Article Summary #19: On the making of hard times and good times: The social construction of resource stress

CitationNeumann, A. (1995). On the making of hard times and good times: The social construction of resource stress. Journal of Higher Education, 66 (1), 3-31
Word cloud of the article: On the making of hard times and good times

Summary:  Neuman explores how much of how college leaders—particularly presidents—are reacting to or shaping the experience of financially strapped institutions.  He recognizes that many institutes rely upon contingency theory in making financial decisions and determining the future of the college.  By solely approaching college finances without considering the role of social construction, Neuman believes that leaders may significantly add to the experience and the stress that a college community feels and thus acts upon because of those feelings.  
Neuman’s goal is “to turn from contingency theory to social constructivism as a vantage point for examining leadership and resource realities in higher education.”  He wants to provide an example of how a social construction theoretical approach would impact financial limitations at an institute.  Neuman is involved in the Institutional Leadership Project of the National Center for Postsecondary Governance and Finance, which included campus visits in the 1985-1986 and 1988-1989 academic years where he interviewed presidents, administrative leaders, trustees, faculty, and other important figures at eight colleges and focused on 2 colleges which he renamed Arcadia College and Industrial College.

The author found that while Arcadia College was economically sound, the methods of communication and action of the president led to everyone perceiving the finances as a threat whereas Industrial College continued to lose resources but because of the right amount of inclusiveness and action by the president, the angst about the finances of the college was less problematic.  From this, the author presented six propositions that came out of the research:
  1. Finances, though real, can fluctuate in how they form the social reality of a college campus.
  2. Angst about finances often come from a lack of knowledge about financial state of the college and what the leaders are doing.  How presidents communicate (that is, interpret) this to the communicate make add to the distress.
  3. Angst may occur, even when the president is pursuing ideas that are sound from a contingency perspective (e.g. fundraiser denotes a lack of funds).
  4. Presidents can create hope by having conversations and addressing what people know, believe and feel about the finances of the college as well as what the college's work and value really is.
  5. The president augments the social reality of the college through both complex decision making and staying committed to socially constructed values.
  6. Learning-related changes often tend to be interactive and dialogic and may influence the president as much as the community.
Though this illustrates how social construction theory can be used to beneficial ends, it could still be used for nefarious purposes.  While contingency theory can be useful, social construction theory connects us better with the values, intents, and experiences--the people and their lives.

Keywords: college presidents, social construction theory, contingency theory, college finances, college culture, leadership communication, resource stress

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