Higher Education Organizational Theory and Leadership

Higher Education Organizational Theory and Leadership

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Higher Education Organizational Theory and Leadership


The following briefing paper has been prepared to assist you in preparing your speech to the local chamber of commerce. The topic you have been asked to speak on is outlining the differences in leading an institution of higher education as opposed to running a for-profit business. The briefing highlights key points from three oft-referenced scholarly articles on the topic of higher education organizational theory and leadership. These points explain higher education structures and the differences between higher education organization and leadership and what your audience might be accustomed to. I have included references for your aid.

Introduction. Higher education and private business have much in common. They use resources to produce a product for a defined client base. They are led by individuals with vision, passion, and leadership for their organizations. At their heart are dedicated people that make up the organization. However, there are also many differences, especially in making these organizations work well.

The Complex Structure of Higher Education. The university is a complex organization. Baldridge, Curtis, Ecker and Riley (1982) found that colleges and universities have characteristics that distinguish them from private enterprises as well as other government organizations. They describe the higher education environment as one where resources allow individuals within the organization room to grow in different directions without the tight restraints seen in other types of environments. They go on to describe the role of the president and other university leaders as catalysts or facilitators rather than the “my way or the highway” mentality of some private CEOs. Baldridge et al. describe this environment as “organized anarchy” where this facilitation role, also described as collegial decision making, leads to an environment where decisions “happen” rather than are “made.” Politically, this environment tends to be mostly inactive with very fluid, fragmented participation. The president assumes the role as “first among equals”, a mediator between power blocs on campus. This is very different in all but a few private corporations.

Loosely Coupled Systems. Weick (1976) takes a very similar view of this organizational theory but from a slightly different perspective. He writes of the higher education institution as a “loosely coupled system”, a system that differs markedly from the organization system of a private enterprise. The basic theory is that, unlike the militaristic ideal of the “tight ship” that many private organizations have adopted, loosely coupled systems have “softer” linkages between each unit of the organization.

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The sense of structure can still be seen in the institution’s organization table but these softer, or loose, linkages allow responsive bonds between units while allowing each its own sense of identity, especially on the academic side of the structure. In fact, much of the hierarchy of the administrative side of the organization, with much tighter linkages, would probably seem very comparable to many private organizations. Weick believes that these loose couplings have the added advantages of localized freedom of adaptation, more local independence, responding to fewer environmental changes, isolating weak units, and cutting down on coordination overhead. All of these could be looked upon as the antithesis of the well-run business.

Leading the Anarchy. So it is the job of the president of the university to lead this anarchy. After the previous descriptions, one may wonder how it can be accomplished. Hesburgh (1988) acknowledges that academic leadership is inherently different than military or business leadership – the characteristics of one usually will not work well in the environment of the other. Although Hesburgh outlines leadership traits that do work well in both academic and business spheres: vision, courage, praise, and sensitivity, he also outlines a key trait of the academic leader. “Leadership involves encouraging the subsidiary leaders of each line of endeavor and holding out hope for each of them as they respect current priorities.” He goes on to add that the academic leader must “hold the torch high” so that this organized anarchy might independently reach these shared goals with the “respect” and “hope” the president has provided for the academic culture in his or her care.

Summary.

Although similar in many respects, higher education institutions and private business do differ in a wide variety of ways. It is in everyone’s best interest, “especially,” as Hesburgh (1988) states, “in during dark days and times of frustrated hopes” that the two cultures understand one another.

References:

Baldridge, J.V., Curtis, D.V., Ecker, G.P., & Riley, G.L. (1982). "Alternative models of governance in higher education. In G.L. Riley & V. Baldridge (Eds.), Governing academic organizations (pp. 2-25). Berkeley, CA: McCutchan Publishing Corporation.

Hesburgh, T. M. (1988). Academic leadership. In J. L. Fisher & M. W. Tark (Eds.), New Directions for Higher Education, 61,5-8.

Weick, K. E. (1976). Education systems as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21. 1_19
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