they got to meet these people on the board, who were well-known and very interesting people. They knew a lot.
It was originally set up as an advisory board, which made it more flexible, but then it was given power by Virginia. The board gave the staff a certain freedom. One more group reviewing it who were outsiders, but not political outsiders.
The board was important: it was advisory, but it wasn't a board of directors. Other boards that were approved by the
political process were often politically troubled from the beginning. The FIPSE board was appointed by the Secretary, but it never got into the political waters. They never said things like, "Give a lot of money to the Minnesota state system."