Jeanine Cunningham, New Research Manager of the Network, Uses Research-Informed Strategies to Tackle Equity Challenges

By Kalifa Madden, Communications Manager, Network

March 2024

Jeanine Cunningham, Research Manager at EdInsights and the Network, discusses her professional trajectory and dedication to educational research shaped by her sociology background. Her journey, beginning as a graduate student passionate about social research, has evolved into a role where she leverages her expertise to address equity and access in higher education. At EdInsights, she is motivated by the organization’s commitment to equity and views her work as a catalyst for change within California’s higher education landscape. As a research manager, Jeanine emphasizes the synergy between policy and culture change, advocating for data literacy and research-informed strategies to tackle equity issues. Through her role, Jeanine aims to empower educational leaders and institutions with the tools necessary for meaningful change, reflecting a deep understanding of the interplay between education, policy, and societal dynamics.

Kalifa Madden: Can you share a bit about your professional journey and what led you to your current role as a research manager at EdInsights and the Network?

Jeanine Cunningham: I come to research in education by way of an educational background in sociology. Years ago, as a graduate student at Sacramento State, I developed a love of the complexities of social research. That experience at Sacramento State sent me down a path of learning that has led me to different pursuits and accomplishments in academic research and publishing, applied research, and program evaluation.

I have long been interested in the ways that structures of power shape cultural narratives and influence sociopolitical conditions. I was drawn to EdInsights because of the center’s focus upon equity in higher education and I view EdInsights and the Network as agents of change within the California higher education landscape. While my current role is far removed from working with students inside the classroom, I know that the projects I manage and support impact classroom conditions and campus climates within and across the CSU and CCC systems.

KM: What is your vision as a research manager in regard to higher education policy?

JC: I believe strongly that policy change must go hand in hand with culture change. History has repeatedly shown us that sociocultural opposition to policy changes dilutes intended impacts. The research arm of the Network has the opportunity to facilitate both policy and culture change by providing people with the tools they need to support institutional change as a whole. Some of those tools are going to come from the fount of knowledge within the system and so, to me, this means partnering on research projects with people from across the CSU, developing a robust system for calls for papers on timely and relevant topics, and engaging constituents at every Network-sponsored event. Other tools and resources for institutional change will come from outside the system and a key part of my goals is to find and bring those resources to the attention of the Network. As Network Research Manager, I see my role as finding, generating, and providing the tools and resources that will aid middle leaders in shaping educational institutions and higher ed policy.

KM: What are some of the ways that research can address equity and access issues in higher education?

JC: Research, data in particular, can be enlightening and transformative or obfuscating and dangerous. What I mean by that is that data can be used to tell a lot of different stories depending upon how you slice it and frame it. This is why data literacy and research literacy are so important.

A system of higher education that centers equitable access to resources and opportunities is advanced by first drawing attention to discrepancies in access and disproportionalities in outcomes. Intentional, equity-minded data collection (for example, data collection that doesn’t thoughtlessly lump demographic groups together) is where it all begins. Data analysis and interpretation, which also require the use of equity-minded approaches, are how we move toward being able to call out equity issues. But to move from drawing attention to addressing equity issues requires the use of interventions that are evidence-based. Further, those interventions need to be guided by a commitment to ongoing evaluation and assessment because as the sociopolitical climate changes, so may the impact of a once-effective intervention.

The Network uses these principles to support the Middle Leadership Academy and the Equity in Action Grants. I look forward to ramping up the ways in which the research arm of the Network can help elevate the data literacy and research literacy skills of middle leaders across the system.

KM: How do you keep yourself informed about the latest developments in higher education policy and research?

JC: I’m always looking for new and more targeted search terms for my Google Alerts! Each week I set aside a few hours to read through the major publications in higher ed and scan the social media profiles of other higher ed organizations and research centers. On a monthly basis, I look over a selection of the latest peer-reviewed articles in education journals to stay on top of what the field is elevating at the moment.

As a matter of personal interest, I keep a constant eye on politics and specific elements of culture. I stay on top of court rulings and legislative changes in California and across the U.S., whether connected directly to education or not. I stay on top of election patterns, state and federal budget issues, conspiracy theories (yes! conspiracy theories), and recurring themes in the news headlines. Why? Because education doesn’t operate in a vacuum and as a sociologist I am always thinking about the interconnectedness of institutions, policy, social structures, and culture. Next year’s educational policy change may be today’s trending Twitter topic.

KM: What are your top priorities for the Network in the next coming year?

JC: Top priorities include creating a system for engaging more middle leaders and students in the process of Network research and starting in on a new, year-long research endeavor that is still under development. That said, my big picture top priority is staying responsive to changing issues in higher education. That may sound obvious, but I feel that we are watching a slowly-developing picture of the lingering effects of the pandemic and years of political turmoil come into focus. I think what we’re seeing now is a whole new constellation of concerns affecting faculty, staff, and students, and I think we need to do a lot of listening so that we can operate effectively as a conduit of timely and relevant information.