Sunday, July 13, 2014

Organization, administration, and leadership: Addressing the relevance gap in higher education research

by Jay R. Dee, Associate Professor of Higher Education, University of Massachusetts Boston

The preparation of college and university leaders is a primary function of most graduate programs in higher education.  While some students in our programs seek to become policy analysts, researchers, or faculty members, most aspire to positions of senior administrative leadership.  The curricula in our programs largely reflect those career aspirations.  According to research by the Council for the Advancement of Higher Education Programs (CAHEP), nearly every graduate program in higher education has at least one course in organization, administration, and leadership (Freeman, Hagedorn, Goodchild, & Wright, 2014).

Given that historical function, it is surprising how little research is conducted on issues of higher education organization, administration, and leadership.  For the 2014 AERA annual meeting, the “organization, management, and leadership” section received the fewest proposals in all of Division J.  This is not a recent development.  In 1983, Victor Vroom, the highly-regarded management scholar from Yale, noted that “there is a paucity of research on leadership in higher education… remarkably little research has been conducted on the institutions of higher education in which most of the researchers [of leadership] are located” (p. 367).

The lack of research on organization, administration, and leadership may contribute to a relevance gap for the field of higher education.  Without a more robust literature, we have little to contribute that can inform the day-to-day work lives of provosts, deans, and chairs.  Again, this is not a new problem.  In 1985, George Keller criticized the field of higher education for failing to produce research that is relevant to leaders.  “College presidents and deans do not consult the [higher education] literature or use it… If the research in higher education ended, it would scarcely be missed” (p. 7).  Similarly, in focus groups with practitioners and researchers, Kezar (2000) found a gap between the research that is produced and the needs of practicing administrators.  The gap between research and practice, in fact, has become a common theme of ASHE presidential addresses – see, for example, Terenzini (1996) and Eisemann (2009).

The consequences of this relevance gap are quite serious for both higher education researchers and practitioners.  As Museus (2014) argued in his blog post, if our research does not reach practitioners, then it cannot transform and improve higher education.  Our research could generate significant findings that have no impact – a discouraging outcome for any field of study.  For practitioners, the consequences are also detrimental.  Because college and university leaders lack a robust literature that is tailored to their unique needs, they are likely to look elsewhere for solutions to the challenges that confront their institutions.  They may turn to consultants who offer quick fixes, only to find that these pre-packaged solutions are often a poor fit with the cultures and capacities of colleges and universities.  The frequently-encountered pattern is that the quick fix fails, administrators and faculty blame each other for the inadequate results, trust and collegiality are damaged, and the institution is no better off than before the “fix” was implemented.

In this essay, I provide a brief analysis of the state of higher education research, and offer some possible reasons why the field fails to produce a sufficient amount of research on organizational, administrative, and leadership issues. Then, I turn to the more pragmatic issue of what we can do to rectify the problem.

Light on the meso

Higher education research has tended to focus on macro- and micro-level issues.  At the macro level, researchers have used institutional theory and academic capitalism as frames to analyze the external forces that are reshaping higher education institutions.  At the micro level, the field has produced a voluminous literature on college student experiences and outcomes.  These patterns of research, however, have left a hole in the middle of our field of study.  We lack sufficient research at the meso-level, exactly the level at which administrative practice occurs.  This argument is similar to Kezar’s (2013) blog post, in which she called for higher education research to take a broader systems perspective.  To achieve that systems perspective, the field of higher education needs to produce sufficient research at all three levels of analysis: macro, micro, and meso.

Why are higher education researchers not pursuing studies of organization, administration, and leadership?  Access to study sites and participants might be a problem.  College presidents and other senior administrators might be difficult to schedule for interviews.  Trustees may not want to “go on the record” with their views.  Lack of funding is likely another contributing factor.  Multi-site organizational research is expensive, and foundations and government agencies are not keen to support it financially.  A further reason might pertain to perceptions about such research.  Some scholars might view research in this area as implicitly endorsing top-down administrative practices, rather than giving voice to less powerful groups.  Research on organization, administration, and leadership, however, can encourage administrators to critically question their own assumptions.  The growing use of critical theory in the field of management demonstrates how scholars can use organizational studies to examine marginalization and promote authentic forms of organizational participation (Grey & Willmott, 2002; Zald, 2002).  In our own field, Estela Bensimon’s (2004) research with the Diversity Scorecard clearly demonstrates how organizational research can improve experiences and outcomes for students from underrepresented communities.

Paths not pursued

One potential remedy to this problem is to reinvigorate previously-productive, but currently dormant strands of research.  Our field has an aggravating tendency to pick up a topic with robust energy, only to drop it a few years later.  We have many strands of research that were elegantly executed, but then left to stand on their own, without further elaboration or critique.  Kezar and Eckel (2002a, 2002b), for example, broke important new ground in the study of organizational change.  But where have been the follow-up studies to elaborate or critique their findings?  Similarly, Tierney and colleagues conducted significant research on governance and decision making (Tierney & Minor, 2003; Tierney & Lechuga, 2004).  I have not seen any new research that updates or expands upon those publications.  At one point, we had an extensive literature on deans and department chairs, thanks to Walt Gmelch and Mimi Wolverton, among others (Gmelch, 2004; Wolverton & Gmelch, 2002).  But that line of inquiry seems to have disappeared.  Researchers can re-engage these topics, and frame new studies that update and expand our understanding of issues relevant to practice.

In addition to reinvigorating previously pursued paths of research, our field needs to engage more extensively with practitioners to identify issues that need further investigation.  Fortunately, our graduate programs are populated with many mid-career practitioners.  We need to listen to our students, so that we, as researchers, can understand the complexities and practical challenges that characterize their work.  Also, we need to encourage our students to engage in research that is relevant to their own concerns, rather than steer them toward completing a component of our own research agenda.  We can also connect more extensively with presidents, provosts, and deans by attending the conferences in which they participate, such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) or the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), or by volunteering to serve on a governance committee so that we can interact with them directly in the work setting.

Furthermore, we can team-up with scholars in the field of management.  They may also have an interest in studying colleges and universities as organizations and could be effective collaborators.  We can attend conferences in their field and incorporate new theoretical frameworks into the study of higher education institutions.

As a final recommendation, I suggest that we keep foremost in our minds the audiences for which we are writing.  In his 1985 article, George Keller described higher education research as a “literature without an audience” (p. 8).  If we seek to produce relevant research, then we should consider the needs and priorities of the audience for which we are writing, and that consideration needs to occur when we are conceptualizing and designing our studies, not after we already have the findings.  My very first ASHE proposal was rejected (and rightly so), because, as the reviewers noted, I had not thoroughly explained the implications of my study for practice.  In fact, I had not thought much at all about the practical relevance of that study, except when I struggled to add a couple sentences at the end of my proposal.  Clearly, I had engaged the process backward.  The needs and priorities of our audience should shape the types of scholarship that we conduct.  We should not simply tack-on to our manuscripts a brief section on “implications for practice” and believe that we have satisfied our obligation for producing relevant scholarship.  Instead, we should clarify exactly for whom our research is intended, while we are conceptualizing and designing our studies.

Higher education is an applied field of study, and our research should seek to impact practice.  Our field has a solid base of research at the macro and micro levels, but is insufficient at the meso (organizational) level, thus producing a relevance gap between the research that we produce and the needs of practitioners.  The current leadership challenges for practitioners are daunting, and higher education researchers should not neglect them.  If our goal is to transform and improve higher education, then we need to engage more extensively in research on organization, administration, and leadership.


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