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Barringer Explores How Academic Structure Influences Adaptability

Sondra Barringer

by Larissa Lozano

“Despite the centrality of academic structure to [higher education organizations] and their work, our knowledge of it is limited,” says Sondra Barringer, MIHE postdoctoral associate 2013-2016. She aims to bridge this knowledge gap through her article “Understanding Academic Structure: Variation, Stability, and Change at the Center of the Modern Research University” for The Review of Higher Education. Using data about research universities with doctoral programs from 2012-2013 and 2017-2018 academic years, Barringer answers the following questions. 

What is "academic structure?" 

Barringer defines academic structure as a three-dimensional concept, comprised of academic fields and disciplines; colleges, schools and departments; and long-term behavior. In its basic sense, academic structure is the hierarchies and rules that govern how departments and programs are organized within higher education institutions and organizations (HEOs) and how they go about achieving their “central work,” which consists of education, research, and service. Each institution has its own academic structure, although she identifies six predominate types. She maintains that the study of HEOs is essential for understanding internal decision-making and how institutions change over time.

Why are academic structures not well understood?

Barringer notes that one of the main reasons why people don’t know much about academic structure is because recent research focuses on proxies (factors related to academic structures, such as credentials and degree completion) rather than academic structures themselves, which makes them an even more obscure and misinterpreted topic. To counter this issue, Barringer examines academic structures through organizational theory.

Why is organizational theory better than previously used theories?

Barringer justifies using organizational theory as it accounts for the multi-faceted nature of academic structures. The widely used contingency theory argues that successful organizations have structures that reflect their environment (small-scale internal dynamics and large-scale political and financial trends), which implies that structures are a product of the environment. Organizational theory on the other hand argues that structures are both products of an HEO’s environment and influencers of an organization’s environment. The lack of emphasis on this two-way relationship is the main reason why scholars should turn to organizational theory. 

At the end of the article, Barringer highlights the need for further research on what influences academic structures and the outcome of these structures.

“Illuminating academic structure in a more accurate, specific, and complex way, as we have done here, highlights the importance of structure as a neglected aspect of organizations,” Barringer states.

Access the full book review here with an UGA ID or search the following citation: Barringer, S.N., & Pryor, K.N. (2022). Understanding Academic Structure: Variation, Stability, and Change at the Center of the Modern Research University. The Review of Higher Education 45(3), 365-408. doi:10.1353/rhe.2022.0003.

Barringer is currently an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University.

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Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Associate, 2013-2016

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