Constructions of Scarcity and Commodification in University Strategy: Restructuring at Virginia Tech
Higher education institutions in the United States have come under increased scrutiny due to increasing demands for accountability in the use of public funds and increasing visibility (Altbach, Berdahl, and Gumport, 1999; Trow, 1974). Colleges and universities must continually prove their credibility and legitimacy to their stakeholders, including government officials (Lawrence & Sharma, 2002), donors, students, and sponsors. The proving process may involve engagement in legitimacy-seeking behaviors designed to show efficiency, access, and quality in terms defined mostly by external perceptions. The decision to concentrate organizational resources on activities designed to influence the opinions of external agents has the potential to lead organizations away from their core values and historic missions.
The case study that follows documents the restructuring of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) and the drivers that led university administrators to pursue change. The case was developed based on a series of interviews with key informants associated with or affected by the restructuring process. Explanations for the restructuring and the underlying university goal of becoming a top 30 institution, included cost-savings and efficiency via a "fiscal rationalization"; the framing of programs in terms of their entrepreneurialism, innovativeness, and revenue generating capacity; and an emphasis on the economic development benefits of university programs.
Even though Virginia Tech administrators were not expressly responding to external demands for restructuring, there was evidence to suggest that a need to construct a more business-like model for university structure and operations had entered the collective conscience of Virginia Tech's leadership. I document the rhetoric and actions that I believe influenced university administrators in their decision to restructure. I also draw attention to administrators' use of language that I believe exemplified the commodification of the university's human and intellectual capital.
Theoretically, I believe that the constructs from resource dependency theory and neoinstitutional theory have relevance to the interpretation of this case. Specifically, the construction of legitimacy-seeking behaviors, the imperative to decrease reliance on external organizations (i.e., the state), and the institutionalization of acceptable management behaviors are aligned closely with the propositions of one or both of these theories. The lack of theoretical distinctiveness between these two organizational perspectives indicated a need for further research and limits the ability to anticipate the potential outcomes for Virginia Tech and the broader field of higher education.