Why Do We Care about What Who Wants? Not-so-Mundane Challenges to Being a Value-Bearing Organization

Emma Arrington Stone Young

A very striking contradiction came to light during the panel discussion following Steve Salbu’s[1] keynote for the first IU Bloomington Future of Professional Ethics workshop hosted at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University on September 25.

At the national level, perceived student demand has driven a shift in emphasis away from the liberal arts and toward “professional” schools, even at traditionally liberal arts colleges. As noted by Salbu, in his experience as a Dean, students are increasingly taking an instrumental view of higher education as they seek high-paying and high-status jobs. However, during the panel discussion it came out that college career placement services have been hearing pushback from employers in law, media, and informatics: These employers often want to see graduates with stronger critical thinking and communication skills – in other words, with a stronger liberal arts education.

This seems to paint a picture in which drivers, incentives, and outcomes have become mismatched: students are interested in appealing to high-status employers, and these student/parent desires are evidently driving higher education policies — yet employers are less than satisfied with the results, and recent graduates are less than satisfied with their financial prospects. Meanwhile, within the academy, faculty are concerned about mission drift — and academic careers have become exemplars of the kind of life path that doesn’t pay for its own University-charged entry cost. Being an institution dedicated to values above and beyond its own self-preservation, whether it be university, a newspaper, or a political party, naturally involves debate over what the precise values are. But in the picture painted above, no coherent vision of the value of education is getting its way. So what is driving higher ed policy?

Responding to the keynote’s emphasis on shifting values in higher education, panelist Tim Hallett[2] brought up the spread of Enrollment Management programs (EM) in colleges and universities. This bureaucratic innovation links Admissions and Financial Aid departments, with the result that financial aid is used as a tool to recruit target populations of students. Hallett cited a study of the growth of EM by Kraatz, Ventresca, and Deng 2010*, which offers several criticisms of the phenomenon:

Studies have shown that “strategic” financial aid policies strongly favor middle-class students with a greater ability to pay, thereby undermining equal access to higher education (Baum & Lapovsky, 2006; Davis, 2003). They have also shown that rapidly growing enrollment management expenditures have consumed a growing percentage of colleges’ budgets and diverted scarce institutional resources away from core academic areas such as instruction and academic support (Goral, 2003; Redd, 2000).

Kraatz et al. ultimately argue that organizational values can be quietly subverted as organizations “adopt new and ostensibly innocuous innovations that promise to solve their technical and administrative problems.” The problems with EM provide one example.

It is not difficult to see how this account could be applied to the problems raised in our workshop as well. While the proper organizational values of higher education are, I think, inherently contestable, in the discussions of many higher education policies, the questions being asked are part of a different conversation altogether: What do our consumers (primarily high school students and current undergraduates) see when they look at our PR? And what do they see when they look at our competitors (other colleges)?

This type of framing radically narrows the focus, and pushes any consideration of graduate futures, community or social needs, employer interests, or academic integrity to the margins — except insofar as they impact the newly central questions of how to appeal to test-savvy students. It places a premium on the judgments of a relatively naïve consumer. The practice of certain law schools, which overall have shown very low employment rates for graduates over the past several years, of padding their employment stats in the college rankings used for recruitment, is one example cited by Salbu. This type of administrative decision can only make sense in a very narrow decision-making framework focused on getting students in the door. How it could ever make good ethical sense is difficult to imagine at all.

Kraatz et al. are concerned to find out what makes an organization more or less susceptible to such mission drift and value subversion. Their questions thus offer a perfect segue from the issues explored in the first IU Bloomington #FutureEthics workshop to the issues shaping the next: Committed Professions: Handling Structural Obstacles to Ethics {outlink}.

* All quotes from: PRECARIOUS VALUES AND MUNDANE INNOVATIONS: ENROLLMENT MANAGEMENT IN AMERICAN LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES. Academy of Management Journal 2010, Vol. 53, No. 6, 1521–1545.

[1] Cecil B. Day Chair, Professor of Law and Ethics at Georgia Institute of Technology

[2] Associate Professor & Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Sociology, Indiana University Bloomington,

 Share  Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Follow Facebooktwitterlinkedin

Leave a Reply