Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Symbolic Politics and Institutional Boundaries in Curriculum Reform: The Case of National Sectarian University

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Symbolic Politics and Institutional Boundaries in Curriculum Reform: The Case of National Sectarian University

Article excerpt


In recent years, many colleges and universities have set out to reform or revisit their general education curricula. These efforts often have failed to achieve the comprehensive change that reformers originally had envisioned (Kanter, Gamson, & London, 1997). Using the example of one case, this paper explores how institutionalized organizational elements and politics can shape the scope and limits of programmatic change, while increasing the importance of these reform efforts as symbolic action.

The perception of failure in the reform of a general education curriculum is often rooted in the desire for comprehensive change. Lesser change is frequently seen as inadequate and has been described in dismissive language, such as "piecemeal" or "rearranging the deck chairs." Although worthwhile curricular improvements can be found in change that is smaller in scale and more nuanced, reformers often find such results disappointing. Change that can be described as "symbolic" is particularly maligned. Often, it is not viewed as "real change." However, symbolic aspects of curriculum reform can serve useful organizational purposes, such as reorienting and repositioning general education within an academic community and among an organization's field of peers. As Rudolph (1977, p. 3) has observed, "the curriculum is ... a locus and transmitter of values," and an especially powerful use of the reform process can be found in the symbolic action of articulating, defining, and ordering the values of a university or college.

Still, it is true that overarching change in general education is often what is sought. When these results do not materialize, reform advocates often attribute "failure" to organizational politics and the dampening effects of parochial interests and political trade-offs. This "rational" view emphasizes actors' intentional action and the motivations of self-interest. From this perspective, participants in a reform process are said to raise side issues (matters that seem only tangentially related, if they are related at all) to general education because they are seeking to advance their own, apparently unrelated, agendas within the organization. On the macroorganizational level, the introduction of such "side issues" seems to be a failure of rational decision making, and this state of affairs has been called a "garbage can" (Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972).

As Birnbaum (1988) notes, such political aspects of the academic decision making are usually viewed as unwanted, intrusive, and extraneous forces that serve as a hindrance to orderly, planned change. Reformers with this picture in mind often become disenchanted with the process of curricular change at their campuses since in practice it is difficult to steer clear of organizational politics (Kanter, Gamson, & London, 1997). Indeed, from the point of view of individual actors in their roles within the organizational structure, it would be difficult to imagine collective decision without the introduction of side issues.

Looking beyond individual organizations, the national debate about the undergraduate curriculum, centering on overarching philosophies of general education and the purposes of undergraduate education, constitutes the arena in which the reform actions of individual colleges and universities are played out. The national rhetoric is abstract and idealized, focusing on what the curriculum should be and on what it means to be an educated person. Such rhetoric, however, is largely disconnected from the organizational realities of specific colleges and universities.

Within organizations, advocates of various curricular perspectives often fail to take into account how organizational factors, internal and external, may influence and significantly structure their proposals. At a deeper level, the organizational basis of politics--and thus of the supposedly irrelevant side issues--tends not to be considered (March & Olsen, 1989). …

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