Tensions in International Higher Education: Sense Making, Decision Making, and Organizational Culture

Open Access
Brinker, Suzan
Graduate Program:
Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
November 05, 2018
Committee Members:
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Dissertation Advisor
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Committee Chair
  • David S Guthrie, Committee Member
  • Gerald K Letendre, Committee Member
  • Kyle Peck, Outside Member
  • Qualitative Research
  • Higher Education
  • International Higher Education
  • Ethnography
  • Organizational Culture
  • Sense Making
  • Decision Making
This study sought to understand faculty and administrator perspectives on international higher education. The focus of the study was on public research universities faculty and administrators, examining their approaches to sense making and decision making around tensions in international education within their organizational culture. The study took place at a large, public research university in the Northeastern region of the United States and encompassed 32 informant interviews, five participant observation, and a document analysis of 47 strategic plans. The findings indicated that faculty and administrators organize their thinking on university internationalization around five key tensions: global versus local, profit versus engagement, public versus private, quality versus scale, and access versus prestige. In addition, the findings showed that faculty and administrators who frame those tensions in terms of complementary dialectics (Tracy, 2004) are the most motivated to both engage in internationalization and the most likely to construct arguments that motivate their colleagues to support their initiatives. Complementary dialectics, as opposed to simple contradictions and pragmatic paradoxes (Tracy, 2004) were also the most likely to be linked with perceived decisions by resolution, as opposed to decisions by flight or decisions by oversight (Cohen, March & Olson, 1972). The organizational culture of a public research university that roots its decisions in its land-grant mission and strong, global reputation seemed to influence how faculty and administrators made sense of and decisions around tensions in international higher education. The case study approach needed for the exploration of organizational culture limits transferability of findings to other institutions, but future research has an opportunity to build on this study to validate findings via both qualitative and quantitative approaches.