EDEV_505 Week 9_5

A question posed by the module tutor:

One final thought and question for you all to ponder (i.e., I am seeking your response here and now): If institutional practices (administration and academic) were all guided by core values, alignment would not be as commonly problematic because practices would all flow from those core values. Is this feasible, and if so, is it so for all sizes and types of institutions (e.g., public and private)? Can an organisation with explicitly stated core values remain nimble enough to compete in the higher education market? 

My response:

Your question is subtly complex. It also contains a few assumptions that require elucidation. Let me make a brief stab at unpicking one assumption now.

The primary assumption made is that organisations who do not adapt will not survive. This assumption is questionable on a number of grounds. Firstly, it does not seem to matter if some, albeit huge and ancient, institutions adapt or not. They survive on the strengths of their prestige and underlying financial support. Oxbridge in the UK or Tokyo (Todai) in Japan are the base model for HEIs in their respective regions, yet their basic model does not change, or when it does, it does so ponderously. Secondly, as Berquist and Pawluk (2008) pointed out, an institution may comprise of many separate silos that hold very different sets of values (six in their assessment). The “amorphousness” of mission statements and core value statements (Bess & Dee, 2012) allows multiple identities to co-exist while remaining separate. The assumption of a single set of core values is naïve. A third reason for this primary assumption being dubious is that the market metaphor utilised is not wholly applicable to the social function of HEIs, even though many commentators have used it in that way. Williams’ (2013) title, Consuming higher education, is quickly refuted in the subtitle: Why learning can’t be bought. She argues less from a desperate, clinging attempt to retain liberal arts tuition in a society faced with the encroach of the market metaphor than from a desire to remind those in HE of the fundamental nature and relationships involved in tertiary education. In my reading of stage theories in epistemological development, I would suggest that the advanced nature of industry could not accept or be willing to train most 18-year-olds, and that a social function of HEIs is to provide that site for the necessary cognitive maturation. Whatever the shape of HEIs, their existence is hardly threatened.

Individual HEIs, though, do come into and go out of existence. (Dare I mention the T-word in this US election year?) However, I would argue that in most cases the reason for failure lies not with values, alignments or any other HEI-internal element, but with the wider social pressures of demographics, of changing industry needs, of less stable employment patterns and so on. My old institution, TBGU, nearly faced extinction because of very ‘creative’ accounting practices. Basically, the (past) President was a crook. If that’s the level of values we are talking about, it is clear why TBGU’s reputation took a severe hit. But still it survives.

Perhaps I am missing something important. All through this module I’ve read examples about values and ethics that have come from the commercial world, other disciplines, or are examples of an HEI being egregiously obviously wrong. There has been no case of an HEI failing due to subtle value misalignments. I can see the theoretical power of alignment, but throughout these 9 weeks, I’ve had trouble seeing the practical import. Either most of values study is obvious or it is irrelevant.

At least I thought so until I came across Graves’ (1970) Levels of Existence. With Graves (and I suppose Kohlberg or Kegan would do just as well) I could see how values mismatches happen and why organisational change could be problematic. However even with Graves, the main question still needs to be reframed. Rather than wonder about how to promote values alignment, a more penetrating question asks how do successful HEIs continue to prosper without alignment.


Bergquist, W. H., & Pawlak, K. (2008). Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bess, J. L., & Dee, J. R. (2012). Understanding college and university organization: Theories for effective policy and practice. Volume 1–The state of the system. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Graves, C. W. (1970). Levels of Existence: an Open System Theory of Values. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 10, 131–155. doi:10.1177/002216787001000205

Williams, J. (2013). Consuming higher education: Why learning can’t be bought. Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling (Vol. 53). London: Bloomsbury Academic. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

P.S. Oops. I forgot to mention Thompson’s (2014) excellent book that argues exactly the point about the purpose of HEI being a space for epistemological, self-identity authorship and empathy development in young adults. His book is a useful antidote against consumerism in education and serves as a useful reminder of a primary (not the only one, though) function of HEI. On that note, I’d also recommend Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, and Renn’s (2010) Student development in college which touches on very similar ground but from the perspective of a student affairs professional.


Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2010). Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Thompson, R. J. J. (2014). Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The purpose and practice of higher education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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