The Organization of Higher Education: Managing Colleges for a New Era

reviewed by Joshua T. Brown - September 07, 2012

coverTitle: The Organization of Higher Education: Managing Colleges for a New Era
Author(s): Michael N. Bastedo
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421404478, Pages: 376, Year: 2012
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Bold works generate bold claims.  And Michael N. Bastedo propels the organizational scholar beyond the commonplace with the boldness of his opening sentence: “Modern organizational theory is built upon the study of colleges and universities.”  If by chance this bold shot does not strike the targeted reader, he fires a second only a paragraph later; contending that it is not higher education that is becoming more like a business, rather it is business that is becoming more like higher education.  Though he engages two disciplines - organizational studies and higher education - his scholarly emphasis seems to lie with the latter.  


In this edited volume, The Organization of Higher Education, Bastedo seeks to revive the study of higher education as an organization among two disparate fields – higher education and organizational studies.  He describes the former as often preoccupied with access, equity, and social justice; and the latter with other organizational forms, leaving it disconnected from the field of higher education.  Essentially, the work argues for a further integration of the literature between these two fields.  To advance his integration thesis, Bastedo independently addresses each field - organizational theorists in the opening chapter and those in the field of higher education in the concluding chapter.  To the organizational theorists he contends that their foundational literature possesses a postsecondary focus that yielded essential concepts such as resource dependence (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1974), loose coupling (Weick, 1976), and garbage can theory (Cohen & March, 1986).   He advocates that organizational theorists return to the study of educational work and practice that would bring about a directional shift toward postsecondary topics of contemporary concern.  To those in higher education, he proposes further engagement with organizational theory through a specific conceptual approach - defining and elaborating social mechanisms.  Combining this approach along with the diffusion of “sticky” organizational ideas would improve their ability to engage postsecondary topics of contemporary concern while simultaneously increasing the precision and power of the organizational literature in this context.  

Situated between the introduction and conclusion are ten contributed chapters that exemplify Bastedo’s integration thesis, addressing diverse organizational topics within higher education such as governance, power, strategy, change, diversity, social movements, agency and cognition.  Divided into core and contemporary topics, the contributing authors provide thorough reviews with diverse social theory perspectives that include functional, critical, interpretive, and cultural.  The chapters aim to function as both a primer on the various organizational theories of higher education and a message to those in the field regarding possibilities for future research.  To this end, the work would seem invaluable to scholars seeking to engage these lines of inquiry with their research.  


While the book has a bold vision in some respects, it remains confined within the existing boundaries and thus reflects the challenges of the field.  Indeed, the first question requiring further attention is that of “the field” of higher education.  A clear articulation of the field is essential for purposes of conceptual clarity, theoretical development, and empirical analysis.  Higher education is a vast entity comprised of many types of persons.  For administrators it is a profession, for others like Bastedo it is a discipline of study, and for others such as sociologists and organizational theorists it is often just a research context.  By repeatedly referring to “those in the field of higher education” it is difficult to determine to whom the central argument of the book actually applies and the extent to which further engagement may occur.  Does “the field” encompass each of these expansive perspectives?  Ultimately, the central question on which much of the argument hinges is: Is higher education a research discipline or a research context?  If it is a discipline, then it must possess an orienting strategy that guides theory construction and empirical research.  If it is a context, then the orienting strategy lies not with higher education, but rather with an exogenous discipline (i.e. history, anthropology, sociology, etc.).  Other “fields” in education, such as student development and assessment, borrow heavily from psychology and face this same dilemma.  As such, if Bastedo’s integration argument is to materialize, organizational theorists must deem higher education to be more than just a research context.  Convincing scholars in other disciplines that this is the case will require further attention to conceptual matters such as the parameters of “the field” of higher education and the related underlying theoretical questions.

A related challenge is pointedly summarized by Patricia Gumport who writes “our research is not often cited by scholars in other disciplines, nor is it widely read by university and college leaders…The research is not scholarly enough, they say – that is, not sufficiently framed by theory, or in turn advancing theory” (p. 18).  A solution to this dilemma is offered in the conclusion of the book as Bastedo proposes that an emphasis on defining and elaborating social mechanisms will help higher education studies more effectively build organization theory.  The treatise is an excellent discussion on the logistics and importance of social mechanisms.  This is a compelling argument but perhaps does not push far enough.   I would propose that beyond focusing on the successful definition and elaboration of social mechanisms, higher education scholars (especially those in training) need to develop the social capital necessary to engage and advance discourse within the related disciplines beyond the field of higher education, in this instance organizational studies.  Many higher education scholars remain confined to higher education journals and are less frequently published in disciplinary journals.  Breaking the barrier of disciplinary knowledge is perhaps the biggest challenge facing higher education scholars who want to be heard as well as shape thinking about higher education beyond the confines of higher ed research, and particularly organizational studies.   Whether this means collaboration with the disciplines or focused disciplinary training or educating those within the disciplines about the work of higher education scholars or… whatever the case may be, we need a more adequate solution to this dilemma.    

The Organization of Higher Education is a bold work whereby Bastedo and his colleagues attempt to span the scholarly chasm between higher education and organizational studies.  The volume is essential in that is not only provides those in higher education with an organizational theory primer, but it also presents myriad opportunities for future research, thus allowing future scholars the possibility to engage the conceptual structure these authors have erected.


Cohen, M. D., & March, J. G. (1986). Leadership and Ambiguity: The American college president (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Pfeffer, J., & Salancik, G. R. (1974). Organizational decision making as a political process: The case of a university budget.  Administrative Science Quarterly, 19, 135-151.

Weick, K. (1976).  Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21, 1-19.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 07, 2012 ID Number: 16864, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:46:07 AM

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