Lisa Best
Anderson College of Business and Computing, Regis University

Abenicio D. Rael
President’s Office, Front Range Community College

Michael A. Schulman
Academic and Student Affairs, Colorado Community College System

Jennifer Sobanet
Administration and Strategy, University of Colorado Denver


Three public educational institutions located on the east coast share a campus: a STEM high school, a community college, and a university. The institutions serve over 50,000 people per day. Each institution has its own budget, federal, state, and local funding sources, employees, and students. However, the institutions share financial responsibilities for common campus necessities, such as parking, grounds maintenance, police protection, and physical plant operations. The campus is led by a chief executive officer who manages the campus with a $20 million budget funded annually by the institutions. Due to the 2008 recession, student enrollment increased dramatically placing significant demand on facilities. In addition, the state has modified its funding formulas to reward higher education institutions that graduate students with two- and four-year degrees with a focus on underrepresented groups. The biweekly meetings, designed to plan for an expansion of the campus, have become unproductive. However, decisions must be made to ensure the financial and physical health of the campus to better serve the employees and students who work and learn at the institutions.

Keywords: agreement, buildings, campus, culture, degrees, enrollment, expansion, facilities, funding, institutions, leaders, physical plant, shared facilities, underrepresented

Cite as: Best, L., Rael, A. D., Schulman, M. A., & Sobanet, J. (2021). The Learning District: State and local pressures experienced by a shared campus. Cases on Leadership for Equity and Justice in Higher Education, 2021(2).

Case Narrative

In a large city on the east coast, three public educational institutions share a physical campus located in an urban environment. The educational institutions are Wally Kravitz High School for Science and Technology (Wally), Mid-Atlantic Junior College (MAJC) and James Mason University (JMU). Wally is a STEM-focused high school led by a Principal Pat Bilby, MAJC is a community college led by President Leslie Rodizio, and JMU is a university led by President Jamie Cardoza.

Each institution has its own governance structure. The high school reports to the local school district, the community college is managed by a state governor-appointed Board of Trustees, and the university is directed by a publicly elected Board of Governors. Each educational institution has separate budgets, funding, employees, and students. However, they all share the physical plant of the campus and must agree to fund all maintenance, renovations, and expansions. The two higher education institutions often compete for the same students, which puts pressure on the high school.

The physical campus, called The Learning District (TLD), is led by the campus Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Robin Singh, who reports to a governor-appointed board separate from the three institutional governing boards.

The public campus serves over 50,000 people daily and is managed and maintained by the CEO, with a $20 million operating budget funded annually by the three institutions. Robin’s oversight involves the lecture halls, library, student center, gymnasium, parking structures, common areas, outdoor spaces, landscaping, and security protection. The CEO also manages all campus events, provides a child-care facility for the employees and students, connects the campus to the urban community surrounding it, and creates a vision for further development of the shared facilities.

Each educational institution’s mission is closely related, which causes frustrations for the three leaders who feel they are in an unfair situation as the state encourages mission overlap and sharing of resources to minimize state funding. These institutions did not choose to co-locate on this campus, but because of decades of history and decisions made by past elected officials, the institutions must remain co-located. The leaders of the educational institutions have had collegial working relationships, but over the years the relationships have deteriorated.

A large portion of the city’s residents come from underrepresented populations; many are Pell eligible and first-generation students. The state’s underrepresented students are not completing college degrees at the same rate as their white counterparts. As the state’s economy grows, most jobs are filled by new residents with college degrees who are moving to the state faster than the state can award degrees to its own population. There is incredible pressure from the governor for all state higher education institutions to educate and graduate more state residents with degrees despite few resources to help achieve this goal.

Overall, 50% of the state’s residents have a college degree, however the completion rate is only 40% among underrepresented groups. The state has created a new funding formula focused on accelerated degree completion and has launched a campaign called “The Screaming 70s” to have a degree attainment rate of 70% among residents by 2027. While the focus is on the overall attainment rate, there is no specific focus on closing the gap between underrepresented students and white students.

Robin has worked in various positions for all three institutions throughout her 30-year career, which makes her very knowledgeable of the campus, its facilities and history. She has developed respectful relationships with the leaders of each organization. As the institutions are at odds over both space and students, Robin feels she must help unify the institutions, address the growing equity gap, and, as a team, work to address the state’s funding inequities.

The Problems

Due to the 2008 recession, many individuals who found themselves jobless or needing to retool for richer job opportunities enrolled in postsecondary education. These new students dramatically increased enrollment for the two public higher education organizations, JMU and MAJC, placing a significant demand on campus facilities.

The inability of the higher education leaders, Jamie and Leslie, to reach any agreements on such topics as classroom remodels, building expansions, and fee-based initiatives has halted all infrastructure and physical plant investments. Routine maintenance has been put off. Plans to build new facilities to accommodate the growth of student enrollment has come to a standstill. To meet or exceed the state’s degree-granting initiatives, both higher education leaders are seeking to benefit by appropriating the other’s students. The recruiting aggressiveness has impacted the Wally high school students, who feel they are preyed upon by JMU’s and MAJC’s admission staffs. The biweekly meetings between the CEO and leaders of the three institutions have become uncomfortable and unproductive.

Students Ensnared by Bureaucracy

Decisions made by one organization have often impacted another. JMU sold parking permits to raise revenue. The move was strongly recommended by JMU’s elected Board of Governors, as it cited the jump in revenue experienced by other universities when a paid parking permit program was instituted. However, the community college students were promised free parking and were ticketed for parking in the designated-shared lots.

MAJC celebrated Black History month with banners, flyers, and seminars which featured nationally recognized Black Scholars. The events culminated with all local high school seniors being invited to a Black History month celebration and guided campus tour. JMU knew nothing about the community college events and found the university’s scheduled Black History month events tepid compared to MAJC’s well-orchestrated celebrations. Calls, emails, and letters poured in admonishing the university for not celebrating the achievements of Black Americans.

The introduction of a new funding formula also strained relations between the institutions. The state provided additional funding to higher education institutions for awarding first-time college students either two- or four-year degrees. The formula is weighted to benefit institutions that focus on marginalized demographic groups. A higher percentage of funds are given if an institution increases its full-time equivalency (FTE) student hours based on the same demographics. The state funding formula change has prompted JMU to recruit MAJC students before they earn an associate degree, which is viewed by the state as the student’s first-time college degree. JMU is aggressive in luring MAJC students who are even one credit away from their associate degree. This move, sanctioned by the state, incites heated conversation between Jamie and Leslie.

Also, a state concurrent enrollment initiative with a focus on underrepresented students motivates high school students to earn college credits at a reduced tuition rate before entering college. Students from the campus high school, Wally, enrolled at MAJC. While the program was intended to give underrepresented students college credit at little or no cost, white middle-class students, who made up 52% of the concurrent enrollment student population, primarily availed themselves of the opportunity, followed by Latinx students enrollment rate of 25.9%. This concerned MAJC, as it was losing out on the income generated by students who typically paid to attend junior college over the summer in order to gain an advantage in the fall. Also, data show those students who paid tuition in the past to earn college credits now use the low-cost program before they transfer to private universities outside the state.

Leadership Intensity

Meetings between Robin and each higher education leader were filled with claims that the other stymied all efforts to execute a facilities expansion, accusations of student poaching, and reports of general unethical behavior. For example, neither president would approve proposed plans for a new shared classroom facility. JMU’s president wanted exclusive rights to the proposed 200-seat lecture hall, and MAJC’s president wanted the exclusive rights to the same lecture hall for community workforce development initiatives. During meetings with Robin, each president insisted the other leader was an example of poor performance and poor collegiality.

Leslie claimed, “I can’t stand anyone from JMU. They regularly pilfer our students and do not give them the support they need to be successful. When the students move to JMU without an associate degree they drop out in debt and in a worse position than if they had never gone to college. This has forced us to sign more articulation agreements with out-of-state colleges. JMU has been eating into our concurrent enrollment by offering incentives to the high school faculty to send students to JMU. These actions increase JMU’s enrollment at our expense.”

Jamie claimed, “JMU has the most to gain and the most to lose if we don’t reach consensus on expanding our facilities. MAJC’s enrollment has not increased as much as ours. They know this and are intentionally obstructing progress out of jealousy. I understand the struggle as we both chase students from the high school, but this is just an example of the better school acquiring the students.”

Pat, the principal of Wally (WKHSST), was caught in the middle. Wally also wanted to expand and guide its students to a successful higher education experience, but the needs of the high school and its students seemed less important than the needs of the other parties who dominated the conversations. Pat declared: “We are a well-respected, technology-focused high school. Most of our students attend prestigious out-of-state science and engineeringuniversities. We won’t stay well-respected if we can’t execute our facilities expansion.”

Pat voiced the frustration of those students who want to stay local and wondered if they can receive a great education at tuition rates that won't bankrupt them. “My students are fully aware they are pawns in the student acquisition fight between JMU and the community college. Many tell me they can’t understand what benefits either school can offer them.”

Pat expressed disappointment over the back-and-forth fault-finding between Jamie and Leslie. “During a day-long college visit event at Wally, the community college and university reps bickered over placement of their respective booths in the high school gym, and then took shots at each other as they talked to the students about their institution’s offerings. I had to ask each rep to stop the word sniping. We were all uncomfortable, and that includes the students.”

Manage Toward a Shared Purpose

Robin’s challenge is to bring the three institutions together and facilitate moving forward with the maintenance and expansion of campus facilities. The governor-appointed board, who advises Robin in terms of campus operations, is concerned students’ needs are not being met and has asked Robin to develop solutions to address the deferred maintenance, expansion funding requirements, and to advise on the education barriers created by state funding incentives.

Teaching Notes

This case was developed for higher education administration course work. It presents challenges higher education professionals face regarding reporting structures and governance, increased student enrollment with limited resources (financial and physical), leadership disagreements, the unintended consequences of policy shifts, and a deteriorating culture. This case highlights complex issues administrators must confront and explores layers of dilemma related to equity measures that create problems while attempting to solve others. The case also provides students the opportunity to evaluate, analyze, and brainstorm workable solutions.

Because of the uniqueness of the intertwined relationships and campus operations, students should take a holistic approach when analyzing the case, rather than providing a single solution to the problem. In addition, students should consider how the differences in power, influence, and culture can be complicated when institutions share a space that is operated and managed by a separate entity.

Students also are challenged to identify institutional struggles and environmental changes. Consider the teachings of Heifetz and Laurie and how “leaders must be able to identify struggles over values and power,” and that “getting people to do adaptive work is the mark of leadership in a competitive world” (2001, p. 39).

Discussion Questions

  1. What problem(s) need to be addressed in this case?
  2. Can a measure meant to help increase equity actually hurt it?
  3. Analyze this case by assuming the role of CEO. What are the next steps?
  4. What are the options regarding the use of facilities and expansion if leaving the campus is not an option?
  5. If leaving the campus is an option, how would this change positions and/or decisions? Why?
  6. Who in this case has power? Why?
  7. How do politics play a role?
  8. Do state funding incentives to close achievement have unintended consequences? Why?
  9. How does culture play a role?
  10. What is the best approach to get all three institutions to invest in the renovation and expansion of facilities?

Recommendations and Theories

Recommendations for this case are based on several theories. Bolman and Gallos (2011) discuss the three Ps of change: persistence, process, and patience. The five components of leadership (Fullan, 2001) should also be taken into consideration, along with the Five Bases of Power (French Jr. & Raven, 1959).

In this scenario, there are many leaders in positions of power, all of whom are decision makers who need to come to consensus. It is the duty of the CEO to harmonize the group, bringing unity and cohesion, so decisions can be finalized about campus maintenance and expansion.

Consider how the CEO uses the three Ps when meeting with the institutional leaders whose relationships are at odds. Should the CEO be persistent when trying to build cohesion between the leaders and drive toward an agreement to spend funds for expansion? Consider the process the CEO should follow to change the culture and bring the presidents and stakeholders together to solve the issue. As Edgar Schein (1990, p. 358) states, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” Consider who should step into this leadership role and what she/he/they should do?

In a unique detail in this case, students can explore mimetic isomorphism (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983) when considering the decision made by JMU’s elected Board of Governors to follow a practice made by other universities to increase revenue, but those actions also contributed to the deteriorated campus culture.

Another theory to consider is Fullan’s (2001) Five Components of Leadership. Fullan describes moral purpose as working with the intention to improve or make a positive difference. As the CEO, could moral purpose persuade the institutional leaders to agree to fund additional building space? How could the CEO bring the leaders together to discuss changes and help them understand the need for additional space? Relationships are another key component in this case, along with coherence making and knowledge building.

Consider Critical Race Theory (CRT) from an equity perspective when discussing state funding incentives designed to benefit minoritized students. Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, and Thomas (1995) asserts the task of CRT is to show “how deeply issues of racial ideology and power continue to matter in American life” (p. 32).

Is there an example of imperialistic reclamation (Nishi, 2020)? Are programs designed to help underrepresented students avoid being taken advantage of by students who do not need the assistance? What happens when the programs no longer help those who do not need the assistance and only help underrepresented groups?

Can fighting over degree completion lead to poorer student outcomes? Students who receive an associate degree before transfer tend to have better outcomes at a university, while those who do not often end up in debt with no degree and worse off than had they never gone to college (Kirp, 2019).

It is important for the graduate student to understand these key components when conceptualizing and analyzing this case. Students should consider the central problem, stakeholders, possible resolutions, and implementation plan(s) for resolving the problem(s) while utilizing the recommended theories.


Bolman, L., & Gallos, J. (2011). Reframing academic leadership (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Crenshaw, K., Gotanda, N., Peller, G., & Thomas, K. (1995). Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement. New York Press

Dimaggio, P. J., & Powell, W. W. (1983). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review, 48(2), 147–160.

French, J. R. P., Jr., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power (D. Cartwright, Ed.). Studies in social power, 150–167.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. Jossey-Bass.

Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (2001). The work of leadership [The best of HBR]. Harvard Business Review, 38–39.

Kirp, D. (2019, July 26). The college dropout scandal. Retrieved from .

Nishi, N. W. (2020). Imperialistic reclamation of higher education diversity initiatives through semantic co-option and concession. Race Ethnicity and Education, February 2020, 1–19.

Schein, E. H. (1990). Organizational culture. American Psychologist, 45(2), 109–119.

About the Authors

Lisa Best

Lisa Best has over 30 years of experience in global marketing leadership roles for Fortune 50 companies. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver-Anschutz School of Education and Human Development with a focus on Educational Equity in Higher Education. Lisa will complete her doctoral research work at Regis University by studying the participation of female Latinx undergraduate students in the business school’s entrepreneurial activities.

Abenicio D. Rael

Abenicio D. Rael is the Executive Director of Equity and Inclusion at Front Range Community College. Operating as the Chief Diversity Officer, Abenicio provides leadership for professional development and initiatives that create an equitable environment for the college and community.

Michael A. Schulman

Michael A. Schulman leads strategic Student Affairs initiatives and policy for the Colorado Community College System. Previously Michael has worked in higher education administration and as a consultant, managing administrative areas including student services, parking, food services, records and enrollment, scholarships and financial aid, student government, student organizations, and student center operations.

Jennifer Sobanet

Jennifer Sobanet is a doctoral candidate at CU Denver and serves as the university’s Executive Vice Chancellor of Administration and Strategy.  She leads the strategic plan implementation, partnerships, innovation and the financial and administration strategy of CU Denver. Her scholarly pursuits focus on the intersection of racial equity-mindedness and resource allocation.