University systems in the time of punctuated equilibrium: Understanding adaptations to rapid and unpredictable change

Friday 10:20 am – 10:45 am PT / 11:20 am – 11:45 am MT / 12:20 pm – 12:45 pm CT / 1:20 pm – 1:45 pm ET Online
Concurrent Session

Erika Offerdahl, Washington State University- Pullman
Mary Pilgrim, San Diego State University
Emily Walter, California State University-Fresno
Katherine Ryker, University of South Carolina-Columbia

The COVID-19 global pandemic presented unanticipated challenges for undergraduate education. Early in the pandemic, many institutions of higher education were left scrambling as they tried to maintain academic quality and equitable access while ensuring the safety of faculty, staff, and students. We hypothesize that the degree to which institutions were successful in overcoming challenges of the pandemic can be understood by examining the institutional response through a systems-thinking lens. Specifically, we adopted the Four Frames Model of organizational change (e.g., Bolman & Deal, 2008; Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018) to understand how institutions of higher education supported undergraduate education in response to the pandemic.

Institutions of higher education are complex systems. As such, actions of one component of the system will have anticipated and unanticipated effects on other components. Additionally, properties emerge from the system as a result of the interactions between constituent components. For example, the university standards against which faculty are held for promotion and tenure impact the values they hold in their work as well as how they prioritize tasks (e.g., teaching, research). The Four-Frames model (symbols, structures, people, power) is a useful framework for intentionally viewing a system from distinct perspectives and anticipating how those perspectives interact as a function of the system. In this exploratory work, we will describe how we used theory to (a) identify appropriate artifacts for understanding organizational resilience to the global pandemic (e.g., official emails and stated policies), (b) generate protocols for qualitative data analysis of these artifacts, and (c) reflect on preliminary analyses to design subsequent data collection and analysis (e.g., semi-structured interviews of key stakeholders). Included in our analysis will be artifacts that document how institutions have attended to issues of equity and inclusion throughout the multiple crises of 2020.