Faculty inside a changing university: Constructing roles, making spaces

Leslie D Gonzales, University of Texas at El Paso


The notion of a multiversity was stamped into the higher education literature by Clark Kerr in 1963 when he spoke about the numerous purposes tied to U.S. higher education. Kerr highlighted how the University is often pulled in many directions at once, asked to fulfill promises of the cultural, educational, national, societal, and now, of the global kind. Perhaps, more than ever, the notion of the multiversity is relevant today. It is imperative to remember that these multiversities, however, are not empty spaces. They are occupied and brought to life by the people who work inside them, especially the faculty, who Gregorian (2005) names as the “heart and soul, the bone marrow and blood of universities.” To this end, it is important to investigate and come closer to an understanding of what it is like to be a faculty member in today’s current context. In this study, I explore how a cross-section of faculty make sense of and carry out their work as professors as the university in which they work attempts to transition from a primarily teaching focused, regional university to a national research or “Tier One1” university. With an interpretive approach that draws from various data collection strategies, I show that faculty members make sense of this transition most often by drawing from two major sources: the institutional field and the immediate organizational culture. Most often, however, faculty members turn to the institutional field of higher education to understand what it means to be a professor at a “Tier One” University despite the fact “Tier One” is language that emanates from a set of benchmarks designed by the state legislature. Furthermore, my research shows that “Tier One” is a concept that the University President co-opted and “localized” in her attempt to define this transition for organizational constituents. While the vast majority of faculty members turn to the institutional field, as New Institutionalism (Powell and DiMaggio, 1991) might predict, to make sense of the transition unfolding at their university, this does not mean that all faculty simply import the institutionally prescribed notion of what it means to be a professor at a “Tier One” university. The analysis shows that to a great extent, faculty members construct a role and carry out their work in a way that seems plausible in light of the university’s culture and context. However, perhaps more importantly, the analysis shows that professors carry out their work in ways that seem practical to them in light of who they are as individuals whom carry an embodied personal and professional biography, history, and world view. Using Bourdieu’s theory of action, habitus, and field, I theorize that while the institutional field and organizational culture may provide standardized scripts and ideas for faculty members in terms of what faculty work could and should look like, one’s habitus acts as a mediating disposition that informs, but does not determine, how faculty make sense of their work, and ultimately, how faculty construct a role and a space for self. My analysis revealed that faculty members (re)construct their role and carry out their work in three distinct ways: as Operationalizers, as Negotiators or as an Acquiescent. Amongst these three groups, there are important nuances which are outlined in the analysis and which have implications for understanding and investigating organizational change, faculty work, faculty relations and the role that faculty members are playing in the larger field of higher education. This work yields practical implications for how organizational change is engineered inside a university, especially in terms of the language that is employed to transform a deeply structured university mission and culture. Issues of trust and faith in leadership emerged as significant patterns in the analysis of the data, and often led to faculty members’ skepticism and negation of their roles. Also, how administrative leaders conceive of change and how they involve faculty members in such key decision making processes are also key matters that should be given consideration. Although not new, it is suggested that in order to move a university, its faculty must “buy” into the initiative at hand. My analysis shows that not only are faculty not “on board,” but that many of them really lack an appreciation for the historical role and context of the university as well as a sound understanding as to why the university has chosen to take on a new mission and what the new mission is really about – at least in the most technical sense. Practical, but also philosophical, implications also address the kinds of roles that faculty are playing inside of this transition. These roles signal to faculty members’ engagement not only in their own university, but also in the larger field of higher education. The fact that most faculty do not know, are not aware of or sometimes are not concerned about preserving the important functions of teaching, service, access at this transitioning university is reflective of both deeper cultural and structural issues that are pervading higher education today. These significant issues are addressed in the concluding chapter of this work. 1Tier One is a concept that was used at the organizational and state level to describe this University’s aspirations to become a major national research university. Administrators and leaders attempted to “localize” the concept by applying their own criteria and creating slogans to and inform organizational members about the transition as well as to build support for it.

Subject Area

Organizational behavior|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Gonzales, Leslie D, "Faculty inside a changing university: Constructing roles, making spaces" (2010). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI3426847.