Becoming a student-centered research university: A case study of organizational change

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Gerald P. Grant


Student-centered, Research university, Organizational change

Subject Categories



In the late 20 th Century, the American university experienced intensified scrutiny and increased skepticism about its contributions to society. As the cost of higher education escalated, enrollments fell, and concerns about undergraduate education grew, research universities faced pressures to alter their teaching and fiscal practices. Yet coherent change, difficult in any large institution, was especially constrained in the research university by complex organizational structures and forms of shared governance that decreased presidential leverage.

This dissertation is a case study of a successful attempt at planned, coherent and significant organizational change at Syracuse University which, in 1991, faced the projected decline of 20 percent of its undergraduate population and budget shortfalls totaling $38 million by 1996. While the institution might have elected to maintain its goal of becoming an elite research university, a new chancellor (Kenneth Shaw) instead chose to downsize, reshape the University's mission and change the culture of the organization by focusing more resources on improving the quality of undergraduate education.

This study has sought to blend a historical reconstruction of events with a sociological analysis of the change process. Qualitative methods (interviews, document analysis, observation) have been used to describe and analyze the process of change at Syracuse University. Quantitative indicators have also been employed to provide a more complete portrait and suggest that the University is indeed a different institution in 1999 than it was in 1991.

Syracuse University's successful change effort was brought about by a confluence of external forces and internal circumstances which facilitated the adjustments. The process may provide some helpful ideas for other research universities facing similar pressures for change. The importance of strong leadership, of a sense of urgency, of collaboration, of grounding changes in institutional history, and of adjustments to traditional shared governance practices are among those elements which helped to foster change at Syracuse University.


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