Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Faculty in a Liminal Landscape: A Case Study of a College Reorganization

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Faculty in a Liminal Landscape: A Case Study of a College Reorganization

Article excerpt

The reorganization of colleges is one response to the economic, political, and intellectual challenges that universities face. However, little research has explored how faculty members understand their professional identities and affiliation during the structural and cultural shifts engendered during a college's reorganization which is the focus of this qualitative case study.


As I think about the reorganization, I wonder whether it is my age. I had felt when we moved into Walton Hall, that I was just beginning to learn my role after ten years. Now, the problems arising from the reorganization make me feel as though I don't know anything. It's all a mystery again.

This quote from an associate professor expresses his reaction to the changes that a reorganization of his College of Education initiated. He worries that the changes have left him uncertain and anxious about what he knows and about how to act as a member of a new department. His comment is taken from a qualitative case study which explored how university faculty members make sense of their professional lives and identities amidst a major reorganization in their College of Education (COE). The reorganization of colleges is not uncommon. In fact, reorganizing or restructuring colleges within universities follows a widespread trend in business and industry. Just as U. S. business and industry have adapted to the changing economic context of globalization, the effects of technology, and heightened competition, so too have universities, which are not immune to macro political, economic, and social changes.

In some ways, college and university faculty members anticipate, at least intellectually, what has been called the crisis of modernism and higher education during the shift to a postmodern culture and economy (Davies, 1999; Tierney & Rhoads, 1993). For example, many academics acknowledge the blurring of boundaries between and among disciplines and the influence of ideas such as the social construction of knowledge in their teaching and research (Bender, 1997; Lueddeke, 1999). However, the intellectual facets of this ongoing transformation do not exist in abstraction. Professors live these changes as well, in their day to day work lives and in their understandings or "sense making" of their professional identities and work.

Faculty responses to the changes engendered by a reorganization become instances of the very sensemaking processes that constructionism posits are the mechanisms for building social worlds and identities (Weick, 1995). As Weick points out, "sense making" is the process by which we arrange our perceptions and experiences and establish their meanings through interactions and negotiations with others. We then use those meanings to structure our subsequent perceptions and interpretations. Of course, revisions of those meanings are possible in later interactions, but are more likely when changes, discrepancies, or environmental uncertainty produce ambiguity and uncertainty that require us to engage in cognitive processing to revise our former understandings. The focus of this paper is how professors make sense of their professional affiliation, identities, and work amid the cultural and structural changes engendered during a college's reorganization, all within a postmodern context. We used liminality as a conceptual vehicle to explore the sensemaking in which faculty engaged as well as the context in which higher education is currently situated.

The Liminal State

Recent scholars (Bettis, 1996; Zukin, 1991) have characterized the current political, social and economic context as liminal in nature, but the term has a longer academic history. Turner (1967) first used the term "liminality" as a construct in anthropology to describe the 'betwixt and between' state that adolescents in traditional societies inhabited during rites of passage when they were neither children nor yet adults. …

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