Applied Anthropology and Higher Education

Over at the Society for Applied Anthropology, a Topical Interest Group (“TIG”) on Higher Education has recently come into being. I attended their first set of sessions at the SFAA conference in 2015 and found them to be a large and quite diverse group of people, many working outside of the academic social sciences. The TIG recently sent out a newsletter that announces some of the interesting work they are doing in 2017, which I thought was worth reposting here.

If anyone wants to get in touch, the current co-chair, Brian Foster (formerly provost at the University of Missouri-Columbia), can be reached at


From Brian Foster, Co-Chair
Society for Applied Anthropology

It was great to see many of our affiliates at the SfAA meeting in Santa Fe, many of whom were presenters in our TIG’s cluster of sessions and quite a few who presented in other areas. Our cluster of sessions on Anthropology of Higher Education was very impressive: great papers, great discussion in the sessions, and a good deal of informal interaction. We had over 100 presenters (including more than 30 who were first-timers in our TIG) in 25 sessions.

A new “feature” of this year’s cluster was a mini-cluster of seven sessions on diversity which was perhaps the richest and most thoughtful discussion I have ever seen on diversity in higher education. The structure was to address the question “How does it play out to be Hispanic in Higher Education?” And how does it play out to be Black, Native American, Asian, White, and a Woman? And then there was an overarching session with a discussion of the first six sessions were similar and were different—e.g., not surprisingly it plays out very differently to be Black than to be Asian. One goal of this mini-cluster was to identify new perspectives for sessions in the 2018 meeting in Philadelphia. A brief set of notes on the overarching session is provided below. A major question is whether to organize such mini-clusters in key content areas as a way to achieve more structure for future meetings.

As in the previous two TIG clusters, the participants were very interdisciplinary—in this case including Librarians, a rural sociologist, people from higher education, some from Extension, a museum director, medical faculty, chief diversity officers, a vice chancellor for student affairs, a dean of education, a general counsel, a university president, a retired professional fundraiser, and more—several of whom have joined us in previous meetings. This interdisciplinary set of perspectives is a foundation for the richness of our discussions—very different perspectives coming together in a broadly anthropological dialogue.

As in our previous meetings, we closed with a “Capstone Session” in which we talked about emerging topical themes, our goals, and leadership issues. A brief set of notes from the capstone session is provided below. I would like to stress three items of importance for sustainability and impact of the TIG. First, we have now had three meetings on Anthropology of Higher Education, and it is important that we proactively identify emerging topical themes for which applied anthropology brings a special, potentially high-impact perspective. Issues of diversity, equity, and inclusiveness clearly fit this special status for our TIG, and we will continue to build on the outstanding mini-cluster of sessions. I think it is important to form a similar mini-cluster for Philadelphia in another critical area as one way of identifying and building on the emerging themes.

A second area is related to our goals to “get the word out” on our research to administrators, higher-education organizations, and others who impact policy and operations of higher education institutions. A key way to do so is to form sessions on anthropology of higher education in meetings of associations such as APLU, AAU, AAC&U, CGS, and key disciplinary associations. Our first such session will be at the NCCI (Network for Change and Continuous Innovation) annual meeting in Minneapolis in July. Another way is to have campus-based seminars on key topics. And, of course, a critical way is to publish papers from our meetings in relevant journals or books. This too has a start: a special issue of Practicing Anthropology has now been published, and a book is nearing production stage. All of these goals require very proactive commitment—a matter related to the leadership/organizational issues.

I have found my leadership role in the TIG to be extremely rewarding in several ways. Perhaps most important is the intellectual engagement with the subject matter. After more than twenty-five years in dean and provost roles at four universities, I have a perspective on ways that our TIG can have positive impact in this time of extreme volatility in higher education. In addition, I have valued the interaction with affiliates of the TIG—an extraordinary mix of highly talented and committed contributors. And I would very much like to continue in some kind of leadership role—to make contributions to our future.

That said, I am approaching some limits on the level of commitment I can make—partly due to age, partly to health issues of my wife, and partly to some of my own health issues. The issue is made more compelling by health issues of the co-chair, Glen Davidson, who will no longer be able to continue in this role. The matter is more complex by the fact that to date we have moved forward in a completely informal way. There seemed to be agreement at the Capstone Session that, while we do not want a highly structured organization, we need some level of formal support for the TIG. Ideas included having two co-chairs, whose main responsibility would be to organize sessions for the SfAA annual meetings and coordinate the other functions of the TIG. In addition, it would be helpful to have a “shadow chair” who is positioned to step into a chair role. In addition, we need three “vice chairs” who have responsibility for specific operational matters: organizing sessions at other organizations, working on publications, and maintaining a data base for affiliates. And finally, while an “Advisory Board” sounds too formal, some kind of group (the idea of a “sounding board” was suggested) to engage in planning for the future of the TIG, providing advice to the chairs, and other “advisory” functions.

It is very important that we move forward to put this structure in place. Please send me your suggestions for TIG affiliates who could fill these positions; PLEASE SEND SUGGESTIONS NO LATER THAN MAY 15TH.

  • Co-chairs
  • Vice Chair for organizing sessions in meetings other than SfAA
  • Vice Chair for working on publications
  • Vice Chair for maintaining data base on affiliates
  • Members of the “sounding board”

We would greatly appreciate input from affiliates on all the issues discussed in the Newsletter and in the sessions in Santa Fe—on leadership/organizational issues, on topical themes, and/or on sessions for other organizations and/or campuses. And we would greatly appreciate thoughts, corrections, and/or other input on the notes from the Diversity Session and the Capstone. Again, thanks for your interest and for your contributions!


Capstone Session for Anthropology of Higher Education TIG
SfAA Meeting, Santa Fe, 2017

Co-chair of the TIG, Brian Foster, led the discussion. He laid out three general topics:

  1. Future leadership.
  2. Goals for the TIG.
  3. Themes to develop for cluster groups. How should we do that?

Future Leadership

Brian Foster will continue to provide leadership, but due to personal issues (especially his wife’s health) he will not be able to maintain the current level of commitment.

Consensus was that, due to the amount of work, appointing co-chairs is a good idea. Serving as a co-chair will be a good experience for future chairs/co-chairs.

An informal advisory group was discussed positively—perhaps to be called a “sounding board.”

“Assistant chairs” will be needed to do operational tasks—e.g., scheduling sessions for other higher-education organizations, organizing publications, maintaining a TIG data base for affiliates.

Before a call for chair(s), perhaps the history, general goals of the TIG, duties of chairs, etc. should be articulated more clearly/formally.

Goals for the TIG

Optimally, discussions emanating from the TIG might have an impact on policy at institutions of higher education. We need to organize ourselves to get papers/publications out.

Perhaps seminars on the anthropology of higher education that would be held at higher educational institutions could be organized to help form relationships with and get involvement by the following groups?

  • AAA – American Anthropological Association —
  • COPAA — Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology —
  • Community colleges – how can we get community college faculty, full-time and adjunct, and students, involved?
  • International colleges and universities – how can we get faculty and students working and studying abroad more involved?
  • GLAM – Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums —

Funding – What are some sources of funding for seminars, travel, etc.?

We need two or three Newsletters a year for affiliates and a report twice a year for the SfAA Board.

Possible Topic Clusters

The arts – could be wide-ranging including visual art, music, theatre, dance, interior design, architecture, graphic design, industrial design, museum studies, and more.

Pedagogical models in different disciplines.

Cross-sections of different types of higher educational institutions and how they interact or not: public universities, private universities, community colleges, public colleges, private colleges, technical schools, and more.

Discussions that could be centered around the 2018 SfAA theme: Sustainable Futures. This might be especially relevant with changes in and threats to higher education itself.

Libraries – the preservation of artifacts, archives, and field notes. Universities, US and abroad, don’t want book donations anymore. How will information get preserved going forward?

Outcomes assessment in different disciplines.

Build on the Diversity Mini-Cluster—special attention might go to intersectionality. Bring inequity and power into discussions of diversity in higher education in addition to issues of identity.

Different cultural approaches to leadership.

More international representation – comparative higher education.

Many thanks to Sandra Luehrsen for her draft notes, which have been complemented by contributions from Karla Davis-Salazar and Shannon Joy Telenko.


Diversity Mini-cluster of Sessions at Anthropology of Higher Education TIG
SfAA Meeting, Santa Fe, 2017

Creating the context: “Diversity” was discussed in broad terms. These complicated issues intersect with linguistics, national, occupation, regional, rural vs. urban, tribal, and more. There are broad issues beyond race, ethnicity, and gender.

The very ideas of “diversity” and “inclusion” are problematic in many ways: alternate concepts were discussed, including “equity,” “equality,” and “justice.”

Intersectionality was a recurring theme: overlapping categories is an important dynamic. Overlapping identities are critical; we manipulate them strategically, thus presenting a complex set of issues. How does this work in Higher Education? We constantly strategically move through different identities—e.g., disciplines, professions, administration, faculty, and much more.

How do we use our multiple identities in higher education—strategic navigation and code-switching? Walter A. Allen’s work is referenced.

Underlying dynamics when there is intersectionality: there are many barriers to inclusivity. A question to be asked: how is it to be human? There is value to historically rooted discussion. We cannot afford to be US-centric; context is global.

Census categories are problematic, and without recognition of contemporary context, Census is at best a blunt instrument. Genetic background is an important element, as is language. Coding is very complex—e.g., by village, by ethnicity, by tribe, by nationality; what is meaningful and why?

Don’t lose agency. Multiple identities are at the core of people’s lives. Being part something vs. being part of something: to situate, locate oneself is important.

Examples were shared about post-9/11 circumstances: more stereotyping, racial “battle fatigue.” “I” needs to become “WE” as we move forward with a global context for “WE.”

We want to connect with others, but all groups have implicit biases. What language do we use and NOT use? Syllabi capture the importance of diverse voices. We are all here at this session because we care deeply about this issue. What should we NOT do? What is offensive? We can ask each other this question. How do we get new people in the room to gain awareness? Structures and institutions are very important in this discussion. Incremental change is realistic.

We are talking about traditions and change. We actually need to DO something in response to this work. Create new traditions?

How shall we address these issues in next year’s SfAA meeting in Philadelphia?

Many thanks to Nancy Uscher for providing draft notes for this session.

Published by

Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

One thought on “Applied Anthropology and Higher Education”

  1. I would like to add a dimension to those already appearing. Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education has a piece on academic departmental life that could open up a rich topic for ethnographic research. It is the academic workplace up close and personal. How departmental life, presence or absence in offices, meeting spaces, and the dynamics of relationships are transforming as part of the changes brought on by telecommuting, neoliberal administrative measures, competitive pressures, etc. Some institutions and fields apparently retain lively and sociable workspaces while others do not. How does this work? For whom does it work (tenured faculty, adjuncts, students, staff)? And so on. See

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