Cowards, Copycats, and Careerists

How Small-Souled Leaders Homogenize Christian Higher Ed

The soul of Christian higher education is its distinctive institutional mission: to pursue the implications of the Lordship of Christ over every academic field and discipline. This mission defines the Christian college’s purpose, which distinguishes it from secular peers and provides an organizing framework for institutional action. Given its central nature, it is little wonder why so much thought has been devoted to understanding the role of institutional mission within Christian colleges and universities. Scholarly treatments have ranged from profiling specific ecclesial models for higher education, to constructing typologies that span various theological traditions, to examining the negative effects of denominational disengagement. Yet common to all is a recognition that these vital organs of the church will flourish only insofar as their unique missions are intentionally maintained.

It is therefore disheartening to witness instances of mission drift within Christian higher education, for we know where this path leads: further compromise and eventual secularization. Perhaps most insidious are the forms of drift that appeal to conditions or standards within the industry at large to justify a departure from the college’s historic character. Although the details may differ across cases, the formula remains constant: Campus leaders point to a particular aspect of the college’s historic character as a rationale for moving the institution into better alignment with recent trends. For example, one institution reaffirms its Christian commitment to caring for all students by approving an official student club for sexual minorities. Another institution demonstrates its devotion to institutional excellence by appointing a vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion to implement “best practices” for achieving racial justice on campus. A third institution expands the reach of its Christian witness by reducing its core requirements to attract greater numbers of prospective students. Whether compromising on sexual ethics, uncritically adopting secular approaches to race, or sacrificing curricular substance on the altar of the market, the institution has mutated even as its leaders declare its mission to be more vibrant than ever.

For those concerned with the continuance of authentically Christian higher education, it is imperative to understand the mechanisms that lead to this form of mission drift. To the outside observer, the above examples might appear to be separate, one-off occurrences of poor administrative decision-making. In actuality, these choices are united by a faulty view of leadership, as evidenced by the lack of integrity between the institution’s stated values and the behavior of its principal. This discontinuity betrays a troubling reality: The chief executive has conceptualized and operationalized leadership in ways that elevate deference to external entities above institutional self-determination.

The aforementioned approach is problematic because organizations operating within the same industry tend to become more alike over time as they respond to shared external pressures. This phenomenon is known as institutional isomorphism, and its effects can be seen within Christian higher education. Isomorphism is a natural and common occurrence across various industries, but it becomes corrosive when it pulls an organization away from its distinctive mission. College presidents who fall prey to the above character flaw—the tendency to subordinate the interests of their own institutions to the wishes of the wider academy—ultimately function as accelerants of mission drift because they go with the flow instead of resisting the homogenizing forces of isomorphism. Leaders who exhibit this trait regularly appear in one of three different small-souled forms, each corresponding to a particular mechanism of isomorphic change: Coward, Copycat, and Careerist.1

In their seminal work, “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell describe institutional isomorphism as “a constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions.”2 This constraining process occurs through three mechanisms, and each pushes Christian colleges and universities to become more like the rest of American higher education. The first is coercive isomorphism, which DiMaggio and Powell describe as “formal and informal pressures exerted on organizations by other organizations upon which they are dependent, and by cultural expectations in the society within which organizations function.”3 These pressures can “be felt as force, as persuasion, or as invitations to join in collusion.”4

Two primary sources of coercive isomorphism within the field of higher education are government regulation and institutional accreditation. Both exert coercive force, though the former is more direct while the latter is more indirect. Numerous government regulations influence the behavior of postsecondary institutions, yet the most consequential relate to eligibility requirements for participation in the federal student loan program. Christian colleges are roughly 70% tuition dependent on average, which means they rely upon student tuition and fees to provide 7 out of every 10 dollars for their annual operating budgets. Moreover, most Christian college attendees depend upon the federal student loan program to finance their education. As a result, changes to eligibility requirements, such as compliance with Title IX regulations that define traditional approaches to human sexuality as discriminatory, have the power to induce coercive isomorphism within Christian higher education.

Institutional accreditation, itself a requirement for participation in the Title IV federal student loan program, presents another, softer source of coercive isomorphism. While postsecondary accreditors are staffed by full-time officials who coordinate the activities of the association, the site visit teams that actually review institutional performance against the accreditor’s standards of quality are populated by administrators from its member colleges and universities. These administrators not only issue requirements to address areas of noncompliance, but they also share recommendations they believe would benefit the institution, and these recommendations often reflect the consensus of the wider field that includes but goes beyond Christian higher education.

On its own, coercive isomorphism has the potential to exert significant pressure on Christian colleges, and this potency can turn pernicious when faith-based organizations are led by cowards. One can imagine how leadership choices are easily rationalized in the presence of coercive isomorphism. In an attempt to avoid conflict, the cowardly president can define and assess his own leadership by choosing metrics and standards that reflect the so-called best practices of the field but that may be tangential—or even antithetical—to the achievement of institutional mission. Instead of focusing on mission accomplishment, the coward’s gaze is fixed on how well the college or university performs relative to other so-called peer institutions. Although appearing legitimate by nature of its technical sophistication, this benchmarking approach simply replaces one ideal—achieving excellence in missional distinctives—with another less lofty goal—narrowly beating out the next best college in areas of performance prescribed by industry standards. Now, while benchmarking is not bad in and of itself, the tool can easily become a pathway to mediocrity and conformity when small-souled leaders passively accept definitions of success provided by the field at large, rather than designing standards most appropriate to their institution’s mission.

The second mechanism of homogenization is mimetic isomorphism. While coercive isomorphism functions largely through political influence and pressure, mimetic isomorphism typically results from an organization’s response to uncertainty.5 One source of uncertainty can be ambiguous organizational goals; when an organization’s purpose is not clearly understood, its leaders will often model their behavior after institutional peers viewed as successful or more legitimate. One can envision an academically or financially weak Christian college that lacks a clear sense of purpose patterning its behavior after the supposed “blue bloods” of Christian higher education, whose national reputations have resulted in part from their willingness to accommodate wider cultural trends. Those outside Christian higher education esteem these institutions more highly because they do not behave like “those anti-intellectual fundamentalist colleges.” This external validation, however, comes at a cost, for the institution’s frame of reference has shifted from what the college is in light of its mission, to what the college is not when compared to its more distinctive faith-based peers. Consequently, as colleges with unclear goals attempt to find purpose on paths blazed by other institutions, they not only become more like the institutions they use as models, but they also begin to resemble the wider culture to which those models have capitulated.

Another source of uncertainty can be the organization’s operating environment, especially during times of societal upheaval. In this context, leaders can look to the herd for security, under the impression that there is strength in numbers, and therefore imitate behaviors exhibited by other institutions in the field. One recent example of mimetic isomorphism arising from environmental uncertainty followed the death of George Floyd and its aftermath. Across the nation, university presidents issued statements decrying not only Mr. Floyd’s death, but also the alleged systemic racism in American society that gave rise to the tragedy. Leaders at numerous Christian colleges followed suit as they released their own statements. The uncanny similarity of the language used in these statements, despite the significant theological and political diversity represented within Christian higher education, suggests the script adopted by the industry at large was used by many Christian college leaders as a model for institutional response.

Mimetic behavior is only possible when a leader internalizes the belief that a main function of his job is to help the institution conform to organizational norms that have been externally defined by the wider field. Christian college presidents who subscribe to this belief function as copycats who catalyze isomorphic change. When pressures arise from ambiguity and uncertainty, the copycat takes cues from the behavior of others rather than turning to existing resources for institutional self-determination—namely, the college’s historic identity and guiding mission. In the moment of decision, copycat leaders trade institutional integrity for a temporary sense of security. The effects of this choice remain long after uncertain conditions resolve; the copycat’s form of small-souled leadership has wrought a diminished sense of self throughout the institution. 

In contrast to the first two mechanisms of homogenization which result from either political influence or responses to uncertainty, the third mechanism stems from professionalization. Known as normative isomorphism, this form of pressure arises from the individuals working throughout the industry, who “define the conditions and methods of their work” in order to “establish a cognitive base and legitimation for their occupational autonomy.”6 In higher education, these individuals include both faculty members who belong to different disciplinary guilds and administrators who perform various institutional functions, such as enrollment management, business operations, student affairs, athletics, and advancement. Each of these academic disciplines and administrative divisions has corresponding professional associations that maintain and enforce standards for practice; moreover, because faculty and administrators are typically trained and socialized into the profession by these organizations, they often derive a greater sense of professional identity and connection from their disciplinary guilds than they do from a particular university, its commitments, and the constituency it serves.

In recognition of the power these associations and their norms can wield in shaping institutional practice, various parallel organizations have been founded to support the distinctive form of academic practice that occurs within the unique context of Christian higher education. However, at times these Christian associations have been influenced by the wider culture to the point of serving as homogenizing forces rather than preservative agents. For example, in 2020 the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) created an online repository of diversity resources on its official website that promoted antiracist materials from authors like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo; other groups supporting Christian college employees, such as the Association of Christians in Student Development, followed the CCCU’s lead by promoting this repository on their own websites. Whereas one might expect that uniquely Christian associations would provide a uniquely Christian vision, theoretical vocabulary, and resource development for a given field of expertise, far too often these Christian alternatives simply baptize the regnant norms and thereby shift institutional practice in the same general direction, only with Christian labels.

Normative pressures achieve their greatest impact when the institution is led by a careerist. This small-souled leader thinks in terms of future employment rather than focusing his attention on the position he currently holds. In particular, the careerist is acutely aware of the professional guild’s ability to shape the contours of personal advancement. Thus, when the norms imposed by a national association contradict the values of his home institution, the careerist is more likely to adapt organizational practice to the demands of the guild than to take a stand against external colleagues, from whom he may need a recommendation to secure the next occupational opportunity. Although the careerist may value the institution’s unique mission, its faithful pursuit is ultimately incidental to his primary motivation: ascending to the next rung on the professional ladder.

Maintaining the distinctive character of Christian higher education and ensuring its enduring efficacy will require intentional, robust, and principled leadership that both understands and resists the mechanisms of isomorphic homogenization. If Christian colleges and universities are to continue the vital Gospel work of changing hearts and renewing minds, their leaders must eschew the temptation to play the coward, copycat, or careerist. Instead, Christian colleges desperately need their executives to embody a fourth leadership type: the Champion.

Institutional champions exhibit three cardinal virtues in the face of external pressures that push against their college’s identity. First, when political pressures arise and threaten to coerce the college into compromise, the champion responds with the courage necessary to mount an effective resistance that preserves institutional character. Presidential courage involves a willingness to risk public backlash for unpopular—yet mission-centric—decisions, as well as the fortitude to oppose the overreach of government entities and accreditation agencies. Second, when the safety of the herd beckons during seasons of uncertainty, the champion displays confidence in the inherent value of his institution’s unique mission. Presidential confidence manifests as a commitment to preserve and extend the college’s originality throughout all aspects of institutional life, even in the midst of chaotic circumstances. Third, when professional guilds exert peer pressure to conform, the champion stands with conviction on the bedrock of institutional ideals. Presidential conviction refuses to subordinate the college to the authority of external associations that no longer share the institution’s most deeply held values.

The perennial nature of isomorphic pressure underscores the urgent need for agents of institutional self-determination to take the helm of Christian colleges and universities. Only those who exercise relentless courage in the face of coercion, supreme confidence in times of uncertainty, and uncompromising conviction amidst mounting peer pressure will be fit for the task at hand. May leadership teams currently serving in Christian higher education aspire to these virtues. And may governing boards hone their ability to recognize—and reward—their embodiment.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 6 footnotes
  1. An earlier version of this essay was presented on July 28, 2023, at the Colloquium on the Modern View of Leadership in Washington, DC.
  2. Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell. “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological Review 48, no. 2 (1983), 149.
  3. DiMaggio and Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited,” 150.
  4. DiMaggio and Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited,” 151–152.
  5. DiMaggio and Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited,” 151–152.
  6. DiMaggio and Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited,” 152.
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P. Jesse Rine

P. Jesse Rine is Executive Director of the Center for Academic Faithfulness & Flourishing (CAFF). An award-winning professor and nationally recognized expert on Christian higher education, Jesse has served in faculty and administrative roles on three faith-based campuses: Grove City College, Duquesne University, and North Greenville University. He previously directed the research programs of two national higher education associations, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). Jesse’s scholarship has been published in numerous edited volumes and academic journals, and he was recently appointed Editor-in-Chief of Christian Higher Education: An International Journal of Research, Theory, and Practice.

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