the most important thing we know least about

Given Fabio’s last couple of posts (and before he finishes eating my lunch), I thought I should move this one up in the queue. Conversations at a conference organized a few years back by Mitchell Stevens, Elizabeth Armstrong, and Richard Arum shaped my thinking. I commend to you the Annual Review of Sociology piece they produced, but they bear no responsibility at all for my wild-eyed ranting.

Let me start with a modest proposition:  The university is the most important institution in contemporary society and the one about which we know the least.  The organizations and institutions of contemporary higher education are undergoing far-reaching  transitions that stand to remake key features of our social world, but we have largely ignored those changes.  Fabio points to one such shift in the funding model for higher education and a recent WaPo op-ed by Steve Brint highlights some implications for admissions.  But why should we expect something seemingly innocuous like a slow but dramatic decline in the proportion of state funding in public university budgets to fundamentally alter bigger things like the stratification order?                                             

The contemporary university is the only institution that is one step from all parts of our society.  If you start on a big university campus you can easily reach, well, anywhere.  I challenge you to think of another contemporary institution that is a hop away from professional sports, healthcare, the military, government, high culture, religion, science, the boardroom, activism, the financial system . . . the list could go on. The university is our key institutional hub.  I can think of no equivalent. There’s no church that does the trick (though a diffuse notion of christianity might come close), civic organizations are on the decline, the all volunteer military is increasingly isolated from the bulk of the citizenry, one might even argue that in the era of the long tail popular culture will fail to serve as a social glue.  That leaves the campus.

Despite all this, we have very few systematic studies of the university qua organization. We know suprising little about their internal workings. Perhaps this is because they are such giant, unwieldy beasts.  Still, the multi-divisional firm isn’t exactly a lemonade stand and we’ve been beating our heads against it for years. Perhaps studying our own institutional home is just too uncomfortable?  But, then again, there’s a whole lot of the sociology of me out there.  I think the problems is that we don’t have a language sufficient to let us grapple with the interesting questions at stake. 

 Stevens and colleagues point us in the right direction by thinking in metaphorical terms of about what these beasts do and for whom. In addition to being a hub, they take universities to be temples,  sieves, and incubators.  Legitimating knowledge and credentialing experts, sorting and classifying people, and socializing citizens add some serious breadth to the portfolio, which gets even broader when you take into account the economic development role that has become a significant part of many campus efforts. No surprise, I guess, but I’m most fascinated by the idea that the university is one of the few remaining cross-roads of civil society.  In order to do that successfully, universities have to be stable, something increasingly at risk as public funding declines.  They also have to be traversable shortcuts across societal domains, which requires broad access and a form of transparency. Finally, they have to be generative of both well-understood and novel things.  That’s a tough organizational hat trick to pull off.

If a group of organizations is positioned one step from everywhere and we inadvertently but fundamentally change their key features, then we have every reason to expect unintended consequences to ramify quickly and to reach far out into the world. We’re particularly at risk when the changes we make alter the things that enable universities to be institutional hubs.  If we monkey too much with the balance between access and excellence or between social engagement and institutional autonomy,  for instance,  then I think the stakes are higher than we know.  But those are precisely the issues in play when we think about changing funding, or admissions, or the role of academic science vis-à-vis commerce or  . . .

This isn’t the place to undertake a lengthy literature review, but suffice it so say that there’s a lot of good contemporary work that examines small pieces of the university puzzle, some of it done by folks posting right here. There are even a few older, classic works.  But I don’t think anyone out there is trying to eat the whole enchilada.  There’s a marvelous book to be written about these issues in the context of University of California system, where efforts to stave off the implosion of one of the institutional wonders of the world yank all this stuff right to the surface.  Dissertation anyone?

Written by jdos23

January 13, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Posted in academia, research

24 Responses

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  1. All good points. The sad reality is that very few outside of academe understand or value what goes on inside, and with organizational studies, corporations, government, and even the business schools can be openly dismissive. As someone who has straddled that divide at times, it’s a frustrating thing to see. Also frustrating is the failure of business and government to adopt the research findings that might very well improve their lot. It would seem there are some bridges to be rebuilt to restore the respect and funding universities deserve.



    January 13, 2010 at 5:31 pm

  2. David Frank and John Meyer take a swing at the whole enchilada in a recent Theory and Society paper, though maybe not from your preferred point of view. The article is good on how a lot of “Crisis of the Universities” talk is really the flip side of what might roughly be called “The Medieval Institution The Ate The World”.



    January 13, 2010 at 6:56 pm

  3. We thus find ourselves in a world where everything is knowable (and in principle should be known); where knowledge is deeply institutionalized in the codes and procedures of society; and where knowledge is the master key to a wide variety of social structures (greatly advantaging schooled persons). It is also a world where all kinds of local activities and phenomena are linked to universal natural laws, which often transcend the positive national laws that earlier were so prominent (Boyle and Meyer 1998; Drori et al. 2003).20

    Thus we envision a broad time sequence in the manifestation of knowledge in the university. In the pre-Modern era, isolated bundles of categories – lists of birds or stars or sins such as usury, surrounded by clumps of rules and facts and theories – existed for elect students to come laboriously to know. Over time, Modernity disciplined much of this: birds turned into ornithology, sins of usury evolved into ethics and economics, and stars became the stuff of astronomy. Slowly, knowledge expanded, rationalized, and systematized (pg. 303).

    There’s something beautiful about that passage from Frank and Meyer. Even with an extremely thick layer of cynicism built up, I find myself almost persuaded.

    Jason’s post also made me think about how structurally complex and unique universities are compared to other organizational forms. Yes, they are important institutions, but they are also (and maybe this is a function of their intermediary position in society) incredibly differentiated and normatively unique. The rules of academic hierarchy don’t work like any other organization I know. It seems like there should be more studies about the structural and micro-interactional dimensions of universities of organizations.



    January 13, 2010 at 7:39 pm

  4. I think one misstep taken in Jason’s post is the way colleges and universities are lumped together. The differences between the various types of colleges and universities can better indicate how much influence some types of institutions have on society compared to others. However, I’m not one to argue the importance of higher education in society, in general…

    Brint and Karabel’s classic “The Diverted Dream” about the development of community colleges in relation to research universities is a good piece. Becher and Trowler (2001) present a good analysis of the different concentrations of the disciplines in higher education (hard vs. soft science, urban vs. rural, pure vs. applied, etc.). Burton Clark has produced an insane amount of literature about higher education’s dynamics. Patricia Gumport’s 2007 edited volume on the Sociology of Higher Education has a chapter on higher ed as an organization (Marvin Peterson) and a chapter on higher education as an institution (Meyer and colleagues).

    There’s a lot of good work that needs to be better pieced together.



    January 14, 2010 at 12:37 am

  5. Hi Jason. Happy new year. Interesting post. I don’t think I follow though. Two reasons:

    1. There seem to be many institutions that are arguably as central to modern life– and some arguably much more so– than universities. Government (law) and finance (banking) come to mind.

    2. What does it mean to say that we know surprisingly little about universities– by what standard might we say that we know less about universities than other institutions?

    (Perhaps if I wasn’t so lazy and read the pieces you referenced, the answers to my queries are there…)



    January 14, 2010 at 3:27 am

  6. Much food for thought here. Thanks all.

    @Ezra. On your first point. I agree, finance (the institution) and banks (the organization) or law and government are central in that their activities touch on almost all aspects of life. But I would argue they aren’t hubs in the sense I am using the term for two reasons (1) while many (even most people) interact with or are affected by banks or government, relatively few pass through them on the way to somewhere else. Most people’s interactions with banks or the law don’t leave a lasting mark (clearly things like foreclosure, bankruptcy or incarceration are exceptions). (2) Higher education is formative in all kinds of ways. Passage through a campus stamps the individuals who go there. People gain and lose political orientations, personal networks, professional mindsets, ideologies, religiosity and all kinds of other things during their time on campus. People also identify with their academic institutions. So shared passage through a university becomes an organizing feature of life in other domains. The short form: universities are a (perhaps the?) common formative passage point for much of our society.

    My sense of your # 2 speaks to Brayden and Kieran as well. Take law. We know a lot about e.g. how people interact with the law, the courts, the cops. About how they vote. We know a good bit about how laws are created, adjudicated and enforced. We know, in short, much about the organizational and social life of government and the law. I’d argue we’re less well informed on the financial system and on banks.

    We are functionally ignorant of the organizational life of big swaths of the university. I don’t know of a single serious study of, for instance, university development efforts or government relations offices. But work with alumni and lobbying efforts are a big part of what universities do. We have only a passing sense of student life. Folks who study the research function (particularly science studies types) tend not to think in these terms though that is changing a bit.

    We haven’t had a serious study of university leadership in years. There’s good work being done on trustees and governance but it’s scattered. Karabel and Stevens help us out immensely on admissions, but until very recently we couldn’t say much about the mechanics of that important decision process. There’s a huge, well developed student services profession, but we don’t know much about where they come from, what they do, or how they (the front line of interaction with most students on campus) do their jobs. I just learned that my university runs a big-ish hazardous waste facility but I couldn’t tell you anything about how it interacts with the EPA, local constituencies or other key players in the environmental realm.

    Most of our work on higher ed either stops at matriculation or starts when things (people, findings) leave campus. In place of chewy empirical work we tend to turn universities into black boxes, shrug and mutter about loose coupling. That’s a shame, not the least because I suspect many of the changes going on in the institution reduce organizational slack and more tightly couple the various functions.

    This has become a rant so I’ll cut it off by saying that Weisbrod’s new book _Mission and Money_ probably comes closest to what I’m calling for, but I’m unsatisfied with it.

    @Hillbilly. Point taken. I didn’t so much lump colleges and universities together as disregard the former. I’m most interested in knowledge production (particularly scientific and technical knowledge production) and that skews my screeds toward universities and away from other four year or two year institutions, but that misses important stuff.

    @Kieran. I love the medieval aspects. Seriously, we still organize our lives seasonally!



    January 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm

  7. Jason:
    Color me unconvinced, esp on point #2. I just don’t know how to evaluate the assertion that we don’t know much about X without having a standard for what constitutes enough knowledge about X. I mean, we all find ourselves to be somewhat mysterious: When is someone going to write the definitive book on me, so I can finally understand myself?! But: (a) it is unclear how we would distinguish such a book from less-than-definitive books; and (b) even if we could, there were would be little demand for such a definitive book because it would serve no purpose for anyone other than me (and perhaps not even me, if we think one can have too much self-knowledge!) I would argue that, to evaluate an assertion like ‘we don’t know enough about x,’ it needs to reformulated as, “there is a mystery/puzzle about the world that we care about because without understanding it, we are less able to pursue some important purpose.” On that basis, I’m sure there are purposes for which getting a better understanding of how universities function would be useful, but it’s hard to say why that’s any more true for universities than other institutions. And more specifically, I just don’t know what is so mysterious about admissions processes or university-government relations such that books on these topics are more needed than books on other topics.



    January 14, 2010 at 3:26 pm

  8. Ezra:

    This is a rough forum for trying to do serious convincing. I suspect we have an unexplored difference in our underlying philosophy of inquiry. I’ll look forward to figuring out if that’s the case the next time we can sit down together.

    For now, I didn’t mean to argue that the most important yet unwritten book is about some aspect of universities. I think of this less as a claim about whether what we know is definitive than as a suggestion that there are important features of these organizations about which we are stunningly ignorant.

    I believe that universities are among the most important x institutions in our society (where x is some fairly small number, say less than 5). Given that importance, our relative inattention to their internal structure, functioning, etc. represents a serious lacuna that should be rectified.

    Take admissions offices. Some large percentage of our population aged 18-25 matriculates in some 4 year institution. We know that where one goes to school has all kinds of implications for later life. Until the last couple of years, though, we had no clear sense of how decisions got made in those offices. That’s a big hole in our knowledge that has implications for all kinds of problems sociologists might care about. It would be akin to having everyone nod sagely about the importance of hiring to individual careers and to corporate performance but failing entirely to examine the HR function in any systematic fashion.

    Does this mean that everyone who is currently studying e.g. finance should drop everything and run to examine universities? No. Does it suggest that folks looking for an interesting site for a new project that skews organizational should consider the holes in our knowledge about universities? I’d make that an emphatic yes.



    January 14, 2010 at 5:36 pm

  9. I’m sympathetic to Jason plea for more research on universities as organizations–esp as someone who works in this area–but I’ll say there’s a fair amount of research on this topic, both within and beyond sociology (Daniel Lipson, Denise O’Neil Green, Tony Chen, Sheila Slaughter on neoliberalism of higher ed, to name just a few). There are entire Departments of Educational Organization (or Administration) and Leadership. Much just doesn’t come directly out of the Org’s subfield.

    And consider these stats about higher ed enrollment from the 2000 Census. It’s quite low:

    * 21% of Americans had taken some college courses but had not earned a degree
    * 15.5% had earned a bachelor’s degree but no higher,
    * 8.9% earned graduate or professional degrees



    January 14, 2010 at 6:04 pm

  10. So you are trying to make an argument for why universities are understudied and Ezra is pushing back by saying that the criteria for whether something is worthy of some amount of study (or whether the amount of study that has currently been devoted to that topic is “enough”) are fuzzy, so there is no way to meaningfully determine (or know) how much knowledge enough is, outside of a more delimited cognitive criterion of puzzle-solving.

    Maybe the problem is that you are using an “institutional centrality” criterion, but “centrality” is really playing the role of what in the good old days of Parsons and Platt or even Durkheim, would have been played by the concept of function. So why not be shameless and just say “function”? My guess is that if you would have stated this plea in crass functionalist terms, then Ezra would not have a problem: e.g. “for an institution that serves this (important/irreplaceable/crucial) type of function in society, we really don’t know enough about it.” However shameful as theory-speak (but we are all functionalists of one stripe or another), function fixes the objective importance of institutions in a way that the elliptical notion of centrality does not. We can then adjudicate whether we have devoted enough effort to the understanding of a given domain. For instance, it would be a shame if we knew more about mines than universities under a scheme that conceptualized mines as having a much less important function that universities.



    January 14, 2010 at 9:13 pm

  11. Hmm… based on your response, Jason, I’m not sure you want any more grief from me (I share some of your frustration with this medium). So feel free to ignore this.

    In any case, I think what you wrote about admissions offices comes closer to the kind of standard I find meaningful/useful. You want to understand stratification (perhaps to limit it, perhaps to make it more meritocratic) and you think that university admissions offices might play a role in that. And presumably there are competing, reasonable models for how these offices might work to have such an effect. So you investigate further to nail it down. Note, however, that this framing of the matter: (a) is not really based on a lack of knowledge of universities per se, but about one aspect of them; and (b) without specifying what those competing models are and showing that they are in conflict, it’s not clear that we really do need to open up this particular black box. Again, we always lack knowledge about a given institution or process. The question is whether it matters for some important purpose (full agreement with Omar here– all evaluation is relative to a [manifest] function or purpose), and based on whether there are competing ideas (perhaps implicit) about how it relates to that purpose.



    January 14, 2010 at 10:50 pm

  12. I agree that many of the processes within higher education are somewhat understudied, admissions processes being one of them. One of the issues with college admissions is the numerous models that one has to evaluate to get any “consensus” of what is going on. The re-analysis of college admissions that started around 2000 ended up leading to a large number of liberal arts colleges (even Wake Forest) to drop the requirement for SATs/ACTs because of the race and class bias of the scores, but what actually goes on in the review of the applications is still a “gray area” of study.

    If you’re looking at student stratification in higher education, in general, there are several different processes going on from weed-out classes, to Burton Clark’s “cooling out” effect which is closely associated with the tracking system in middle and high schools, to where (geographically) selective colleges send their admissions staff for college fairs.

    One thing that kind of hinders the study of certain aspects of universities, especially relating to inequality, are the walls some researchers run into when asking for student data. Princeton’s researchers have been able to gather some great data on higher education, but most of it focuses on the most selective colleges in the U.S. (not that it’s unimportant, but there are roughly 4,000 colleges and universities to study).

    Just my .02



    January 14, 2010 at 11:35 pm

  13. Ellenberrey points out that there are ed leadership and administration departments, but I don’t see them (well, us – I’m in one) doing this kind of work. The education org theory folks who did “big picture” research are all retiring, and there isn’t a group coming up to replace them. The kinds of questions org theory might ask are instead being asked by economists and in an econometric framework, or they’re being framed as political science issues, focused on public policy. They’re also focusing on much more micro parts of the equation.

    My impression is that a lot of the big picture work was given up when computerized statistical analysis revolutionized higher ed research. People used the new tools to generate massive data sets and ran regressions that didn’t really tell us anything useful, and so they started drilling down to smaller and smaller questions. Frankly, org theory stopped being sexy when it was broken down into little tiny pieces. The glamour and excitement was all in studying individual students and in public policy, neither of which have their unit of analysis as the institution. Org theory didn’t disappear from ed schools, but it became the province of administratively-focused students and faculty, who tend to be more interested in practical solutions than in theoretically coherency. It’s not just big theories that have disappeared, but theories of the middle range, too.

    I’ve gotten the impression through the grapevine that schools looking to hire to replace the retiring big names in ed school org theory are having a tough time, because the graduates just aren’t there.



    January 15, 2010 at 3:09 am

  14. “Frankly, org theory stopped being sexy when it was broken down into little tiny pieces.”




    January 15, 2010 at 3:20 am

  15. But orgtheory regained its sex appeal when Fabio joined this blog.



    January 15, 2010 at 12:55 pm

  16. I agree with turducken, in principle, about the lack of education/school org theory graduates filling the positions of the big names. A disjuncture, I feel, is that there are not many sociology positions (or ed school for that matter) opening with a requirement of candidates to be involved in the sociology of education or education org theory in general; therefore, it’s hard to hire SoE/ed org grads if you don’t ask for them.



    January 15, 2010 at 2:04 pm

  17. Ezra: Nah, I love grief. I generally prefer that it be delivered over beer, but hyperlinks will have to do.

    Here’s the aforementioned difference in approaches to inquiry. I suspect that I have more of a taste for open-ended, “how does this thing work,” styles of research than you do. I think those are likely to be particularly important here because I don’t believe we know enough about the range of stuff that universities actually do to confidently issue the hunting licenses you seem to favor. I fear that we’re stuck in a state similar to OT pre-Blau, Selznick, Goldman etc. We run the risk of mistaking theories about how we expect a particular organization should work (or be structured) for knowledge about how that type of organization actually works (or is structured).

    Admissions is perhaps the easiest case for setting up the kind of study you outline because of the massive amount of stratification research that hinges on education.

    I’ve been startled by what I learned from spending 18 months sitting in a technology licensing office. In part because of that, I suspect we haven’t yet begun to map all the various functions (hey Omar) the university fulfills and we certainly haven’t figured out how they link up with each other. We need some mapping expeditions before we can set out for specific game.

    I am particularly interested in the possibility that the internal arrangements and workings of a university might connect large social problems that we wouldn’t expect to be connected. I’m making this up (and realize that my view is dramatically colored by the fact that I live in Ann Arbor), but think about the ways public funding, admissions, and regional economic development might link up.

    We know that state funding is on the decline for public universities. We also know that public universities are under significant political pressure to contribute to economic growth and revitalization in their states. We know that one of the key features of that contribution is building a local labor force that will attract and support more technology and capital-intensive businesses. We know that at the state level hefty tax breaks are a key component of attracting such businesses. Big business tax incentives in states like Michigan make it harder to maintain levels of public higher education funding.

    So, public funding declines and universities respond by accepting more out-of-state students and hiking tuition for in state students. Financial aid packages cover less of the nut.

    Out of state students may be less likely to stay in the state after graduation. In state students who can pay higher freight may leave the state for their education if the cost of in and out state degrees becomes more similar. If there aren’t jobs for them to return to, they are unlikely to return. First generation, lower income, and non-traditional age students in the state may be less likely to enroll in and graduate from the flagship university (or maybe in any public higher education institution). Inequality may increase in the state, bringing with it more of the kinds of social problems that typically accompany growing inequity. Larger need for social services, policing etc. will put greater demands on a shrinking tax base while tarnishing the state’s image in the eyes of business leaders and high end workers.

    The net result of a decline in public funding then may be a lowered likelihood of economic revitalization because a change in the calculus for admission decisions contributes to a shallower labor pool in the state. There may be a vicious cycle. Bigger tax breaks will have to be offered to convince businesses to locate in a state with a weaker labor force and a problematic image. You get my drift?

    If representatives of the U then go to state legislatures and argue for funding based on economic development potential, the U gets caught in a bind. Here, by the way, is one of the places where it would help to know what government relations folks actually do all day and who they report to. Even if faculty (who may end up with larger teaching loads or less discretionary/gap/infrastructure support as a result of shifts in general fund allocations) generate potentially valuable inventions, new start-ups are likely to get founded (or to move) elsewhere to take advantage of better labor markets. . .

    I’ll stop. I suspect this won’t convince you that we need more than tests of hypotheses we already know enough to specify about problems whose importance is already broadly recognized, but I’m happy to try again some other time.

    @Ellen: Hi. Thanks for the numbers. I’d re-frame slightly to something like “1 in 5 American adults have had some sustained (and relatively expensive) interaction with a higher education institution. I bet the number is even higher in lower age ranges.”

    @Turducken. Ayup.



    January 15, 2010 at 3:19 pm

  18. I like the idea of studying an empirical phenomenon for its own sake, and so I sympathize with Jason a lot here. If you believe universities function differently than other kinds of organizations, then I can see why people would want to figure out what the empirical differences are. And I read Jason’s post to say that we don’t know enough about the empirical regularities of the university institution to be able to identify what those differences are. So that’s the comparative sociological case you could make for studying the university organization.

    I think that an interesting repercussion of conceptualizing organizational differences with a comparative lens is that we start to identify the limits to theoretical generalizability and point to potential weaknesses or holes in our dominant theories about organizations. Take, for example, Meyer and Rowan (1977), which has inspired a ton of research in various domains and which people now generalize to all kinds of organizations. Meyer and Rowan developed the concept of decoupling/formal myth by studying educational organizations. And yet we continue to generalize this theory as if it were meant to apply equally to all organizations and to organizational activities in all institutional domains. If we knew more about the differences between these organizational forms, we might be able to better draw scope conditions around our theories and better identify which mechanisms are likely to matter in which contexts. That’s the big theoretical reason for studying a particular organizational form.



    January 15, 2010 at 3:57 pm

  19. Hi Jason and Brayden.

    I agree that there is an important place for more open-ended research projects, where we learn which questions we need to ask. With the partial exception of an experimental project, I’d say that the question-discovery process has been central fo any project I’ve been involved with. So that’s not what I was objecting to.

    What I objected to was the claim that there were questions about the university that are so important and so puzzling that more studies of the university deserve particular pride of place for ‘orgtheory’ readers. Whether you figure out what question to ask by sitting in an armchair or by immersing yourself in an empirical setting, the onus is still on you to say why the question you ask is so important and so puzzling (in that sense, I don’t know what it means to study something for its own sake). Thanks to Jason, I now have a better sense of what are those questions about universities he finds so important and so puzzling. However, I think I’ll need that beer though before I say ‘uncle’ to the claim that these are the most important and most puzzling questions that occupy ‘orgtheorists.’

    Happy MLK Weekend to all.




    January 15, 2010 at 5:35 pm

  20. […] “… Let me start with a modest proposition: The university is the most important institution in contemporary society and the one about which we know the least. The organizations and institutions of contemporary higher education are undergoing far-reaching transitions that stand to remake key features of our social world, but we have largely ignored those changes …” (more) […]


  21. Just came across this from Drucker: “No better text for a History of Entrepreneurship could be found than the creation and development of the modern university, and especially the modern American university.”

    That’s not exactly what this post is about, but it’s an interesting alternative lens.



    January 18, 2010 at 12:19 am

  22. […] a comment » Jason’s last post brought up some good issues about research on higher ed. But I side with the skeptics a bit. We […]


  23. “Education First” is the motto here at Eastern Michigan University because for 100 years we were Michigan Normal College. We trained teachers.

    So, when I finally made the time to follow up on this topic at the EMU Library, I was shocked to discover the lack of materials. In our LOC-catalogued stacks the Ls go on forever, but books on university governanace, the history of the university, the university in society, society in the university, etc., etc., are few are far between. I brought home five.


    Michael E. Marotta

    February 26, 2010 at 10:53 am

  24. […] Owen-Smith: “ is the place where I learned not to make grandiose claims about what’s most important to our […]


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