Structural or Cultural Pathways to Innovative Change? Faculty and Shared Governance in the Liberal Arts College
by Jarrett B. Warshaw & Erin B. Ciarimboli - 2020
Background: Popular commentary portrays private liberal arts colleges (LACs) as ensnared within a “death spiral” due to unprecedented enrollment and financial challenges. But, in contrast to ominous predictions, recent evidence suggests strong levels of innovative activity and resilience in the sector, as reflected in the creation and adoption of methods, approaches, and configurations new to these campuses. In periods of rapid change and transition, LAC stakeholders are likely to seek research on how different change-centered strategies enhance or constrain the faculty role and the relationship between shared governance and innovation.
Purpose: This study focuses on how faculty engage with administrative leaders and professional staff in academic innovation and decision making in LACs. It applies competing theoretical perspectives—the structural-bureaucratic and cultural lenses of analysis—to determine which one best captures the changes taking place on these campuses and to assay broader outcomes associated with using one approach over another.
Participants: The 43 research participants in this study encompassed faculty members (49%), senior-level administrators (21%), trustees (7%), and professional staff (23%).
Research Design: This study employed an embedded case study design that was replicated across three LACs, whose innovative activity was on par with national averages in the sector.
Data Collection and Analysis: Site visits were conducted at each LAC, during which individual interviews were conducted, documentary materials were collected, and field notes were recorded. The analysis included an application of process, values, and pattern coding to examine the relative fit of the structural-bureaucratic and cultural accounts.
Findings/Results: The results indicated that the faculty role largely concentrated on contributing content and operationalizing details of academic innovation. Although emerging forms of shared governance were carefully designed, they had tenuous connections to the overall innovative capacity of faculty and their campuses.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The value of the cultural lens of analysis lies in its ability to account for the ways in which interactions and communication among faculty and stakeholders enhances or constrains academic innovation. A cultural perspective also illuminates three broader patterns from the cases to explain (1) the increasing fragmentation between administrators and faculty and within the professoriate, (2) the compartmentalization of academic work vis-à-vis the “unbundling” of faculty roles, and (3) the failure of purely structural recourses to produce innovative change. Because innovation in LACs matters for strategic differentiation and for the contributions of private higher education to the postsecondary system, broader implications for research and policy are discussed.
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