Using Culture to Understand How the Academy is Governed

William Tierney’s book, The Impact of Culture on Organizational Decision Making (Stylus 2008), discusses the importance of using a cultural lens on the governance of higher education institutions.

Culture is a funny thing. In many ways, it informs our experiences, shapes our identities, circulates amongst and between our relationships, and leaves an impression on many aspects of our lives. Or, at least, some of us may think that. Despite its pervasiveness, culture has only recently become a theoretical construct by which to analyze organizations or social phenomenon. This focus on culture is the entry point for William Tierney’s book, The Impact of Culture on Organizational Decision Making, as he discusses the importance of using  a cultural lens on the governance of higher education institutions.

The book  is primarily organized as a chronological survey of some of Tierney’s publications which  address issues of organizational culture in higher education, socialization, student experience, and communication in governance. Throughout his examination of these topics, Tierney deploys his cultural lens as an important alterative framework to understand the relationship between actors and structures and how meaning is made in these interactions, based on multiple and overlapping contexts. The undesirable task of defining culture was necessarily undertaken by Tierney in the first few pages,  wherehe writes, “[C]ulture is more useful to think of an as interpretation that takes place on a daily basis among the members of a particular group”. 

This seemingly broad notion of culture resonates with particular themes that Tierney highlights throughout his text. The theme of interpretation is emphasized by Tierney at many  points, and he spends considerable energy situating his focus on interpretation within the context of  how knowledge is produced and the nature of knowledge itself. Also, Tierney calls for this interpretation to occur on a “daily basis”. Implicit in this notion is the need for re-interpreting one’s interpretative methods and interests. That is, a cultural lens enables us to recognize the processes and interactions within organizations as constantly renegotiating relationships between people as well as the organization itself. This focus on multiplicity and dynamism are pivotal to garnering the utility of a cultural analytic framework, but may also be one of the most challenging aspects of understanding it. In a subsequent chapter, Tierney engages with a definition of culture, “it is a set of symbolic processes, ideologies and socio-historical contexts that are situated in an arena of struggle, contestation and multiple interpretations.”

Tierney treads into many different arenas of scholarship throughout this book, and as I am a higher education researcher, I found this permeating of disciplinary boundaries to be very engaging and necessary. He employs ideas from sociology and anthropology at length to explore universities and the interactions within them. Also, his interest in discussing organizations is rooted in notions from organizational theory and organizational behaviour – frameworks that have been touted in MBA programs and doctoral programs at business schools. The intersections of these different disciplinary approaches are emblematic of the sort of argument and phenomenon that Tierney is attempting to address. 

He contends that the relationship between discipline and knowledge is not neutral and that the notion of universities as vessels and vehicles to transmit knowledge is problematic. Knowledge is a social and political product, and people define knowledge based on their particular social and historical contexts. This conceptualization of knowledge has important consequences for his cultural framework. Also, institutions, through their curricula, promote discourses that shape knowledge and, thus, there is an organizational component to the production of knowledge such that knowledge is constantly renegotiated – and this renegotiation is informed by social, political, historical and institutional influences.

Crucial to understanding Tierney’s use of a cultural framework to explore higher education institutions, and organizations more broadly, is the relationship between knowledge, ideology, and culture. The manner by which Tierney articulates these concepts, as well as his emphasis in connecting them in particular ways, are foundational to his arguments. Ideology refers to participants’ assumptions about the nature of knowledge, and Tierney draws from Schuster and Van Dyne (1984) to communicate ideology as “a dynamic system of values and priorities, conscious and unconscious, by which men and women organize their actions and expectations, and explain their choices”. In many ways, the ideology of organizations validates certain knowledges and discredits others, so knowledge assists individuals in how they understand their surroundings. Fundamentally, Tierney (2008) reminds us, “knowledge, ideology and culture continuously interact with one another; a change in one will cause change in another”.

To complement some of these more conceptual arguments, Tierney highlights many of his empirical studies that address these issues related to knowledge, ideology, and culture. He uses  both quantitative and qualitative approaches to his research, thereby enriching his analysis. Much of the empirical work is located in the middle of the book   entitled, “Examining Academic Work”. Here, Tierney explores how institutional culture and academic work assist in constructing knowledge. He describes his ethnographic account of two very different institutions and presents his data through a quasi-case study analysis. Central to this chapter is the significance of how particular forms of knowledge are validated in different contexts and how this validation is build upon faculty and institutional culture, as well as the parameters for action and discourse as shaped by institutional mission. The complicated interplay of knowledge, culture and ideology resonate powerfully from this chapter. 

Tierney’s cultural analysis gains considerable momentum when he describes his anthropological analysis of student participation in post-secondary education. He explicitly critiques some of the underpinnings of Tinto’s (1975) retention model, which has received substantial praise over time. Tierney targets Tinto’s use of ritual and social integration to explain the retention of college students and is particularly interested in how these notions have implications for students from marginalized backgrounds. Tierney is critical of the use of a cultural term – “ritual” – because, as Tinto deploys it, strips the term of its cultural foundations. To use notions of ritual and rites of passage, but not assess the cultures in which those terms are used, undermines the use of the terms, as the cultures in which such terms are located shape and inform the significance of the terms as practices.

Tierney also takes issue with the application of ritual to academic processes and, in particular, the use of the term in the context of other terms such as “dropout” or “departure”. For cultures that utilize rituals or rites of passage, there is no choice about whether to undergo them. In fact, individuals who experience rites of passage choose neither to participate nor to leave them – so Tinto’s use of this term as an explanatory mechanism for college student retention and integration is problematic. Tierney (2008) summarizes, “[W]hat Tinto again has failed to do is to investigate the cultural context of the anthropological term ritual and to show the language of student participation is a cultural construction. He has assumed that student departure is a universal concept rather than a cultural category developed by the society that uses the ritual” . 

Next, Tierney turns his cultural analytic framework to organizational socialization in higher education. Two major themes are woven through this chapter: a) everyday occurrences and experiences can be more instrumental to socialization than grand gestures or events; and b) socialization is not static, so its purpose is not the transmission of values or ways of being onto individuals but, rather, there is an active interpretative process between individual and organization that both constitutes and renegotiates what it means to be socialized.

Tierney distinguishes between modernist and postmodernist approaches to socialization. Rather than elucidating the history of either, he explores how these approaches interact with culture and what sorts of implications each approach brings to higher education institutions. A modernist approach to socialization assumes that there are linear and rational processes situated in an understandable culture. The extent to which an initiate understands organizational norms and mores, the better he/she will fit into the institution. A postmodern approach emphasizes that the individual does not just acquire knowledge about the organization or that the individual awaits “organizational imprinting”. This approach questions the rational notion that reality is fixed and that culture is discoverable. Tierney advocates for give-and-take between individual and organization that emphasizes the histories of individuals and their meaning-making processes as well as the reconfiguration of organizational culture. Tierney eloquently suggests, “[W]hen an individual is socialized, this individual is participating in the re-creation, rather than merely the discovery, of a culture”. 

Tierney returns to the trajectory of students in post-secondary education, with a particular focus on populations that have historically been marginalized in higher education. In doing so, he expands Tinto’s retention model by emphasizing his own cultural consideration of student access and retention in higher education. Tierney suggests that Tinto’s social integrationist approach requires that students’ cultural backgrounds need to be ignored or deleted if they do not match the norms and mores of contemporary higher education institutions. Invoking a cultural lens on access and retention, Tierney not only emphasizes organizational fit amongst students but also  the importance of educational organizations accommodating and honoring students’ cultural differences.

He highlights a three-year research study that explored college preparation programs and devised a taxonomy of different instructional approaches. Central to the study was the Neighbourhood Academic Initiative (NAI) – a program for low-income urban minority youth in grades 7 to 12 who had slim chances of attending post-secondary education owing to limited resources and other forms of assistance. A foundational tenet of this program was to view the students’ families and neighbourhoods as “critical agents for creating the conditions for success”. Rather than arguing that these students lacked finances or role models, this program argued that the conditions for post-secondary attainment were embedded in the students’ communities and relationships. In doing so, the program operated from three specific strategies: a) to develop local contexts; b) to affirm local definitions of identity and; c) to create academic capital. 

To develop local contexts is to emphasize the participation and integration of family members into the learning environment of students. This involvement enabled  the cultivation of supportive environments for students and promoted an awareness of the processes involved in post-secondary educational attainment to the active family members. Importantly, both student and family learn that success in higher education need not necessitate the removal of family, community, or cultural identities. The affirmation of local definitions of identity takes on two specific operationalizations: a) the importance of community dynamics and b) the recognition of racism and other forms of prejudice. Given the nature of the students’ communities, the NAI program often moved from the school classroom to the broader community. The NAI staff would work with local church groups, service agencies, and other support networks to cultivate supportive learning environments for the students. A large amount of the NAI programming operated from a position that many of their students would experience racism and other types of prejudices during post-secondary education in particular. While some may argue that this orientation assumes worst-case scenarios, the reality for many of these students is that the cultural and historical backgrounds  they bring to post-secondary education are not ascribed the same value or currency as other students’ experiences. Many of the NAI staff members reflect the cultural and ethic diversity of the students, so the opportunity to learn from individuals who come from similar backgrounds affirms the cultural identity of students and demonstrates that success in post-secondary education is a viable and realistic option.

Finally, the generation of academic capital recognizes that excellent academic achievement, as well as experience with other cultural and social dynamics often taken for granted by middle and upper-class students, is essential for these students to be successful in post-secondary education. It is important to note that graduation from high school or admission to post-secondary is not enough for the NAI administrators – the acquisition of a baccalaureate or applied degree is the ultimate goal for this program. While not all students who participate in the program attain this credential, the vast majority does. Fundamentally, Tierney suggests in this chapter that students, particularly from marginalized groups, need not perform cultural suicide to be successful in post-secondary education. He argues for a cultural integrity that is based on institutions recognizing the multiple experiences and ways of knowing that these students bring to the learning environment as well as students’ awareness of the various dynamics and assumptions that operate in educational settings. Tierney reminds us that his cultural approach encourages the importance that “ students arrive on college campuses with an enhanced awareness of their cultural identities that equips them with the sense that they belong [sic] there”. 

Tierney’s cultural focus on communication and governance is a refreshing perspective on this non-structural aspect of decision-making in higher education institutions. This link between organizational culture, communication, and governance is reinforced throughout the chapter. A survey of shared governance that included 763 institutions and eight case studies of four-year colleges and universities serve as the empirical base for Tierney’s observations and assertions. To explicate how communication functions as a cultural process within an organization, Tierney focuses on situated meaning, speech events, and communicative symbols and ceremonies. Specifically, Tierney argues, “to consider the situated meaning of communication, one much identify who is and is not involved in governance, the venues where governance takes place and the formal and informal means used to communicate” . These notions significantly complicate the nature of decision-making in higher education organizations and bring to bear important questions about the broader sociopolitical structures in which communication is embedded.

Speech events and related written texts offer a vehicle of communication to members of the organization, but these aspects are not “disembodied scripts” detached from speakers, listeners, and broader audiences. Finally, various symbols and ceremonies are, from a cultural lens, rarely activities with singular meanings. Ceremonial activities are important to the pulse of an organization and as Tierney reminds us, “a de-ritualized organization is bereft of meaning”. All  these elements, these communicative aspects of governance, are extremely significant to how individuals understand the organization as well as their own relationship to the values of the organization. Most fundamentally, Tierney remarks that, “shared governance is a cultural undertaking that reinscribes what the academic community believes about itself”. 

The power of this collection of articles is felt not only in the cogent argument that Tierney weaves for the use of a cultural lens on governance in higher education organizations but also, more important, in how convincingly he illuminates the significance of this cultural analytic framework across a wide spectrum of topics related to higher education research. He uses a cultural lens on many different aspects of higher education institutions, with a critical focus on issues of privilege, equity, and inclusion. This book is an important asset to higher education researchers and  to individuals who are interested in organizational change, and more broadly, the significance of linking theory with practice. 

Bryan Gopaul i s a PhD candidate in the Higher Education Group at OISE/UT and a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Students in Post-Secondary Education.