Switchmen of Reform: Competing Conceptions of Public Higher Education Governance in Poland

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Switchmen of Reform: Competing Conceptions of Public Higher Education Governance in Poland

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This study examined the extent to which academic leaders and government officials in Poland differ in their notions of good university governance, and sought to uncover how these notions intersect with global trends in higher education governance. The research objective was to identify the criteria that determine what reforms of university governance in Poland are likely be perceived as acceptable by the two groups of most powerful higher education stakeholders. The dissertation is set against the background of a crisis of public confidence in Polish higher education. After two decades of rapid and uneven system growth, there is broad agreement that the governance framework adopted by public universities in the post-communist transition is hampering higher education institutions' effectiveness and relevance. Path dependence theory suggests that institutional trajectories reinforce social and institutional arrangements selected in the past, constraining the range of future options. In Poland, key stakeholders' conceptions of governance are hypothesized to involve elements of three distinct models of higher education that played a significant role in shaping the nation's universities: the "Humboldtian" model of academic self-rule, the state-centered Soviet model, and the market-based or Anglo-Saxon model. It is also hypothesized that the path of higher education institutions in Poland is influenced by the legacy of hostile foreign rule reinforced in the period of real socialism in Polish social architecture. This legacy affects higher education by virtue of a strong public-private dichotomy, displayed in a distrust of public processes, dual norms of achievement, hostility between the governing and the governed, and populist notions of equality. The implications of these models for institutional governance are operationalized for the purposed of the analytic framework. The author adopted a qualitative approach with elements of ethnography, and the technique of elite interviewing. Study participants included representatives of the Polish government and leaders of four academic institutions in a large academic center. Study findings show that policy actors and academic leaders included in the sample hold distinct views related to the institutional structure of higher education institution, their mission, and the logic of their relationship to the state. Policy actors see higher education institutions as instruments of national development that are at their best when managed by professionals and held accountable by external stakeholders. In contrast, academics see them as autonomous social institutions engaged in the preservation of culture and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, best governed by academic insiders on the basis of social trust. Both visions emerging within the study are recognized by respondents as problematic in Poland's social environment. The notion of external accountability is complicated by the weakness of civil society and a perceived lack of readiness to assume responsibility for the public good in higher education. Meanwhile, the current model of academic self-rule renders academic leaders hostage to their constituencies while setting them at odds with the dominant academic ethos. Likewise, treating higher education institutions as instruments of the state does not achieve desired ends due to regulative mandates and output measures stalling innovation. The alternative, an institutional logic of trust-based accountability preferred by academic leaders, is proving as difficult due to strong norms of in-group loyalty that hamper merit-based evaluation. Divergent views identified in the findings are interpreted as a conflict of two "rationalized myths" - accepted narratives of formal structures rationally fostering desirable ends. They are blueprints whose main attraction is not predicted viability or effectiveness, but symbolic association with a set of deeply held values. The two myths clash within the Polish system in such a way that both sets of goals are compromised. Suggested avenues to escape the impasse are values shared by both myths and therefore potential as sites of path-dependent transformation. These values include merit-based funding for research innovation, elite education, the development of "soft skills," and the empowerment of middle management. Whether path-dependent transformation occurs will be affected by three considerations emerging from the data: the insufficiency of system-wide solutions introduced from the top down by means of regulation alone, the need of new structures for new aims, and the dangers of unreflexive borrowing of foreign organizational forms.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2014. Major: Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. Advisor: David Chapman. 1 computer file (PDF); xiv, 252 pages.

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Shaw, Marta. (2014). Switchmen of Reform: Competing Conceptions of Public Higher Education Governance in Poland. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/181662.

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