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Dynamics of the Contemporary University

Growth, Accretion, and Conflict

Neil J. Smelser (Author)

Available worldwide

Hardcover, 152 pages
ISBN: 9780520275812
March 2013
$39.95, £30.00
Other Formats Available:
This book is an expanded version of the Clark Kerr Lectures of 2012, delivered by Neil Smelser at the University of California at Berkeley in January and February of that year. The initial exposition is of a theory of change—labeled structural accretion—that has characterized the history of American higher education, mainly (but not exclusively) of universities. The essence of the theory is that institutions of higher education progressively add functions, structures, and constituencies as they grow, but seldom shed them, yielding increasingly complex structures. The first two lectures trace the multiple ramifications of this principle into other arenas, including the essence of complexity in the academic setting, the solidification of academic disciplines and departments, changes in faculty roles and the academic community, the growth of political constituencies, academic administration and governance, and academic stratification by prestige. In closing, Smelser analyzes a number of contemporary trends and problems that are superimposed on the already-complex structures of higher education, such as the diminishing public support without alterations of governance and accountability, the increasing pattern of commercialization in higher education, the growth of distance-learning and for-profit institutions, and the spectacular growth of temporary and part-time faculty.

Chapter I: Dynamics of American Universities
What Kind of Creature is Higher Education?
The Problematic Status of “Functions”
Moral Embeddedness
Structural Changes Accompanying Growth
Increasing the Size of Units
Segmentation of Units
A Peculiar Case in Higher Education: Structural Accretion
A Historical Sketch of the Process
The Discipline-based Academic Department: So Strong and Yet So
The Organized Research Unit as Distraction from Departments
Reactions and Conflicts Endemic in the Process of Accretion
Conditions Producing the Endemic Pattern
Two Long-term Consequences of Accretion
The Structuring of Faculty Activities
Implications for Academic Community

Chapter 2: The Dynamics Ramify: Academic Politics, Conflict, and Inequality
Instabilities Imposed on Inertial Stability
Of Pythons and Goats
Economic Fluctuations
Competitors for Resources
Relevance to Accretion
Accretion and the Growth of Political Constituencies
Internal Constituencies
External Constituencies
Accretion, Revenues, and Costs
Accretion, Academic Administration, and Higher Education Politics
Management as Science and Art
Administration as Threat to Academic Culture
Administration as Parkinsonian
The Structural Alternative
Implications for Shared Governance
Accretion and Academic Stratification
Institutional Prestige
Multicampus Systems and Stratification
Prestige Among Disciplines

Chapter 3: Contemporary Trends: Diagnoses and Conditional Predictions
An Unprecedented Perfect Storm
Unproductive Paradoxes: Starvation, Accountability, and Governance
General Consequences of Shifts in Support and Costs
Accountability, Governance, and Support.
The Many Faces of Commercialization
The Language and Imagery of Corporatism and Its
Economizing as a Way of Life
University-Industry Relations
On-line Distance Instruction and the Rise of the For-profits
Non-tenured and Part-time Faculty
Implications for Tenure
Excursus on Academic Freedom


Neil J. Smelser is a University Professor Emeritus of Sociology and former director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. He is a former president of the American Sociological Association, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1958 and has authored fifteen books, including The Theory of Collective Behavior.
“These lectures, presented by a master of the social and structural complexities of American higher education, offer an unmatched window into today’s university. Neil Smelser’s analysis of the forces of change—and resistance to change—is brilliant, wide-ranging and consistently thoughtful.” —Richard C. Atkinson, President Emeritus of UC San Diego

“One of Neil Smelser's many gifts is his talent for remarkable summaries that lead to new levels of understanding. This is especially important for his elaboration of Clark Kerr's conception of the "multiversity." Smelser updates the conception, describing its ramifications, its connections to the present-day research university and the formulation of higher education policy past and present. This is a truly delightful and momentous read." —Sheldon Rothblatt, Professor of History Emeritus and former Director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley

"I finished Neil Smelser's book with admiration and a renewed appreciation for his extraordinary capacity of objective, disciplined and fine grained analyses of complex institutions. This is a refreshing work that will stand over time as a guide to understanding both the situation of universities today and their evolution." —Hanna Gray, former president of the University of Chicago

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