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Difficulty in Decision-Making: Institutional Pluralism at Colleges and Universities


College Protest with Encampments
College Protest with Encampments

Several colleges and universities have decided to cancel commencement as protests continue to occupy spaces and have begun putting student safety at risk. Mainstream media and public criticism about managing these nationwide protests have come to a head. Higher Education critics continue to ask questions such as "Why won't they just expel students?" or "Why is commencement canceled, wouldn't that be punishing all students for the decisions of a few?” This week, we look at insights related to Institutional Pluralism and why decision-making is often tricky during crisis management.


Historical and consistent tension exists within internal functioning in pluralistic organizations, such as American colleges or universities. Institutional Pluralism is the situation faced by an organization that operates within multiple institutional spheres. As a result of this interconnectivity, multiple identities, disparate demands, and persistent deep-rooted tensions within the organization materialize. Empirical research has revealed that numerous organizations face environments that exert pluralistic demands, including the healthcare industries, government relations, small businesses, multi-national firms, and public, private, and for-profit sectors. There is a variance of pluralistic implications surrounding organizational governance and its primary role within the institution itself with each organization.


"Institutional Pluralism is the situation faced by an organization that operates within multiple institutional spheres. As a result of this interconnectivity, multiple identities, disparate demands, and persistent deep-rooted tensions within the organization materialize. "

How do organizations navigate institutional Pluralism, and what is the role of organizational governance in this endeavor? Over time, the role and definition of organizational governance have evolved. Studies of governance are generally concerned with identifying “who rules” the organization, understanding the ends toward which they are ruled, and analyzing the means employed to achieve those ends. Thus, organizational governance is concerned with strategic (providing direction), controlling (monitoring and ensuring accountability) functions, and managing relationships. So, from a college lens, who is providing direction in the campus protest crisis? This could be senior leadership, student affairs administration, campus security, and even the public police department. These entities must meet, communicate, and debate the best solutions as the crises grow in possible safety risks and concerns.


"So, from a college lens, who is providing direction in the campus protest crisis?"

The monitoring and accountability dynamic can also be challenging to scaffold because accountability becomes more complex when pinpointing the larger protest dynamics. Some institutions have used their faculty as mediators, both understanding student demands and holding students accountable. Other institutions can struggle with this if their faculty are actively involved in the protest, where we have seen some faculty shielding their students from campus security interference. This volatile environment requires leadership to move strategically and intentionally. With Institutional Pluralism, this becomes a layered approach and does not offer a simple remedy, especially considering the damage to potential relationships.


"Some institutions have used their faculty as mediators, both understanding student demands and holding students accountable. Other institutions can struggle with this if their faculty are actively involved in the protest."

The final aspect that needs to be highlighted is the social construct of institutional Pluralism and, as we noted previously, the management of relationships. Since social enterprises combine business and charitable forms of organizing at their core, they are equally accountable for delivering financial and social results, a priority for all Higher Education Institutions. In times of crisis, organizational governance can begin to lean toward one direction. If it leans toward social results, the institution demonstrates its commitment to assembly, peaceful protest, and student involvement. When institutions begin to lean toward financial results, they consider the relationships lost in funding, donor relations, tuition loss, and the like. All roads lead to complex decision-making that must be done thoughtfully and strategically.


There is no simple solution to crisis management; in higher education, one size only fits some. One approach is not the remedy for all. We must continue to trust institutional leadership to make the best decisions for their schools, given that they have all the context internally and externally. While this is a fragile time, and students are making history, we can also use this time as a critical case study to better understand Higher Education's unique function and nature.


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Rebuttals are always welcome,


Jade M. Felder



 

Resources to consider:

Kraatz, M.S & Block, E. (2008). Organizational implications of institutional Pluralism. In R Greenwood, C. Oliver, R. Suddaby & K. Sahlin, Ed. The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism: 243-275. London: Sage

 

Mair, J., Mayer, J., & Lutz, E. (2015). Navigating institutional plurality: Organizational Governance in hybrid organizations. Organization Studies36(6), 713-739.

 


 

 

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