Irwin’s research explores how racism impacts leadership development on college campuses
Wednesday, February 21, 2024

University of Iowa College of Education alumna Lauren Irwin was awarded the Marylu McEwen Dissertation of the Year Award from College Student Educators International.

Irwin received her doctorate in Higher Education and Student Affairs  from the UI College of Education's Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies in May 2023. She is now an assistant professor in the Higher Education and College Student Personnel programs at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  

Jodi Linley, associate professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs, was Irwin’s dissertation advisor and nominated her for the award. She says Irwin continuously proves she is a highly-skilled researcher and critical scholar.

Lauren Irwin smiles in a professional portrait.
Lauren Irwin

“Dr. Lauren Irwin has excelled in all levels of her higher education and professional life, and I am so excited to see her scholarship recognized for the exceptional work it is,” Linley says. “Her study will no doubt improve social justice efforts on college campuses. Her study also holds theoretical significance; to my knowledge, this is the first operationalization of Victor Ray’s theory of racialized organizations in a student affairs context. She is setting an example for other student affairs scholars to do systemic, organizational analyses of our functional areas.” 

Irwin’s dissertation studies the impact of whiteness and racism in leadership programs. She evaluated three college campuses that claim to center social justice in their leadership programs. One campus was a large predominately white research institution on the East Coast, another was a large public Minority-Serving Institution with a racially diverse body in the Western U.S., and the third was a small Catholic, predominately white liberal arts college in the Midwest. 

Irwin found that the two predominantly white institutions benefited from resource stability in their leadership programs.

“Part of that actually came from donations from parents of students, particularly white and relatively affluent students, in those leadership programs,” Irwin says. 

Contrastingly, the leadership program at the Minority-Serving Institution consistently applied for external grants, which required extra time and resources for faculty and staff in those programs, Irwin says. 

Her dissertation also addresses how whiteness is normalized in these programs. 

“The thing that is unique is that all three of these campuses and programs were selected because of the ways that they claim to really center social justice or diversity in their programming,” Irwin says. “And what I found was that those efforts were often pretty disconnected from actual practice at predominately white institutions. Often, they continue to rely on leadership theories that were very much written from the experiences of white people, or didn't necessarily even consider identity or oppression.” 

Irwin says as someone who has been involved in College Student Educators International, previously known as the American College Personnel Association, since she was an undergraduate student, she was honored to receive this award for her dissertation. 

“To know that a group of scholars in my field saw that as worthy of recognition, and that as exemplary research is really exciting, really humbling,” Irwin says. “It feels like very energizing as I look forward in my career.”

Lauren Irwin on stage at her doctorate graduation ceremony.

Since graduating from the doctoral program at the College of Education in May 2023, Irwin has been working as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She is currently in her second semester on the tenure track. 

Before coming to the UI’s College of Education’s Department of Educational Policy and Leadership, Irwin received her Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Education Studies from UCLA and her Master of Arts in Student Affairs Administration from Michigan State University. She began her doctorate at a different program, but she transferred to the UI College of Education to be part of Iowa’ scholarly community and to focus on student affairs in her program. 

“I had the benefit of being in the most encouraging, supportive, and inspiring scholarly community that has really shaped who I am as a scholar now,” Irwin says. “I very much came here for folks doing incredible work in higher education, and got the chance to learn from great folks like Jodi Linley, Leslie Locke, Chris Ogren, Nick Bowman, Cassie Barnhardt, Sherry Watt, and Katie Broton, among others.”

Irwin says her time at the UI College of Education gave her great opportunities to engage with research and to graduate with a strong scholarly record, which helped her in the job market. 

“I have immense gratitude for the community of folks at Iowa who offered so much support and who continue to offer so much support and encouragement,” Irwin says.