Content / The Work of Boundary Spanning at ASU

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ASU’s Social Embeddedness Network Monthly Brown Bag Lunch Series kicked off on Friday, September 21st on the Tempe campus. The topic of discussion was based on the work of Weerts and Sandmann (2010), “Community Engagement and Boundary Spanning Roles at Research Universities.”

Because the Social Embeddedness Network is designed to support, celebrate and connect staff and faculty throughout ASU who are advancing community-based teaching research within their respective units and academic disciplines, the topic was apropos: Who are the key university actors whose skills, experience, and roles span the boundaries of the university and community environments? What functions do they play? What are their special skills? What are their unique challenges?

For research institutions like ASU that are also deeply committed to being socially embedded, Boundary Spanners play a critical role in being able operationalize that value and navigate the tensions which inherently exist between traditional academic research and a university that seeks to engage deeply with the public.

Weerts and Sandmann offer the following 4 profiles of boundary spanners at research universities:

  • Community-based problem solvers:
    • often are former community practitioners and identify more closely with community than the university
    • hold titles like “field agent” and “program manager”
    • excel at interpersonal relationships and brokering partnerships, negotiating expectations, and breaking down cultural barriers between the university and community.
    • Often feel challenged with playing a neutral role, ruffle feathers as they challenge the status quo at universities
  • Technical Experts:
    • often Tenured faculty who are more aligned with the university
    • contribute to partnerships based on their high level of disciplinary expertise
    • often feel torn between the misalignment of university expectations/procedures/incentive structures and the needs of the community, experience clashes of agenda-setting power, bear the burden the indiscretions of previous faculty engagement
  • Internal Engagement Advocates:
    • aligned more the university as they lead institution-wide efforts to change structures, culture, budgets, reward systems, promotion and tenure guidelines that support engagement
    • hold leadership positions such as provosts and deans, but come from traditional faculty roles
    • often experience a gap between traditional academic culture and the expressed engagement agenda
  • Engagement Champions:
    • Lead highly visible efforts to respond to the community needs
    • Roles are often executive leadership positions in the President’s office or Directors of offices of engagement
    • Work to create major alliances, coalitions, political actions, demonstrate institutional brand and commitment to being responsible stewards of public funds
    • Challenged to stay connected and aware of internal engagement efforts

Participants in the lunch discussion shared their respective roles and which profile they most identified with. They then placed a dot sticker along a diagram that depicted the four roles along a spectrum of “Social Closeness” (i.e. community vs. university orientation), and along a spectrum of “Task Orientation” (practical skills vs. socio-emotional leadership skills).

Unsurprisingly, most of us found our roles did not squarely fit within any one category. We enjoyed hearing boundary spanner perspectives from each of the quadrants.


The discussion was based around determining where the framework fell short of ASU’s network of socially embedded boundary spanners.

Hybrid Roles
ASU embraces a highly decentralized model for community engagement. Because no one unit or office leads community engagement, Community-based Problem Solvers at ASU often also shoulder the responsibility of being a public Engagement Champion for their program. In essence, not only are they tasked with brokering trusting relationships and managing expectations with partners but they are also empowered to build external political capital and intra-organizational support within their segment – a role other institutions often place on more senior level leadership. Collectively, the work of these hybrid Community-based Problem Solver/Engagement Champions represents ASU’s broader credibility with the community, and the innumerable entry points through which communities can engage with ASU.

Similarly, one ASU boundary spanner explained that her work as a non Tenure-Track community-engaged postdoc researcher allows her to sympathize with both the challenges presented on front lines as a Community-based Problem Solvers but also operate within the same system as the Technical Experts. She is able to span the boundaries between the university and the community because she has her foot in both of those roles and can arbitrate the stark differences between those worlds.

Missing Roles
Whose role is it to package university research into the formats that are useful to communities? Should the community take responsibility for locating, decoding, and interpreting relevant academic research? Or should the university take responsibility for packaging academic research in ways that are usable and practical for non-academic audiences? This is surely the work for a boundary spanner. One ASU boundary spanner argued this work may warrant an additional boundary spanning profile. Perhaps defined as Knowledge Mobilizers, these boundary spanners are not engaged with the research process and knowledge production itself (and all the constraints that come with that work), but rather with bridging the gap between producing and consuming new knowledge.


The next Social Embeddedness Network Brown Bag lunch discussion will take place on Wednesday, Oct 10th on the Downtown Phoenix campus during which we’ll discuss “Working for the University, Designing for the University.”



Content / Work Boundary Spanning Asu