Lawyers as Boundary Spanning Intermediaries


A group of higher education institutions and leaders are engaged in initiatives to increase access to higher education for first generation college-bound students living in their communities.  This place-based goal of providing educational access to the local population necessarily includes figuring out how to provide higher education access for immigrants, including those who are undocumented.  With the failure of the federal Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) in December 2010, efforts at addressing the educational needs of undocumented students has turned to the state and local level.. In many cases, the current legal and political environment has led institutions to address the educational needs of undocumented students through informal relationships, policies and practices that provide the financial and social supports needed for undocumented students to gain access to and succeed in college.   Institutions and leaders must navigate difficult legal terrain and find ways to connect the networks of faculty, students, administrators, community members, and policy makers involved in doing this work, under conditions of high conflict and polarization.

The Center for Institutional and Social Change is partnering with the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good on a research project examining the role of college and university general counsel and other lawyers in supporting educational access to undocumented students. The National Forum is advancing research in this area through the Storm Center initiative - a communications hub that works to cultivate networks that leverage support for institutional leaders taking public positions in support of higher education for undocumented students. The Storm Center will gather, disseminate, and provide information useful for those who advocate at the institutional level for undocumented students.

Project Description

The Center’s project involves conducting field research and preparing a paper on the roles, strategies, and relationships of in-house lawyers (or others in a position to give such counsel) involved in providing advice and support on issues of undocumented student access in higher education.   This project seeks to understand lawyers as institutional actors operating at the boundaries of institutions and their legal and policy environments, in advancing the full participation of undocumented students in higher education.  By gathering and collecting the narratives, strategies, and networks of general counsel and other lawyers, the project will produce a research paper that highlights and explains the role of general counsel as providing important organizational “boundary functions” that work to inform institutional leaders' decisions in an area of legal ambiguity and political polarization.   The paper will build on work done by the Center, in collaboration with students in the Diversity and Innovation Seminar, on undocumented students as transformative leaders and on institutional strategies for increasing access to higher education for undocumented students.


The Center is collaborating with John Burkhardt, the Director of the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good and the researchers at the National Forum, as well as with the leadership of higher education institutions that are involved in programs aimed at increasing educational access for first generation students in their communities, including those who are undocumented.