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Universities are more than just their professors: Understanding organizational transformation through staff changes

Publikation: Bog/antologi/afhandling/rapportPh.d.-afhandlingForskning

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This dissertation has illuminated how Danish universities have developed as organizations over decades. The days when largely self-reliant professors dominated the universities numerically and practically have long passed. Universities have been transforming into more fully-fledged organizations with a more diverse staffing model. While the literature agrees on the characteristics of the traditional university model, it disagrees on the character, pace, and drivers of the new model’s emergence. This dissertation has addressed the need for empirical research into the organizational consequences of long-term pressure on universities, the lack of which stands in contrast to the magnitude of change that has occurred. It provides a new empirical basis for grounding conceptual claims of university transformation.
Important contours of the new model become visible when the spotlight is thoroughly turned from the professors to the totality of university employees. This dissertation has shed light on the obvious but oft-forgotten fact that Danish universities consist of a wide variety of employees. The variety of university jobs extends far beyond what most people imagine—hundreds of distinct job titles. This dissertation has holistically examined staff changes at very different levels of resolution over a significant period, embracing the longitudinal and multi-level nature of university transformation. The used staff data has been processed at the most disaggregated level available with the aim of comprehending and harmonizing staff categories across time, universities, and countries. For the Danish case, a multi-tiered categorization was created, allowing higher-level categories to be transparently understood as aggregations of lower-level categories and specific job titles and work conditions. The scale, resolution, and consistency in which staff changes have been analyzed make this dissertation stand out.
Contrary to notions of resilience and change-resistance, the empirical analyses have revealed in new detail how two overarching staff categories have steadily grown in importance: Temporary academic staff and professionalized administrative/managerial staff. These developments have made the academic and non-academic workforce resemble the classic organizational pyramid-shape of low- and high-status employees. Numerous newly appointed mid-level line managers increasingly tie separate departments and units together via the empowered upper management. New professional capacities have emerged around the various line managers and around crosscutting service functions, which all together complement each other in an increasingly fine-grained and formalized system of designated offices. Hence, Danish universities have come to increasingly resemble other hierarchically managed organizations—at least from a distance.
This shift reflects efforts to formalize and delegate tasks previously conducted informally as integrated elements in academic culture: On the one hand, a process of moving tasks out of a fragmented academic arena into an administrative and managerial sphere, which is expected to be more consistent and accountable. On the other hand, a process of spreading academic tasks among a more diversified academic workforce, which is expected to be more productive, flexible, and responsive to society.
While the Danish staff data in itself provided few clues about the drivers behind the organizational transformation, it was well-suited to be combined with other data types that could help explain the development. The multi-tiered staff categorization made it possible to break down staff categories, so they closely complement manager interviews, funding figures, policy documents, and foreign staff data. This combination provided fresh insights into the long-term drivers and consequences of university transformation. It was particularly apt to illuminate how various changes have slowly but steadily built up over two decades, resulting in significant organizational restructuring. It showed that drivers at different levels (e.g., local managers, national policy reforms, and global models) have interacted but mainly strengthened one another’s effects.
The organizational transformation is an adaptation to both specific external pressures (e.g., national policy reforms) and to a general situation with increased external pressures (e.g., from external stakeholders). National policy reforms have clearly prompted the new organizational university model in Denmark, but the development cannot be understood in distinctively national terms. The reforms have clear ties to global pressures that have simultaneously impinged on the Danish universities directly. Global pressures empowered the impact of national policy reforms on Danish universities, which again empowered their hierarchical structures, which in turn further empowered the impact of policy reforms and global pressures. National policy reforms clearly gave the development a certain direction, momentum, and legitimacy, which in turn shaped the influence of other concurrent and more generic drivers.
This dissertation has cast light on developments that the traditional university model cannot explain. The traditional model owes its origin to the time when self-reliant professors dominated universities numerically and practically. To a growing extent, a new organizational model is required to understand the coexistence of multiple, important staff categories in universities. The formalization and delegation have potentially offset parts of the traditional model. However, scholars continue to argue that (senior?) academics are very loosely coupled, limiting universities’ formalization and delegation to rather superficial matters. Hence, the growing weight of the new model does not necessarily reduce the traditional one correspondingly. The two somewhat conflicting models can co-exist and only partially mix.
However, accounts of historical stability “naturally” over-focus on the centuries-old practices of professors, because the historical record of other staff categories first gained real weight in recent years. A rather narrow and static view on the core missions of the university is common and easily but mistakenly equated with the work of professors. A balanced understanding of the competing traditional and new model requires a fine-grained approach to core and non-core practices, which takes the diversified workforce and the stretched university missions into account. This dissertation has taken the first steps toward a holistic understanding of Danish universities as huge, multi-purpose organizations by analyzing staff changes at very different levels of resolution. Despite a notorious reputation for being reluctant to change, today’s Danish universities are different entities than what they were a few decades ago.
OriginalsprogEngelsk
UdgivelsesstedAarhus
ForlagForlaget Politica
Antal sider267
ISBN (Trykt)978-87-7335-260-1
StatusUdgivet - 2020
SerietitelPoliticas ph.d.-serie

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