The University Under Pressure: Volume 46

Cover of The University Under Pressure

Table of contents

(23 chapters)
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Abstract

Universities in both North America and Europe are under substantial pressure. We draw on the papers in this volume to describe those pressures and explore their consequences from an organizational standpoint. Building on the institutional logics perspective, field theories, world society theory, resource dependence, and organizational design scholarship, these papers show how the changing relationship between the state and higher education, cultural shifts, and broad trends toward globalization have led to financial pressures on universities and intensified competition among them. Universities have responded to these pressures by cutting costs, becoming more entrepreneurial, increasing administrative control, and expanding the use of rationalized tools for management. Collectively, these reactions are reshaping the field(s) of higher education and increasing stratification within and across institutions. While universities have thus far proven remarkably adaptive to these pressures, they may be reaching the limits of how much they can adapt without seriously compromising their underlying missions.

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Part I: The University Under Pressure – An Overview

Abstract

Media characterizations of the state of higher education in America often seem bipolar. They emphasize either the accomplishments of the most successful elite schools or the failures of colleges that are beset by problems and falling behind the performance of schools in other developed societies. A more complete understanding of higher education is obtained by embracing an organization field perspective, which recognizes the multiplicity of schools that exist – their varying origins, missions, structures, and performance metrics. This diversity is concretized by focusing on the evolving characteristics of colleges in one metropolitan region: the San Francisco Bay Area. The field perspective also calls attention to the support and governance systems that surround colleges and account for much of the stability of the field.

Organization fields are shaped by both isomorphic and competitive processes. Isomorphic processes have been dominant for many years, but now competitive processes are in ascendance. All fields are embedded in wider societal structures, and the field of higher education is richly connected in modern societies with the economic, stratification, and political spheres. Some of these interdependences reinforce within-field processes, some recast them, and still others disrupt them. The appearance of new technologies, new types of students, and changing work requirements have begun to unsettle traditional field structures and processes and encourage the development of new modes of organizing. Over time, the dominant professional mode of organizing higher education is being undercut and, in many types of colleges, supplanted by one based on market forces and managerial logics.

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European universities have changed dramatically over the last two to three decades. The two dominant frameworks to analyze these changes are “New Public Management” and the construction of “complete organizations.” Both of these approaches highlight isomorphic processes leading to increased homogenization within European universities. However, empirical evidence suggests that European universities are differentiating from each other at the same time as they are becoming more isomorphic. To explain the simultaneity of homogenization and differentiation among European universities, we use the concept of nested organizational fields. We distinguish between a global field, a European field, and several national, state, and regional fields. Homogenization and differentiation are then the result of similar or different field embeddedness of European universities. The advantage of this approach lies in explaining homogenization and differentiation of universities within individual countries on the one hand, as well as cross-national homogenization and differentiation of subgroups of universities on the other hand.

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Part II: Pressures at the Field Level

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Much has been analyzed regarding the origins and the impact of rankings and metrics on policies, behaviors, and missions of universities. Surprisingly, little attention has been allocated to describing and analyzing the emergence of metrics as a new action field. This industry, fueled by the “new public management” policy perspectives that operate at the backstage of the contemporary pervasive “regime of excellence,” still remains a black box worth exploring in depth. This paper intends to fill this loophole. It first sets the stage for this new action field by stressing the differences between the policy fields of higher education in the United States and Europe, as a way to understand the specificities of the use of metrics and rankings on both continents. The second part describes the actors of the field, which productive organizations they build, what skills they combine, which products they put on the market, and their shared norms and audiences.

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The United States has been at the forefront of a global shift away from direct state funding of higher education and toward student loans, and student debt has become an issue of growing social concern. Why did student loans expand so much in the United States in the 1990s and 2000s? And how does organization theory suggest their expansion, and the growth of federal student aid more generally, might affect higher education as a field? In the 1960s and 1970s, policy actors worked to solve what was then a central problem around student loans: banks’ disinterest in lending to students. They did this so well that by 1990, a new field of financial aid policy emerged, in which all major actors had an interest in expanding loans. This, along with a favorable environment outside the field, set the stage for two decades of rapid growth. Organization theory suggests two likely consequences of this expansion of federal student loans and financial aid more generally. First, while (public) colleges have become less dependent on state governments and more dependent on tuition, the expansion of aid means colleges are simultaneously becoming more dependent on the federal government, which should make them more susceptible to federal demands for accountability. Second, the expansion of federal student aid should encourage the spread of forms and practices grounded in a logic focused on students’ financial value to the organization, such as publicly traded for-profit colleges and enrollment management practices.

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This research paper aims to better understand the network structure of higher education in North America. It draws on a relationally networked dataset of 1,292 degree-granting colleges and universities in North America to develop a modularity class approach to categorizing colleges and universities based on their own self-defined peer networks and assesses the utility of the modularity class approach as well as several measures of network centrality for predicting offerings of new curricular fields. Results show that not all measures of network centrality equally predict organizational change outcomes, with hub/authority position being most important. Additionally, results show that an empirically derived modularity class approach to categorizing organizations has important strengths in relation to more typical approaches based on prestige or perceived organizational characteristics. The approaches detailed in this paper will be useful for future analysts seeking to explain the spread of innovations and behavior across the higher education institutional field, as well as those seeking to understand clustering and organizational divergence.

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Is the aim of the university to prepare citizens to contribute to civic and social life as well as to travel flexibly and successfully through a rapidly changing work world? Or is the purpose of higher education more narrowly to advance students’ individual economic interests as they understand them? Should we think of students as citizens or consumers? Many analysts argue that, in recent years, the notion that higher education should serve to advance students’ individual economic position has increasingly taken prominence over broader notions of the purpose of American higher education. In this paper, we examine whether and to what extent a shift from considering students-as-citizens to students-as-consumers has occurred in US higher education. We provide a longitudinal analysis of two separate and theoretically distinct discourse communities (Berg, 2003): higher education trustees and leaders of and advocates for liberal arts education. Our data suggest a highly unsettled field in which commercial discourse as measured by the student-as-consumer code has surely entered the US higher education lexicon, but this code is not uncontested and the more traditional citizenship code remains significant and viable.

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Part III: Impacts on the Organization

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The environment surrounding U.S. higher education has changed substantially over the past 40 years. However, we have a limited understanding of what these changes mean for the higher education organizations (HEOs) that occupy this organizational field. In this paper, I use descriptive statistics and multilevel latent class analysis (MLCA) to analyze the financial behaviors of public four-year HEOs from 1986 to 2010 to evaluate how HEOs adapt financially to their changing environments. I advance the current conceptual and empirical understanding of public HEO behaviors by evaluating how public HEOs utilize combinations of revenue and spending streams to accomplish their mission and the extent to which the revenues and spending patterns of these institutions are related. Descriptive results confirm the shift away from state funding toward tuition revenues and the relative stability in spending patterns. MLCA results, which allow for the investigation of how combinations of revenue and spending streams work together, indicate that public HEOs are changing the combinations of revenues they rely on in different ways, revealing multiple specific pathways for how public HEOs adapt to their changing environments. The spending profiles, in contrast, remain stable with only a few HEOs changing their profile over time. I argue that the loose coupling between revenues and spending and discontinuity in their patterns of change over time suggests that public HEOs are able to establish a buffer between their environment and spending or activities that allows them to continue engaging in the same broad set of activities despite environmental changes.

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University rankings and metrics have become an increasingly prominent basis of student decisions, generalized university reputation, and the resources university’s attract. We review the history of metrics in higher education and scholarship about the influence of ranking on the position and strategic behavior of universities and students. Most quantitative analyses on this topic estimate the influence of change in university rank on performance. These studies consistently identify a small, short-lived influence of rank shift on selectivity (e.g., one rank position corresponds to ≤1% more student applicants), comparable to ranking effects documented in other domains. This understates the larger system-level impact of metrification on universities, students, and the professions that surround them. We explore one system-level transformation likely influenced by the rise of rankings. Recent years have witnessed the rise of enrollment management and independent educational consultation. We illustrate a plausible pathway from ranking to this transformation: In an effort to improve rankings, universities solicit more applications from students to reduce their acceptance rate. Lower acceptance rates lead to more uncertainty for students about acceptance, leading them to apply to more schools, which decreases the probability that accepted students will attend. This leads to greater uncertainty about enrollment for students and universities and generates demand for new services to manage it. Because these and other system-level transformations are not as cleanly measured as rank position and performance, they have not received the same treatment or modeling attention in higher education scholarship, despite their importance for understanding and influencing education policy.

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What is associated with a rise in academic career expectations, and why have levels risen to such levels wherein prominent dissatisfaction is a sustainably generated outcome? This paper examines work satisfaction among faculty in U.S. research universities. At a micro level, I discuss the career patterns of work satisfaction as found in a set of universities, drawing on data from qualitative studies of academic careers. I present findings on four analytic dimensions: the overall modal career patterns of professors, their overall work satisfaction, their work attitudes, and whether they would again pursue an academic career. The data capture variation in careers over time and the type of university in which they work. A prominent and pervasive pattern is transparent: that of ill-content and ill-institutional regard. At a macro level, these patterns are suggestively situated in developments in the social-institutional environment of U.S. higher education. This environment consists of systemic trends in which neoliberalism enables academic capitalism to flourish with its attendant effects in privatization and marketization. It is argued that a shift in organizational priority brought about by these conditions entails a “valorization of shiny things” – a valuing of market-related phenomena over knowledge of its own accord. This valorization, ritually supported by practices endemic of changed organizational culture, may weaken the ground on which the traditional scholarly role is played and may make precarious a basis for positive work sentiment.

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This paper analyses French and US universities’ organizational responses to the more or less explicit pressures they face to go interdisciplinary. Defining universities as pluralistic organizations, I show that the implementation of interdisciplinary research does not result in well-integrated institutional strategies, but rather combines initiatives from the scientific community and from university leaders. Based on case studies conducted on the development of interdisciplinary nanomedicine in five leading French and US research universities, I identify three settings where the implementation of interdisciplinarity involves shifts in organizational structure – in principal investigator-based research teams and scientific networks, in departmental boundaries, and in institutional structures, and question issues of governance, leadership and resource allocation arising from those shifts. We see similarities between the two countries in terms of how initiatives by “entrepreneurial academics” – searching for funds for interdisciplinary research – and by the university leadership – also searching for funds, and redefining institutional projects around interdisciplinarity – complement each other. We also identify one major difference – with French pro-interdisciplinary university policies being strongly influenced by a political impetus from the French ministry of higher education and research.

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Facing intense global competition and pressure from public authorities, several universities in Europe have engaged in merger and concentration processes. Drawing on two in-depth case studies, this paper considers university mergers as an opportunity to explore the processes involved in the creation of a new organizational structure. In line with recent scholarly calls to revisit the notion of organizational design, we combine insights from three different research streams to address the functional, political, and institutional dynamics that shaped the organizational architecture of the merged universities. Two main results are presented and discussed. First, although these mergers were initiated largely in response to the diffusion of new global institutional scripts, these scripts had little influence on organizational design: deeply institutionalized local scripts prevailed over global mimetic pressures. Second, while these institutional scripts provided many of the basic building blocks of the new universities, in both cases their design was also heavily shaped by time pressures and power games. While a few powerful actors used the merger as an opportunity to promote their own reform agenda, some of the key features of the two merged universities stemmed from choices by exclusion, whose primary aim was the avoidance of conflicts.

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This study documents a new case of the further commercialization of the university, the rapid adoption of corporate partnership programs (CPPs) within centralized university career services departments. CPPs function as a type of headhunting agency. For an annual fee they facilitate a corporate hiring department’s direct access to student talent, allowing the company to outsource much of its hiring tasks to the university career center. CPPs are a feature found predominantly, though not exclusively, on campuses where there is a highly rationalized logic around the economic benefits of academic science. Further, CPPs represent a commercialization of practice that is in tension with the student-development mission of traditional career counselors. Using an inhabited institutionalist approach, we show how the models differ and how staff on each side attempt to negotiate their competing roles in the multiversity environment. We also discuss some of the potential impact on students, on the career services profession, and on college-to-work pathways.

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Part IV: What Future for the University?

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The University of California at Berkeley now delivers more to the public of California than it ever has, and it does this on the basis of proportionally less funding by the State government than it has ever received. This claim may come as a surprise, since it is often said that Berkeley is in the process of privatizing, becoming less of a public university and more in the service of private interests. To the contrary, as the State’s commitment to higher education and social-welfare programs has declined, UC Berkeley has struggled to preserve and even expand its public role, while struggling simultaneously to retain its competitive excellence as a research university. This paper delineates how UC Berkeley has striven to retain its public character in the face of severe financial pressures. A summary of the indicators invoked can be found in the Table near the end of the text. This paper then addresses the sustainability and generalizability of the Berkeley strategy.

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Since at least the 1970s, the American research university system has experienced episodic periods of austerity, frequently accompanied by expressions of concern about the threats that these conditions pose to U.S. scientific and technological leadership. In general, austerity has been tied to fluctuations in Federal Government funding of academic research and macroeconomic fluctuations that have shrunk state government budget revenues. Even amidst these episodes, the system has continued to expand and decentralize. The issue at present is whether this historic resiliency, of being a marvelous invalid, will overcome adverse contemporary trends in Federal and state government funding, as well as political trends that eat away at the societal bonds between universities and their broader publics. The paper juxtaposes examinations of the organizational and political influences that have given rise to the American research university system, trends in research revenues and research costs, and contemporary efforts by universities to balance the two. It singles out the secular decline in state government’s support of public universities as the principal reason why this period of contraction is different from those of the past. Rather though then these trends portending a market shakeout, as some at times have predicted, the projection here is that the academic research system will continue to be characterized by excess capacity and recurrent downward pressures on research costs. Because the adverse impacts are concentrated in the public university sector, they may also spill over into political threats to the current system of awarding academic research grants primarily via competitive, merit review arrangements.

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It is not rare to read positive comments about North American higher education from higher education stakeholders in Europe, particularly policy-makers and institutional managers. The aspects of the system which are most often praised are the degree of institutional competition and the benefits this brings in terms of institutional flexibility, responsiveness, and adaptability. Moreover, those voices also enhance the resourcefulness of North American higher education institutions in finding alternative sources of funding to cope with the steady decline in public funding. In recent decades European higher education has felt the impact of the aforementioned trends and the effects have been not altogether dissimilar from the ones identified in North American higher education. Moreover, the growing integration of European higher education systems has also contributed to enhance some convergence with some of the trends identified in the American case. In this paper, we reflect on the impact of the increasing marketization of funding and governance mechanisms on the European higher education landscape and compare it with the impact of those trends discussed in the papers by Irwin Feller and George W. Breslauer.

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About the Authors

Pages 509-513
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Cover of The University Under Pressure
DOI
10.1108/S0733-558X201646
Publication date
2016-02-05
Book series
Research in the Sociology of Organizations
Editors
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-78560-831-5
Book series ISSN
0733-558X