The Culture of Higher Education – Part I

September 27, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski


The culture of higher education is an important consideration as we
embark on this journey of exploring academic governance. This presentation
and lecture will establish a common understanding of
culture so that we will all start from the same place. As you read this week’s materials and the
material yet to come, do so within the framework of the culture of higher education. What is Culture? In the context of society culture can be
understood or defined in many ways. For example, in the humanities it can refer to an
appreciation of the artistic nature of our world. In the sciences it is often
associated with the growing of microorganisms in some controlled
environment. And in the context of human nature, culture
can be understood as the actions and attitudes shared among
members of a social group. However it is in the context of organizations that we
approach our study of culture. Organizational culture can be
best thought of as a question that drives our intentions with others in the organization. What are we
comfortable talking about? Who has power and how is it used? How
does one advance or fall behind? What are the unwritten rules? How are values
lived out among the members? What are our shared stories? Each of
these does not add up to much when considered independently, but in combination these questions begin
to define organizational culture. In order for us to have a common
reference as we consider academic governance we need a single point of reference for
what organizational culture is and how it is best understood. Therefore
for the purpose of this course, we will use Edgar Schein’s definition of
organizational culture as a system of shared backgrounds, norms,
values or beliefs among members of a group. There are many examples and models
organizational culture. In addition to Schein, models have been
developed by Senge, Hofstede, Argyris and Schon, Bergquist and Pawlak, and Bowman and Deal. Each of these models explore
organizational culture in a different way and all contribute to
our understanding of organizations. However three of these models deserve more attention as we discuss the culture of higher
education. Senge posits organizations where
people have the ability to develop in such a way as to evolve the culture, nurture thought, embrace ambition and seek
ways to learn together are known as learning organizations. Such
organizations have mechanisms whereby people are challenged to fully develop
their capacity and commitment. This model presents five
disciplines or dimensions of culture building that
converge to innovate the learning organization. Personal mastery suggests a special level of proficiency whereby one refines
a personal vision and commits to a life of learning. Mental
models are the values, biases and assumptions that influence how we view
the world and those in it. Building shared vision is the idea that
everyone in the organization buys into a common goal, values, and mission. Team learning is the ability
to suspend the biases and assumptions we carry with us and to approach learning with an open mind.
Finally it all comes together under the fifth discipline of systems thinking, the conceptual framework that allows all
members of the organization to effectively drive culture change. The five disciplines drive how we think,
learn and interact together. Bowman and Deal’s Four Frame Model suggests as organizations grow and become more
powerful they become harder to lead making them even more complex and
confusing. Resulting from this ambiguity is narrow minded management
and leadership rooted in inadequate ideas of the realities of
organizational life. This model presents four frames or perspectives of viewing the
organization that bring clarity in meaning to the
confusion. The structural frame focuses on rules and policies, goals and
strategy, technology, environment and the roles
individuals assume in the organization. The human resources frame focuses on
the people and their needs, relationships and skills.
The political frame focuses on politics and power, competition and conflict, and how
decisions are made within the hierarchy. And finally the symbolic frame
focuses on culture, ritual, stories and meaning. Each frame offers a powerful yet unique way of
viewing the organization and collectively they provide the means
for a deeper understanding of organizational culture. Bergquist and Pawlak suggest higher
education is not one single organization or culture, instead higher education consists of many
organizations each expressing its own unique culture.
However there is much similarity between these individual, often disparate institutions. Common
among the various organizational cultures are the unique customs and
traditions shared within the academy. This model which is explored in more
detail in week 2 suggests 6 cultures that influence the
way students staff and faculty members understand higher
education and the potential for change within the academy. The six cultures are collegial,
managerial, developmental, advocacy, virtual and tangible. The culture of an organization, for our
purposes higher education, can be examined on multiple levels
according to Edgar Schein. On the surface level are artifacts which include everything you experience
when observing a group. Artifacts can range from the physical
buildings and structures of the institution to the behaviors of its
members. Just underneath the surface than what is
seen or the espoused beliefs and values which embody the
organizational philosophy or vision. These include goals, values
and aspirations of what the institution is to become. Finally through many years of shared learning
evolves the basic underlying assumptions of the institution. Such assumptions, as deeply held beliefs
and values that determine the nature of the
organization and drive the actions, thought and
perceptions of its members. What are some of the artifacts associated with
higher education? Certainly you have the obvious buildings including classrooms,
residence halls and recreation facilities. But there are also large stadiums and
arenas that begin to reveal something more about the underlying assumptions of higher education. In addition to the
obvious, there are also tangible items such as the academic calendar, the catalog and other publications that
speak volumes about the culture. Finally there are some not so tangible
items such as budgets and endowments that contribute to the overall culture.
Many of these artifacts are taken for granted because they have become a part
of what we expect from higher education. What are the espoused beliefs and values
underlying traditional higher education? Derek Bok, in his book Our
Underachieving Colleges suggests that the contemporary college
experience would be best enhanced, and society much improved, if colleges can
do a better job helping their students communicate with greater precision and
style, think more clearly, analyze more rigorously, become more ethically discerning and be
more knowledgeable and active in civic affairs. Bok goes on
and provides a succinct summary of the
historic beliefs and values higher education that have resided in
our traditional two semester model of instruction where students have ample access to
come on campus and learn in classrooms and laboratories filled with the latest and greatest
technologies. While certainly not an exhaustive discussion this does begin to shed some light into the
traditional culture higher education, however the evolving
culture higher education is becoming one of choice. As James Koch wrote, the higher education
market now resembles the American restaurant market with many choices including gourmet
restaurants, to fast food franchises, to food trucks. As such higher education now presents an
opportunity for almost any student from those who want to learn
to those who simply want to enjoy the latest technology in climbing walls. What are the basic underlying assumptions
in higher education? Historically there has been implied
value in going to college and obtaining a baccalaureate degree. High schools have structured
college-prep curriculum to drive studdents toward this ideal status. State funding agencies have provide
adequate dollars allowing students to access higher education in increasing
numbers. Institutions have responded by hiring
faculty to provide classroom instruction in much the same format as existed decades earlier. Expectations
have changed little over the years until now. These assumptions are being
challenged with reduced funding and declining access. Failure to change the basic model of
teaching and instruction has caused many to question the direction of higher education and the questions being raised as to who
should bear the brunt of the cost of higher education, the federal government, the state
government or the student? With no one single definition of academic
governance nor one simple model to suggest as the best or most effective, governance structure exist within the context of the academic culture of the
institution in the broader culture higher education
in general. There are some common elements are back in the governance as there is a
common culture among many institutions, particularly those within the same country.
But with the changing rhythm of higher education and the removal of time and
space from the education equation, comes an evolving culture that will
potentially lead to newer and more efficient models of governance. The question is what will remain in the
aftermath of this evolution and will it be recognizable within our
current understanding of academic governance?