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Policy & Practice

The hard task of addressing “hot button” issues at universities

The nature of universities as organizations helps explain why so much symbolic management takes place when they are faced with thorny subjects.

par CRESO SÁ | 29 MAR 18

How will freedom of speech fare on Canadian campuses this year? What progress will universities make in meeting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action? To what degree will universities respond to the federal government’s push for greater gender equity in academic science?

These are some of the questions that have been raised recently across the country, inside and outside of universities. While these are very different issues, they have a few things in common: they raise questions around cultural values within universities; they attract social scrutiny; and they defy formulaic solutions.

These features heighten the sensitivity of university leaders to opprobrium. As a result, their knee-jerk reaction to these issues tends to involve symbolic management – a set of actions that signal to the world that universities conform to social expectations, which may or may not relate to substantive actions. Conventional responses in this vein include striking task forces to generate recommendations on the issue, appointing special advisers or advisory committees reporting to an academic leader, releasing public statements, and conspicuously developing plans or strategies, for example.

These actions are often debated on campus from a local perspective; their attributes and likelihood of impacting change are discussed in relation to the perceived commitment and sincerity of the university leaders in charge. More generally, however, the nature of universities as organizations helps explain why so much symbolic management takes place when they are faced with thorny subjects.

One of the defining features of universities is the extent to which they depend on maintaining their social legitimacy. That is far from mere “branding” or corporate public relations, which are shorter-term activities that aim at promoting organizations through a certain prism. Legitimacy refers to a deeper sense of appropriateness that make universities’ claims about what they do and accomplish credible and widely supported. Not all organizations can state that their mission is to advance knowledge for the betterment of humanity and not sound ridiculous.

In pluralistic societies such as Canada’s where universities rely on the backing of multiple stakeholders, maintaining and enhancing legitimacy is far from straightforward. Internal and external demands on universities are often based on competing interests, goals, and values. Different groups have contrasting views on what universities are and should prioritize. These pushes and pulls come from government departments, funding bodies, elected officials, industry, professional associations, employers, regulatory agencies, unions, parents, students, among others.

Rather than making strict decisions on their core concerns and responsibilities, universities tend to be accommodating of multiple agendas and the associated support such agendas bring, whether materially or symbolically. Universities thus espouse a number of abstract ideals as institutional values, unavoidably using language that refers to innovation, creativity, social justice, equity, diversity, the public good and variants on these themes. Such displays of commitment neither necessarily force them to make tangible choices as organizations nor alienate groups for whom those values hold meaning.

Hence, is the implication of this legitimacy imperative the cynical conclusion that universities are bound to merely respond symbolically to pressing issues such as the ones raised above? Not necessarily, although that is likely to be a usual response. Taking concrete steps to enact change on sensitive issues, particularly those that involve disputes over social and cultural values that cannot be settled, risks frustrating some constituency and marring campus administrations that become entangled in controversy.

Linking symbolic and substantive actions requires university leaders to behave outside the comfort zone characterized by acceptance of the lowest common denominator of proceeding as cautiously as possible so as not to offend anyone. Insofar as many senior administrators progress in their careers and make it to the top by sticking to symbolic management, they are bound to lack the aptitude and the vision to do so.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is the vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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