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Navigating the Volatility of Higher Education: Anthropological and Policy Perspectives

reviewed by Jennifer Lee Hoffman - April 18, 2019

coverTitle: Navigating the Volatility of Higher Education: Anthropological and Policy Perspectives
Author(s): Brian L. Foster, Steven W. Graham, & Joe F. Donaldson
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1641131446, Pages: 294, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

Navigating the Volatility of Higher Education leverages an anthropologist’s perspective to examine the complex demands and competing purposes of higher education today. Rich with examples from administrators and faculty who must steer through a landscape that often positions the value of higher education as either a public or private good, this volume examines these values through a prism of the emerging field of applied anthropology of higher education. Observers and stakeholders at colleges and universities will find this approach and the perspectives of contributors to be a refreshing take on the competing purposes of American higher education. Readers will also find insightful the perspectives of higher education leaders and scholars as they offer their ethnographic and other empirical observations. As such, this book is both of and for higher education. The aim of this volume is to use the tools of applied anthropology to “critically examine the complexity of structures and processes that shape higher education” and for university administrators to “use that knowledge to strategically promote positive change” (p. 3).


At the outset, the reader is reminded that colleges and universities, like many sectors of American society, undergo constant transformation with each passing generation. Changes in higher education may seem slow or uneven and are largely unseen until they are widespread. The editors of Navigating the Volatility of Higher Education Anthropological and Policy Perspectives suggest that any change is first met by influences and forces that protect and reproduce privilege in the academy. Higher education is steeped with academic traditions and rituals, scholarly norms, and assumptions about teaching and learning. Influences on today’s colleges and universities often come from rapid changes in technology, political and social factors, innovations in research, shifting student needs, and competing ideas about the role and purpose of higher education. However, this volume is not simply a summary of the changes underway and the impulses that foster them; instead, this volume uses applied anthropology to explain these changes in higher education and suggest the ways to manage them as they continue to unfold.

As might be expected given the book’s anthropological perspective, the editors begin by turning to a hallmark strategy of anthropology: attempting to make the familiar strange. To guide the reader through a fresh examination of the academy, the editors suggest three themes to help orient the reader from a new vantage point: (a) the higher education mindset, (b) political and policy perspectives, and (c) instruction and learning. These categories help draw distinctions between a college or university’s environment, the assumptions and discourses about the purposes of higher education, and the policies and practices that inform those assumptions.


The reader is invited into a conversation where contemporary tensions are discussed by contributors who have first-hand experience with topics and issues at hand. The contributing authors individually and collectively juxtapose public and private characteristics of their institutions and the values and purposes of higher education. Issues of managerialism and entrepreneurialism are examined along with place, culture, and situatedness as well as the positionality and roles of faculty and leaders in shaping institutional culture.


Rather than end with predictions of the end of the academy or hypothetical scenarios for higher education’s future, the editors conclude by guiding the reader through the issues raised by the contributors. They suggest that scholars and leaders might use tools from applied anthropology to examine the influences that protect privilege and steer their institutions through contemporary challenges toward positive institutional change.

Navigating the Volatility of Higher Education offers a novel view from within higher education. This volume has several unique characteristics and offers an interesting approach to fostering dialogue and research about contemporary higher education. It will likely appeal to readers who lead, work, and study in colleges and universities. Those who study higher education, student affairs, critical university studies, and those interested in methodological approaches to qualitative higher education research will appreciate this volume. Moreover, with its rich and complementary array of sources, Navigating the Volatility of Higher Education will support readers in their pursuit of positive change in higher education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 18, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22770, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:47:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Lee Hoffman
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER LEE HOFFMAN is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington. Her research focuses the role of leadership within higher education including research and teaching in the areas of intercollegiate athletics, women in leadership, and data-informed decision-making. She has presented at numerous academic conferences and her scholarship appears in several books and publications. Her most recent publications are "Big-Time Sports and Big-Time Research: A Comparison of Commercialization Across the Academy" and "Climate as a Mediating Influence on the Academic Success of Women Student-Athletes." She also co-hosts an annual seminar at the Association for the Study of Higher Education and is a current member of the NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education Editorial Board.
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