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Colleges and Organizational Structure of Universities

Governing Boards, The President, Faculty, Administration and Staff, Students, Future Prospects

The organizational structures of American colleges and universities vary distinctly, depending on institutional type, culture, and history, yet they also share much in common. While a private liberal arts college may have a large board of trustees, and a public research university nested in a state system no trustees of its own, the vast majority of public and private universities are overseen by an institutional or system-wide governing board. This somewhat paradoxical combination of distinctiveness and uniformity reflects the unique characteristics of individual colleges and universities, and the shared-task environment (including strategic planning, fiscal oversight, curriculum planning, and student affairs) common to American postsecondary institutions. Scholars of higher education view many aspects of private colleges and universities as significantly different than public universities. Yet the reliance on bureaucratic organizational structures and the belief in research, advanced instruction, and service at both types of institutions shape many aspects of public and private university governance structures in a fairly uniform manner.

The organizational structure of colleges and universities is an important guide to institutional activity, but not the only one. Scholars of higher education have developed a variety of multi-dimensional models of organizational behavior that also shed considerable light on college and university structure and process. Multi-dimensional models seek to explain organizational behavior across institutional types, and in various institutional activities. The models vary somewhat in the number of dimensions incorporated, from J. Victor Baldridge's three dimensions (bureaucratic, collegial, and political) and Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal's four-cornered frame (structural, human resource, political, and symbolic) to Robert Birnbaum's five dimensions (bureaucratic, collegial, political, anarchical, and cybernetic). These models are quite helpful in thinking about organizational structure and process within colleges and universities. The same institution may evidence a bureaucratic, hierarchical decision-making process in its central administration, and a collegial process in its academic senate. It is a combination of organizational structure and process that shapes college and university behavior.

Public and private colleges and universities of all types incorporate key authority structures, including a governing board, a president or chancellor, a cohort of administrative leaders, and an academic senate. In public institutions these core organizational entities collaborate with such external authorities as state and federal political leaders, community organizations, and members of the public, as well as business interests and philanthropic foundations. These external organizations routinely interact with and shape the policies and procedures of the university's internal organizational structures.

The degree of uniformity in private and public college and university organizational structures has been shaped by the nature of demands on the postsecondary system since the mid-twentieth century. Although the key governance structures of colleges and universities were present prior to the turn of the twentieth century, the full scope of the university's multifaceted organizational structure, most scholars agree, was not realized until after the rise of the research university, in the wake of World War II. In 1963 then-president of the University of California system, Clark Kerr, described the postwar American university as a multiversity. The term captured the increasingly complex organizational and governance structures required to negotiate its ever-expanding task environment.

Governing Boards

A university's governing board, also known as the trustees, regents, or board of visitors, possesses fundamental legal authority over the university. The authority of the governing board is vested in it by the state wherein the school resides or, particularly in the case of older, private institutions, by legally binding royal or colonial charters. Both public and private governing boards are generally constituted of citizen trustees. In the public case those trustees are often political appointees who serve as a fundamental link between the institution and state and national political structures.

In the United States the tradition of lay oversight of colleges and universities can be traced to the founding of Harvard College in 1636. Subsequent private colleges adopted this form of governance, which the U.S. Supreme Court deemed constitutional in its Dartmouth College decision of 1819. Public colleges and universities followed suit, although on the public side the role of governors in trustee appointments and the key role of legislative funding in institutional development has meant that the states play a central role in the governance of the institutions. The federal government has influenced the organization of higher education primarily through legislation–the Morrill Acts, the Higher Education Acts, and the G.I. Bill, for instance–that reinforced decentralized governance and, hence, the authority of institutional governing boards at both public and private institutions. As John Millet noted, "It has long been evident that it is the state governments rather than the federal government that carry the primary authority and responsibility for higher education in the United States" (p. 1).

Governing board members at public institutions typically arrive at the trustee table by one of four paths: direct appointment by the governor; ex-officio appointment; gubernatorial appointment subject to approval of the state legislature; and less frequently, election by popular vote. Public university board members represent the citizens of the state and the terms and conditions of their service are often defined by institutional charter or state constitution. Private boards are generally self-perpetuating, with new trustees chosen by the membership of the standing board. While private colleges and universities benefit considerably from public subsidies and support, private boards are not subject to the same degree of external scrutiny or intervention as are public boards.

The formal responsibilities of university governing boards are significant even as they are few in number. They include preservation of the university charter; institutional performance evaluations; fundraising; liaison with external agencies and political bodies; budget approval; oversight of campus policies and investment strategies; and, perhaps most important, hiring and evaluating the ongoing performance of the university president.

Because of their visibility, symbolic importance, and control over policies with significant political salience, public university boards became subject to increasing challenges from a variety of interests in the last two decades of the twentieth century. These challenges were accompanied by demands for non-partisan board appointments and trustees that are more representative of the broader society, as well as calls for increased scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest. Boards were also challenged by governors and legislators concerned about issues ranging from rising costs to faculty ideology. A response to the heightened pressures on governing boards was a push for improved trustee education programs in several states in the pursuit of more open and effective governance processes. Given its myriad responsibilities and powers, a strong argument can be made that the board is the most powerful governing agent of the modern university.

The President

The liaison between a postsecondary institution and its governing board is the highest ranking executive officer, a president or chancellor. The president provides overall leadership to the institution and presides over its academic and administrative bureaus. The president generally works closely with a provost, who is responsible for academic affairs, and a chief financial officer, who oversees the institution's fiduciary operations. The president serves as the lead fundraiser, and as a key representative of the university and its academic community to external agencies and actors. Presidential duties include fostering a positive public image of the institution as a site of higher learning, maintaining a close relationship with the institutional governing board to further the president's agenda, and forging points of common cause and agreement with the entire university community and its constituents.

Since World War II the job of university president has become considerably more complex, and in many ways more constrained. Presidential authority has been eroded as boards and external actors have gained more legitimate roles in university governance. Presidential satisfaction has declined, and the average presidential tenure is shorter than before World War II.

No responsibility consumes the modern-day president's time and energy more than his or her role as the institution's principal fundraiser, a task made especially difficult because it requires extensive time away from the institution. While presidential fundraising has been a function of private universities for centuries, the emergence of significant public university fundraising in the 1980s and 1990s is a major development. Fueled by decreasing state and federal support in recent years, public universities have been forced to take on a more significant share of their own funding, with development playing a major role in this process.


The formal governing body of the faculty at the institutional level is the academic senate, a body generally comprised of tenured and tenure-track faculty from the various disciplines and professional schools. The faculty senate and its attendant committees provide elected faculty liaisons to the university board and president. A primary function of the senate is to represent the voice of the faculty in matters of university governance.

Each school or college within a university is under the direction of a dean. A chairperson or department head supervises individual departments of instruction. Faculty members are ranked, in descending order, as professor, associate professor, assistant professor, and instructor. Faculty of various ranks may or may not be tenured, depending on the institution. Faculty members can be dismissed from their posts unless and until they have been granted tenure, a term denoting a measure of academic job security that is earned through a combination of demonstrated teaching, research, and service contributions. The faculty generally has significant influence over the hiring of new faculty members, tenure and promotion procedures, the university curriculum and graduation requirements, and admissions criteria.

While the role of the faculty in governance was at one time largely advisory, over time the faculty has become increasingly engaged in policy formation. In many cases the faculty possesses significant authority over academic affairs. Faculty representatives are often found on governing boards, in formal or informal (non-voting) positions. The formal authority of the faculty may be codified in institutional charters or in the standing rules of institutional governing boards.

A number of other factors and informal agreements shape the degree to which faculty are involved in institutional affairs. Many colleges and universities ties have a commitment to a process of shared governance that incorporates the faculty in various aspects of institutional decision-making. A collegial relationship between the faculty senate and the college or university president is a key component of shared governance, as is the relationship between the faculty senate and the institutional governing board. Faculty authority is also shaped by the strength and reputation of the institution's academic departments and departmental leadership, as well as the faculty's symbolic importance as teachers and producers of knowledge, and the legitimacy provided by individual faculty member's professional expertise.

National organizations also contribute to the legitimacy and organizational standing of the American professorate. Among these, the most prominent is the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Established in 1915 to advance the collective interests, ideals, and standards of the fledgling university professorate, the AAUP has since that time become best known for its role in the defense of academic freedom and tenure. The AAUP's clearest articulation of this role can be found in its declaration, Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (1995). Over time the AAUP has developed initiatives on other aspects of faculty life, including shared university governance. In the last two decades of the twentieth century research on faculty turned attention to the rapid growth in the percentage of non-tenured and non-tenure track faculty in colleges and universities, a shift with significant implications for the organizational structure and governance of those institutions.

Administration and Staff

Internal university administration is composed of two interrelated administrative cohorts: one is responsible for the oversight and administration of academic affairs; the other is charged with institutional administration. The academic and institutional administrations are often in conflict with one another. The growth of the institutional administrative cohort after World War II has led to what some researchers perceive as disproportionate influence on the part of the institutional administration. The increasing growth and autonomy of the institutional administrative cohort also challenges the traditional perception of the overall mission of the university's administration as one of academic support and facilitation. As Amitai Etzioni (1964) has noted, there is an essential tension in organizations such as colleges and universities that are driven by professional expertise but led by administrators. This has produced demands for a cohort of administrative leaders who can bring professional education and credentials to institutional managerial practice.

Within the academic administration, the president presides over a hierarchy that generally consists of a number of senior officers, including a university provost, and the deans of individual colleges and professional programs. Academic administrators are traditionally drawn from the faculty ranks, where departmental leadership positions serve as preparation for university-wide academic leadership roles.

The managerial cohort of the institutional administration is led by a chief financial officer and various senior executives. The chief financial officer provides leadership and direction to a host of administrative functions that generally includes student services, institutional support, maintenance and operation of the physical plant, and auxiliary enterprises. These individual units in turn encompass smaller departments responsible for more specialized services. The latter part of the twentieth century witnessed increased demands for greater efficiency, productivity, and entrepreneurial management at colleges and universities. Efficiency initiatives in particular, including outsourcing of institutional functions and the hiring of adjunct faculty, engendered significant internal conflict between the managerial and academic administrations.


Historically students have not had a significant role in the organizational structure or governance of colleges and universities. During most of the nineteenth century, college administrations followed a practice of in loco parentis, an educational philosophy that led university administrators and faculty members to oversee the academic advancement and personal conduct of their students very closely. Over time a gradual loosening of the institutional academic and social oversight occurred, a result of the university's incorporation of the German university model that emphasized greater student and faculty freedom. The heightened social and intellectual autonomy available to undergraduates encouraged students to seek greater involvement in university governance and administrative affairs.

Student interest in university organization and governance increased significantly in the 1960s. In the aftermath of student unrest and demands for increased student involvement in campus affairs, a degree of student participation on university boards, search committees, and faculty senates has become commonplace. Many colleges and universities include a student representative in either an advisory or voting position on the board of trustees. In addition, students often have their own network of parallel undergraduate and graduate governance organizations headed by a student body president and elected representatives that have contact with university officials, such as the president and the board.

Future Prospects

As the American university moves into the twenty-first century, a number of factors, including the increased complexity of institutional functions, changing student demographics, demands for entrepreneurial behavior, technological innovations, and increases in external interest group interventions will significantly challenge existing organizational structures and processes. The rapid growth in demand for continuing education and the provision of distance programs by colleges and universities in particular has challenged traditional notions of the content and delivery of postsecondary education. A number of key political shifts, including a growing retreat from public funding of colleges and universities, demands for privatization of college and university services, and the use of the university as an instrument in broader national political struggles, will further complicate organizational arrangements. These political shifts entail considerably more institutional outreach to legislatures, governors, and key interest groups at the state and national levels, as well as additional staff in governmental and public relations. Finally, the rise of what Richard T. Ingram terms "activist trusteeship" and increasingly interventionist stances taken by public and private institutional governing boards may require increased collective action by internal cohorts. In order to preserve institutional autonomy and shared governance in a time of increasing political conflict, effort will also need to be directed to creating more effective organizational bridges between colleges and university leaders and institutional governing boards.


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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: Classroom Management - Creating a Learning Environment to Association for Science Education (ASE)