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The power in managing numbers: changing interdependencies and the rise of ranking expertise

Abstract

As rankings have become increasingly institutionalized in higher education, so too have the strategic responses adopted by universities to address them. A key component of these responses is the development of new expertise, embodied in personnel and organizational units, dedicated to managing quantitative assessments. We draw on a qualitative study of rankings management departments in South Korea to investigate the effects of these new actors in the field of higher education. We find that the rise of new expertise in rankings has reshaped key interdependencies both within universities and between universities and external constituents. This transformation has helped rankings management departments effectively challenge existing work routines and introduce new organizational practices. More generally, this work builds on theories of micro-level institutional change, identifying new mechanisms through which local actors effect lasting alterations in the organizational environment.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Rankings management units exemplify the rise of “unbounded professionals” (Macfarlane, 2011) whose work is extended to manage external demands that can only be achieved by collaborations with different university actors. This is a part of a more general trend of non-academic interventions across the field of higher education field (see, for example, Whitchurch, 2008).

  2. These actors include representatives from outside the formal boundaries of the university (e.g., ranking organizations, universities, government agencies, university associations, news media, for-profit data companies) as well as representatives from within (such as selective university leaders, administrative personnel, faculty, internal consultants, data analysts, and visualization experts) (see Lim, 2018).

  3. It is important to note that organizational response to status competition can vary depending on the standing of the organization and the field in which it operates (Brankovic, 2018; Erkkilä & Piironen, 2020). For instance, Wedlin (2011) observes that top European business schools generally accept the growing influence of rankings and responded positively to them since rankings provided a tool for them to use to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

  4. This “second stage” of response represents a key point in the institutionalization of rankings management within universities. Rankings also generate institutional change at the field level as they reshape the status hierarchy of higher education (Sauder, 2006).

  5. Within the field of organizational research, organizational power is broadly conceptualized as “the power of individuals and groups relative to their relationship with and their dependence on organization” (Ocasio, 2002: 363). Our study uses this concept to denote the influence gained by rankings management units through their exploitation of the new dependencies rankings create across the field of higher education field and through the reshaping of relations among actors within their own university.

  6. While we do not discuss resistance to rankings here, it is important to note that the acceptance of rankings has not gone undisputed, especially among faculty and students. For example, an influential faculty association issued a critical statement on the negative effects of rankings in 2010 and, in the same year, the Korean Council for University Education adopted a resolution rejecting media rankings with the support of all university presidents.

  7. These offices have similarities to institutional research offices found in universities in the USA. The core difference between the two is that the administrative units represented by the EMD are more central in their university’s bureaucratic structure and have a broader scope for making organizational demands and generating organizational change.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Jongyoung Kim, Chad McPherson, Jelena Brankovic, Julian Hamann, Leopold Ringel, and the anonymous reviewers at Higher Education for helpful and constructive feedback. This project has received institutional support from the Korean Studies Grant Program of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2019-R57) and the Stanley-University of Iowa Foundation Support Organization.

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Correspondence to Michael Sauder.

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Chun, H., Sauder, M. The power in managing numbers: changing interdependencies and the rise of ranking expertise. High Educ (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-022-00823-x

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Keywords

  • Rankings
  • Organizational strategies
  • Interdependencies