Engaging the Adaptive Challenge: How Twenty Individual Higher Education Leaders Think About Corporatization in American Higher Education

Date of Award


Degree Name

Ph.D. in Educational Leadership


Department of Educational Leadership


Advisor: Carolyn Ridenour


Contending with powerful economic, political, cultural, and financial pressures, American higher education faces an adaptive challenge of grand proportion. According to adaptive leadership theory (e.g., Heifetz, 1994), an adaptive challenge is one in which the problem is not clear-cut; instead, it is a complex web of interdependent challenges. The solution is also not clear-cut; the human system must resolve the challenge by generating a wholly original adaptation. Corporatization--which refers to the ways higher education is becoming more corporate-like and includes managerialism, privatization, and academic capitalism--has dominated higher education’s response to the adaptive challenge. Yet, is corporatization the best possible adaptation? Great benefit could result from higher education leaders collectively examining this question.

Adaptive leadership theory and the closely-related complexity leadership theory (e.g., Lichtenstein, 2014) would suggest a nontraditional approach to this examination. In these theories, leaders come from anywhere in an organization and do not plan or direct organizational change. Instead, leaders create conditions that enable the emergence of innovative new order, and three conditions are critical: engagement with the adaptive challenge, divergent thinking, and interaction among individuals. Higher education leaders might use the literature on corporatization to help foster these conditions, but the literature is limited: It describes causes, effects, and views of corporatization but is dominated by conceptual not empirical works and by faculty voices to the near exclusion of others.

Therefore, the purposes of this study were two: increase knowledge about views of corporatization held by members of higher education and produce findings leaders could use to foster the three primary conditions for adaptation and emergence. The study used a qualitative approach to the research question: How do higher education leaders think about corporatization in American higher education? The setting was a large, public, Midwestern university. The sampling strategy maximized diversity of viewpoints, and the 20 participants included trustees, administrators, faculty, and staff. The study used idiographic causal mapping (e.g., Eden, 2004), a type of qualitative cognitive mapping, to explore participant views of the causes and effects of corporatization and semi-structured interviews to explore participant ideas for responding to corporatization. Because causal mapping may not have been used before in higher education leadership research, the report includes raw causal map data and protocols for the data collection and analysis processes. These may help readers assess the study and help researchers duplicate the study or employ the method.

The report presents within-case findings as 20 interpretive essays in which the researcher attempts to portray each participant’s unique way of structuring the problem of corporatization and of thinking about related issues. The report presents across-case findings as five tentative patterns of thinking about corporatization: mourners, critics, pragmatists, welcomers, and enthusiasts. The report also discusses implications for leadership practice in higher education, use of the findings to foster the three conditions, and research that might further those same conditions. Finally, the report discusses the potential use of causal mapping in higher education to capture divergent perspectives, promote dialogue about complex issues, and explore solutions to consequential problems.


Educational Leadership, Higher Education, Higher Education Administration, Organizational Behavior, Organization Theory, higher education leadership, adaptive leadership theory, complexity leadership theory, adaptive challenge, corporatization, academic capitalism, managerialism, causal mapping, idiographic causal mapping, cognitive mapping, qualitative method

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