Sub-theme 14: Missions of Present-Day Universities

Lars Engwall
Uppsala University, Sweden
Christine Musselin
SciencePo, France
Francisco O. Ramirez
Stanford University, USA

Call for Papers

During the Enlightenment in the 18th century old values were challenged. As a result, a number of new ideas developed thereby creating the foundations of present day science. In this way old universities were broadening their curricula particularly towards the natural sciences. In the passage of time new universities were also founded all over the world. As a result, universities constitute today significant institutions in society. Today, the “Ranking Web of Universities” thus reports that the number of universities world-wide to be around 26,000. This has happened not only through the foundation of a large number of new universities but also by the upgrading of other types of institutions to universities like in the United Kingdom, where the polytechnics became universities in 1992.
The expansion of the population of universities has not only meant an increase in the number of universities but also a greater diversity among institutions both in time and space. Therefore, modern university leaders make significant efforts to communicate the excellence and reputation of their institutions. This has been reinforced by the development and diffusion of accreditations and rankings.
One significant feature in this process is the increasing tendency of universities to formulate mission statements in order to show their aims and goals. For some universities ambitions are often directed towards a global market, with reference to labels such as “world class”. A result of these ambitions is increasing efforts to create student exchange programs, to recruit foreign students and even the setting up of foreign campuses. At the same time research has become more and more international through a development of scientific fields with international organizations, recurrent meetings, journals and bibliometrics.
But the number of universities active on the global markets is rather limited. The 500 institutions ranked by the main international rankings represent less than 2% of all higher education institutions. Beyond what is considered as a global model, many universities are first strongly embedded in local and national contexts and their missions are often attuned to these contexts. Many universities are funded through public sources with expectations that they should educate citizens for the labour market and through innovations in their research contribute to the nation’s international competiveness. Often similar expectations can also be found for regions and local communities. As a result there is a fundamental issue for modern universities to define the community they are serving: the global, the national as well as the local. And, in relation to these, it is equally important to define what they aim at in their interaction with these communities.
Thus, we expect to find much variation in the content of the missions of universities, though universities today are more likely to have mission statements than they did in prior times. That is, we should find more rationalization in general, e.g. more branding and re-branding, but along different dimensions. Some will continue to emphasize their historical mandate to produce political leaders and good citizens; others will be more focused on innovations and university contributions to economic growth or, in a more focused way, to the occupational careers of their graduates.
The above means that universities have high legitimacy and have high expectations on their contributions to the development of individuals and societies at large. However, at the same time universities are facing critique that they are too rigid and are not delivering the expected benefits. In addition, the Internet and the rise of multiple online learning platforms challenge the idea that universities are the sole or perhaps the main centers of knowledge conservation, production and dissemination. The increased use of the term university by corporations reflects the value of the university as a category but also its inability to control who gets to use and display the identity. These developments generate competitive pressures that further push universities to clarify who they are and what they stand for, often with mission statements.
In this situation university leaders have tended, often cheered on by politicians, to act as CEOs in corporations. They formulate strategies, organize according to industrial principles, and introduce all kinds of short-term performance measures. This is reinforced by an increasing tendency to play down the academic qualifications in the selection of university leaders and upgrading of general managerial skills. All in all, these trends have implied a challenge of the traditional forms of collegial decision-making.
Against the above background the sub-theme will address questions regarding the missions of universities in present-day societies. Examples of questions that might be raised by papers to be presented in this sub-theme are:

  • Universities as global actors

  • Universities as power-houses for national and regional economic development

  • The managerialization of universities

  • Universities and the labour market

  • Universities and modern information technology

  • The legitimacy of universities

The sub-theme is intended to bring together EGOSians with a research interest in institutions of higher education and research with different perspectives on the above described development. The track would welcome both theoretical contributions and empirical ones. For the latter international comparisons and perspectives would be particularly appreciated.

Lars Engwall is Professor emeritus of Management at Uppsala University, Stockholm, Sweden. His research has been directed towards the production and diffusion of management ideas, particularly in media companies, banks and academic institutions. Among his recent publications can be mentioned: “Reconfiguring Knowledge Production” (ed. with Richard Whitley & Jochen Gläser, Oxford University Press, 2010); “Bibliometrics: Use and Abuse in the Review of Research Performance” (ed. with Wim Blockmans & Denis Weaire, Portland Press, 2014); “From Books to MOOCs?” (ed. with Erik De Corte & Ulrich Teichler, Portland Press, 2016); “Defining Management: Business Schools, Consultants, Media” (with Matthias Kipping & Behlül Üsdiken, Routledge, 2016); and “Corporate Governance in Action: Regulators, Market Actors and the Media” (editor, Routledge, 2018).
Christine Musselin is the Dean for Research at SciencesPo and a member of the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations, Paris, France. She leads comparative studies on university governance, public policies in higher education and research, state-universities relationships and academic labour markets. Her book “La longue marche des universités françaises” (P.U.F., 2001) has been published in English as “The Long March of French Universities” (Routledge, 2004). Another book, “Le marché des universitaires, France, Allemagne, Etat-Unis” (Presses de SciencesPo, 2005), was published in English as “The Market for Academics” (Routledge, 2010). More recently, she has edited “Constructing Quality” (with Jens Beckert, Oxford University Press, 2013) and “Reforming Higher Education” (with Pedro Teixeira, Springer, 2014). In 2016–2017, she was the President of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, and she published “La grande course des universities” (Presses de SciencesPo, 2017).
Francisco O. Ramirez is Professor of Education and (by courtesy) Sociology at Stanford University, USA, where he has been the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the Graduate School of Education. His current research interests focus on the rise and institutionalization of human rights and human rights education, on the worldwide rationalization of university structures and processes, on terms of inclusion issues as regards gender and education, and on the scope and intensity of the authority of science in society. His comparative studies contribute to sociology of education, political sociology, sociology of gender, and sociology of development. Francisco’s work has contributed to the development of the world society perspective in the social sciences.