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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Double Agents: The Dual Logics and Dual Identities of Academic Deans in the Neoliberal University

  • Author(s): Martin, Marie Christine
  • Advisor(s): Levin, John S.
  • et al.

The literature suggests that neoliberalism, a term to describe the orientation of public sector towards the market, has pervaded higher education institutions. However, the assertions made in the majority of the literature on neoliberalism’s presence in higher education lack data to support these proclamations. Research has explored the neoliberal behaviors of faculty (Levin & Aliyeva, 2015) and suggests that faculty engage in neoliberal activities in the form of academic capitalism (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). However, the role of academic administrators, specifically academic deans who occupy a unique position that overlaps both the academic and administrative realms, and their participation in neoliberal behaviors are less understood. This qualitative field investigation relies on 38 semi-structured interviews with 20 academic deans across multiple disciplines included in the sciences, social sciences, and liberal arts at four public research universities in California—all University of California campuses. Institutional theory and identity theory provide frameworks for understanding of adoption of, and resistance to, neoliberal logics by academic deans and the ways in which they reconcile neoliberal logics with academic logics. Findings indicate that academic deans in the research university blend neoliberal logics with academic logics and perceive these logics as not only compatible but also necessary in a highly competitive environment with limited resources. Furthermore, findings indicate that academic deans maintain an academic identity, the identity with the most salience (Burke & Stets, 2009) and professional capital in the academy, through the development of an academic aesthetic. The activation of the academic identity acts as a mechanism for the deans’ reinforcement of academic logics in spite of neoliberal pressures. Academic deans are both actors of neoliberal ideologies and defenders of the academic ethos. Implications for the practice of academic deans and the role of faculty in higher education governance and management are discussed.

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