Glenn Gabbard Interview

Interview by Marlene Clapp

Glenn Gabbard
is co-director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE) and is a faculty member in the Higher Education Administration program at University of Massachusetts Boston.




eAIR: Briefly, what is the mission of NERCHE?

NERCHE is a resource center located within the College of Education and Human Development at UMass Boston that “is committed to collaborative change processes in higher education to address social justice in a diverse democracy” (NERCHE website). We try to organize the work of the Center around three strands: reflective inquiry into practice, the scholarship of engagement, and transitions to and through higher education.

eAIR: What was one of the first research-oriented positions you held within the field of higher education?

At the University of Connecticut Health Center, I conducted research on the national early intervention system for young children born at risk or with developmental disabilities. More related to the field of higher education is the work I did with the Community College Transfer Initiative at NERCHE. The two-year initiative focused on identifying the conditions that relate to the successful transfer of community college students to elite colleges. It was funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which was (and is) very interested in this topic. One of the key discoveries from the study was that both students and practitioners are involved in facilitating successful transfer.

eAIR: You serve in a multi-dimensional capacity at NERCHE as a leader, administrator, and researcher, and you also teach at UMass Boston. How do you balance these roles?

The link between theory and practice, which is what drew me to NERCHE, is one of the parameters that helps me to be more thoughtful in my work and keeps the various areas of my professional interests aligned. At NERCHE, we have a commitment to applied research; we do not typically engage in more classical, faculty-based studies or longitudinal studies. We are more oriented toward the experience of higher education as documented by practitioners and as it affects students. Our research is always linked in that way and stresses what will be helpful in the field. Campuses will be involved in what we do, and that requires collaboration; the nature of our work helps to maintain our focus on colleges and universities as complex workplaces.

“The link between theory and practice…is one of the parameters that help me to be more thoughtful in my work and to keep the various areas of my professional interests aligned.”

Collaborating with practitioners is very helpful in working with my students, who tend to be mid-level administrators. I see my teaching as a natural extension of the work that we do at NERCHE.  There’s a kind of reciprocal learning process between what I learn from the field and what my students and I discuss as critical change issues in higher education; knowledge from one sphere connects and supports learning in the other. Also, because I work in a small unit on a university campus, my theoretical knowledge is always linked to the realities of organizational life, including administrative leadership and connecting with my own practice of how to work with my staff and faculty colleagues. What I do as an administrator and faculty member presents opportunities for meta-analysis…seeing my own interactions on campus as occasions for better understanding how colleges work in general. 

eAIR: Please describe some of your current and/or recently completed projects at NERCHE.Project Compass is “a multi-year regional initiative to help more underrepresented minority students succeed in and graduate from public four-year institutions of higher education in New England” (NERCHE website). Project Compass was formally funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to not be a research project. Specifically, Nellie Mae wanted resources to go toward action-oriented research that would lead to structural changes on campuses and not on research that might end up benefitting a limited audience of scholars. Yet, since campuses are already engaged in knowledge creation, it seemed unwise to not allow that process to occur. What has emerged is an opportunity to document the initiative’s work and to encourage the presentation of findings through conference presentations and publications.


NERCHE also works with the Carnegie Foundation to administer the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification. This is a voluntary or elective classification that a body of campuses has received to date. These campuses are actively engaged in collaborative work within their larger communities (local, state, federal, etc.). We are currently looking at these classified institutions to consider what factors make campus-community engagement more likely and explore the future of civic engagement in higher education. NERCHE also offers the Ernest A. Lynton Award for the Scholarship of Engagement for Early Career Faculty in civic engagement and seeks to learn more about the kinds of institutional settings in which these faculty members tend to thrive.

eAIR: As a researcher, what are the most difficult challenges you have faced?

Resources—in terms of both time and money. Finding the time to give these projects the focus they demand is a challenge in the kind of setting in which we work. One needs to think of how to do the job really well without spreading oneself too thin. It is a unique type of work—I do not know of other NERCHEs.

Another interesting variable is negotiating the work and interest of an external entity in light of what we already know to be true about higher education. For example, with Project Compass, the funder wanted the campuses to demonstrate meaningful substantive changes in graduation rates by the end of the five-year project, but this was not grounded in the realities of higher education, where we now often look at six-year graduation rates or longer. It helps when we can eventually negotiate the key questions to explore when privately funded foundations come in with certain dispositions about what they want to know.

Also, balancing my researcher and non-researcher roles has been challenging at times. It is an opportunity to delve more deeply into certain kinds of projects, but because what we study at NERCHE is so broad, it is also easy to get lost.


“I’m pleased to see the role of institutional research professionals becoming more integrated into the change processes occurring in colleges and universities across the country. It is not just about generating data anymore—the researcher can help directly to make change at an institution.”

eAIR: Please describe any valuable insights about managing research projects that you have discovered?

We rely heavily on external entities at NERCHE, and aggressively pursuing the opportunities available through these entities has been useful. I have found it most useful when funders want to work out the details with us. Putting together the logic model that will guide a new initiative is the most useful phase of project planning. Projects lacking that preparatory phase have been more stressful because as you are moving through the project, the guiding questions are not there to help make the project workable. Wanting to talk and discuss the expected outcomes for a project and reconcile expectations to realities—that phase is critical. Thus, NERCHE uses logic models as a foundation for negotiation and collaboration.

eAIR: What inspires you most about the work you do?

I am inspired by how committed people are and how hard people work to make their campuses better places. On a recent campus visit, I was struck with how each person I talked with was committed to making things better for students. There seems to be a sense of increasing institutional citizenship on campuses, or a commitment beyond just doing one’s own work and an interest in making the institution as a whole a better place. Over my eight years at NERCHE, I have seen that interest grow. It seems to be a collectively shared challenge; I feel that this is a really positive turn. More younger faculty are coming in wanting to change the system, and more seasoned faculty, staff, and administrators are changing, learning, and wanting to make things better. 

eAIR: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

With so many national projects focusing on the importance of data in better understanding how to narrow achievement gaps for underserved students, I’m pleased to see the role of institutional research professionals becoming more integrated into the change processes occurring in colleges and universities across the country. It is not just about generating data anymore—the researcher can help directly to make change at an institution. I see a more eclectic and elevated role for IR professionals in the future. A different set of skills will be required; the necessary skills will not just be understanding data, but will also be knowing the kinds of questions to ask and understanding change processes—a skill-set that is invaluable. It’s clear that institutional research is quickly becoming a critical part of strategic leadership of institutional change in many colleges and universities, and that the versatility of IR staff will continue to be appreciated over time.

To learn more about NERCHE, visit the Center's website

Marlene Clapp is Senior Institutional Research Analyst in the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.



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