ERIC Identifier: ED356753
Publication Date: 1992-10-00
Author: Townsend, Barbara K. - And Others
Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.| George Washington
Univ. Washington DC. School of Education and Human Development.
Creating Distinctiveness: Lessons from Uncommon Colleges and
Universities. ERIC Digest.
There is a sameness about the undergraduate programs of many of America's
colleges and universities, despite their many differences in origin, size, and
location. Even so, most define themselves as unique by emphasizing a particular
program here or an unusual characteristic there. Yet few stray far from the
basic patterns that define their missions, organize their faculties, and
structure their curricula.
A few colleges and universities, however, are fundamentally different. We
call these distinctive institutions and are fascinated by their origins and
practices, for they remind us that significant educational innovations can be
initiated and sustained.
WHAT IS INSTITUTIONAL DISTINCTIVENESS?
and universities share certain characteristics: a unifying theme or vision of
what education should be, the expression of this theme or vision in all or most
institutional activities, and the striving for excellence to achieve their
Ultimately, the distinctive institution is a product of a social contract
among colleagues to organize their efforts around a unifying purpose.
Institutional distinctiveness results when both internal and external
constituents support the values and vision that drive a college or university's
curriculum and educational practices (Clark 1970; Kuh and Whitt 1988).
WHAT LESSONS CAN WE LEARN FROM DISTINCTIVE
Distinctive schools often develop in response to newly emerging
societal or community needs unmet by existing colleges and universities. Witness
the founding of Berea College inspired by the educational needs of Appalachians
or Deep Springs founded to develop national leaders. They may also develop from
strains within academe itself, as was the case when Alexander Meiklejohn founded
the Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin or Robert Hutchins the
undergraduate College at the University of Chicago. Threat of collapse or
university failure also can precipitate a college developing a distinctive
educational philosophy as the history of St. John's indicates.
Not all distinctive colleges endure. Some such as Antioch have a long history
of distinctiveness, while others such as Black Mountain College are an
experiment that does not endure. Some are highly prescriptive, while others give
students almost unlimited academic choice. Some follow a progressive or
whole-person approach, while others advocate an intellectual or neo-classical
philosophy of education.
The educational program of some schools such as the College of the Atlantic
draws fully upon its geographical setting, while others such as St. John's take
no heed. Regardless of their life span, degree of prescriptiveness, educational
philosophy, or setting, distinctive colleges challenge conventional ideas about
higher education and inspire us to engage both students and faculty more fully
in undergraduate education.
WHAT ARE THE LURES AND PERILS OF
Institutional distinctiveness is an appealing yet elusive
concept that suggests uncommon leadership and institutional excellence.
Distinctive colleges and universities often have prospective students and
faculty clamoring to join. Once there, they find an esprit de corps that often
makes their lives more enjoyable and also aids in promotion and development
activities and in making management decisions.
Distinctiveness also has its perils. Being highly distinctive can hurt an
institution, primarily by limiting it to a very small market niche. Also, the
very values that unify the college may work as a constraint against further
change necessary for survival.
Few colleges and universities find it easy to be distinctive. Certain factors
such as public control, lack of external support for an institution's guiding
vision, the expectations of regional and programmatic accrediting associations,
and standardized norms for excellence may serve to inhibit developing
distinctive educational practices.
WHAT STRATEGIC MANAGEMENT MODELS MAY LEAD TO
Commitment to a particular educational "calling" does not
assure that students will enroll and that foundations and individuals will
donate money. Visionaries and idealists may benefit from strategic management
techniques to help ensure the success of colleges and universities.
Strategic management literature reflects two major models: the adaptive and
the interpretive (Chaffee 1984). Adherence to the adaptive model, which
emphasizes resource acquisition, environmental realities, and market trends, may
produce competitive advantage in the marketplace without creating institutional
distinctiveness. In contrast, the interpretive model's emphasis on articulating
values and developing a culture warranting individuals' commitment may ignore
market realities in the highly competitive world of higher education.
The Porter Generic Model (Porter 1985) is a commonly used model for
organizing business strategies. When applied to strategic management decisions,
the model illustrates how colleges and universities can differentiate themselves
and gain a competitive edge. However, this approach will not produce
institutional distinctiveness. In the long run the truly distinctive school is
likely to result from a merging of both the paradigms.
WHAT RECOMMENDATIONS CAN BE MADE TO LEADERS AND
Higher education leaders contemplating whether to pursue
distinctiveness can follow a six-step plan to determine the viability of the
strategy. Although the plan uses the tools of adaptive strategic management,
ultimately the strategy is based on the interpretive model of management.
1. Conduct historical and cultural analyses to uncover institutional values.
2. Make a paradigm check to determine which strategic management model guides
their own and their institution's actions.
3. Clarify, communicate, and act on unifying values and themes.
4. Conduct a situation analysis to determine if the current state of the
college or university makes it a likely candidate for distinctiveness.
5. Select the desired level of market exposure, whether it be local,
regional, or national.
6. Execute market research to uncover markets to which the college or
university's values and educational vision may appeal.
Combining the tools of adaptive management with the perspective of
interpretive management increases the likelihood that a distinctive college or
university will not only survive but indeed thrive in the marketplace. While the
benefits of attending a distinctive college or university have not been well
researched, it appears that students, as well as faculty and indeed the entire
system of higher education, benefit from the existence of distinctive schools
Chaffee, Ellen Earle. March/April 1984. "Successful Strategic Management in Small Private Liberal Arts Colleges." Journal of Higher Education 55: 212-32.
Clark, Burton R. 1970. The Distinctive College: Reed, Antioch, and
Swarthmore. Chicago: Aldine.
Kuh, George, and Whitt, E. 1988. The Invisible Tapestry: Culture in American
Colleges and Universities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington,
D.C.: Association for the Study of Higher Education.
Porter, Michael. 1985. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing
Industries and Competitors. New York: Free Press.
Townsend, Barbara K., ed. 1989. A Search for Institutional Distinctiveness.
New Directions for Community Colleges No. 65. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
This ERIC digest is based on a new full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report series, prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education
in cooperation with the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and
published by the School of Education at the George Washington University.