Organizational Socialization in Higher Education

By Tierney, Willam G. | Journal of Higher Education, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Organizational Socialization in Higher Education

Tierney, Willam G., Journal of Higher Education

A fact is like a sack which won't stand up when it is empty. In order that it may stand up, one has to put into it the reason and sentiment which have caused it to exist.

Luigi Pirandello Six Characters in Search of an Author

Socialization is a concept that is much discussed but frequently misunderstood. On the one hand, the research literature is replete with taken-for-granted definitions of socialization; on the other, institutional administrators often eschew discussions of socialization as a waste of time in comparison to their attempts to solve the myriad problems currently faced by colleges and universities. In this article I advance an alternative view of socialization and highlight the importance of utilizing this view for restructuring college and university life.

More specifically, I take issue with many of the common assumptions we share about organizational socialization. In so doing, I suggest that socialization is of fundamental importance with regard to many of the most pressing issues that confront academic administrators and faculty. The national conversations that have begun, for example, about the nature of faculty roles in academic and public life inevitably relate to socialization and culture. In particular, I focus on socialization processes that involve tenure track faculty in four-year colleges and universities. This article is anchored in a two-year study of promotion and tenure based on interviews of over three hundred individuals - junior faculty, department chairs, tenure review committee chairs, and senior academic administrators. To be sure, the specific tenure processes vary dramatically from institution to institution; nevertheless, these processes are similar enough across institutional types to enable us to propose a schema for how we might think about organizational socialization and how we might develop policies that contribute to the successful socialization of faculty into the academy.

As a beginning point, we need to consider the nature of the organizational culture in which individuals are socialized. Obviously, a culture whose values and goals are outdated or inconsistent with the world of the twenty-first century is not necessarily a culture for which we want to socialize new recruits. Accordingly, I first critique previous concepts of socialization as they relate to culture and then offer data that delineate an alternative way we might think about how faculty become socialized. I compare and contrast what I call "modern" and "postmodern" versions of culture and socialization and conclude with suggestions for improving the socialization practices of colleges and universities.

Studying Socialization


"Organizational researchers," writes John Van Maanen, "have over-studied relatively harsh and intensive socialization and understudied socialization of the more benign and supportive sort" (1984, p. 238). Dramatic, celebratory rituals, such as Founder's Day, or graduation, or initiation rites of fraternities, afford us one window of understanding how individuals change from one social status to another or how they become incorporated or invested in an institution or discipline. In this regard the organizational literature is full of examples, from army cadets who arise at dawn and conduct drills and marches that demonstrate loyalty to the academy and their unit to various social groups, such as university marching bands and college honor societies, where the members perform hazing rituals on recruits that bond individuals to the group.

Admittedly, such highly visible events surely play some role in organizational socialization, and our concentration on such examples has been helpful in rethinking actual events. Hazing, for example, is no longer officially condoned on college campuses, because whatever bonding might have taken place was outweighed by the physical and emotional trauma that often occurred to recruits. However, when we concentrate on such dramatic actions, we overlook the more implicit and processual activities that circumscribe how individuals become socialized to an organization. …

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