Ecological Impact Model

A fundamental principle of transformation is that change must occur at many levels at once.  While the National Forum believes its distinctive mission requires work at the system level of higher education, we acknowledge and encourage the need for change within individuals, institutions, and throughout society.  Each of these levels is vital to the ultimate goal of our work.  The only way to transform the system is by supporting changes in all other levels as we focus attention on the boundaries between the higher education system and the society it serves.

We have created an Ecological Impact Model to illustrate the multiple layers of interconnectedness in processes of transformation.  Several features of the model are helpful for understanding the way we frame transformational change in our research:

  • Levels: The ecological impact model represents four levels at which change occur.  Simply put, each individual is affiliated with an institution(s), which is part of the higher education system, which is part of the broader society.  Because of these multiple layers embedded within one another, we can talk about the same person from a variety of perspectives.  For instance, we can define our unit of analysis as an individual student, and research her experiences.  Or, we can examine institutions and the ways in which individuals interact within them; and so on.  Thus, the ecological model is a helpful tool from the beginning of our research design processes.
  • Boundaries: While many researchers examine phenomena within one level of an ecosystem, we find that situating our research at ecological boundaries is more fruitful.  Thus, when researching change, or when creating actionable research to inform change, it is more powerful to focus our inquiry at the boundaries between ecological levels.  For instance, rather than focusing our research on how institutions operate, or on how the higher education system is structured, we prefer to situate our research in between, examining the interactions and interplay between institutions and the system.  Thus, we might ask how individual institutions are responding to a contemporary issue, such as access to higher education for undocumented students, and how those institutions’ actions are impacting the broader system.  We can further focus our research to examine boundary-spanning roles.  Tushman and Scanlan (1981b) describe the role of boundary-spanners as “important mechanism[s] for linking their organization or subunit to external sources of information” (p. 83).  We can further distinguish between informational and representational boundary-spanners, where representational spanners focus on resource acquisition and disposal (Tushman & Scanlan, 1981a), the broader definition of boundary-spanning as information diffusion and exchange (Yukl, 1999) suffices for our framing purposes.  Situating our research at institutional boundaries also offers us very fruitful ground for researching leadership across the various levels of our model.  As the work of the Forum matures beyond its tenth year, we are moving towards a reframing of much of our work from a leadership perspective.  Leaders who are situated at boundaries within and between organizations have the potential to exercise considerable power and create lasting change; for this reason, we are finding it increasingly advantageous to situate our research at the boundaries.
  • Overlap: Near the top of the model, each of the four levels shares a common border.  This signifies that actions at any level impact the others, and have the potential to impact them significantly.  Thus, even an individual can create deep and lasting change at the societal level; look no further than famous examples of transformational leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi for an illustration of this phenomenon.  In the same way, though many societal trends are mediated through the other levels before they impact the individual, some have a direct effect; an example might be civil rights legislation which instantly bestows upon individuals rights they did not previously enjoy.  However, it is unusual for deep and lasting change to occur simultaneously across levels.  Most often, change is mediated through the embedded levels of the model.
While the ecological model is relatively simple, it is a powerful way of framing our thinking and research, from conception to funding proposal to research to completion.  Perhaps others will also find it helpful in framing their work, as together we strive to create a more just society, especially through higher education for the public good.


Tushman, M. L., & Scanlan, T. J. (1981a). Boundary spanning individuals: Their role in information-transfer and their antecedents. Academy of Management Journal, 24(2), 289-305.

Tushman, M. L., & Scanlan, T. J. (1981b). Characteristics and external orientations of boundary spanning individuals. Academy of Management Journal, 24(1), 83-98.

Yukl, G. (1999). An evaluative essay on current conceptions of effective leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 8(1), 33-48.