The theory of institutional isomorphism has been criticized for overemphasizing organizational convergence and neglecting organizational divergence. Drawing on a range of empirical data, this paper shows that multi-dimensional accounts of isomorphic change are not necessarily incompatible with accounts emphasizing divergence as a typical form of organizational response to environmental uncertainties. The speciﬁc case investigated is the proliferation of academic organizational units teaching law at Australian universities over a ten-year period (1987–1996) that saw far-reaching structural transformations of the Australian university system. The key heuristic strategy employed in this paper is to scrutinize (a) when isomorphic responses appear to occur, and (b) which speciﬁc organizational form they take. In the empirical case examined, scrutiny of each of these dimensions strongly suggests that at least some isomorphic responses of universities were driven by a dual agenda of manifesting not only similarity but also distinction.The authors state
There is a long tradition of research in the social sciences exploring processes of organizational change, including organizational homogenization. One enduringly inﬂuential approach that has been frequently applied to the organizational analysis of universities (e.g., Croucher and Woelert 2016; Diogo et al. 2015; Meyer et al. 2007; Stensaker and Norga ˚ rd 2001; Gumport 2000; Marginson and Considine 2000; Townley 1997) has been the so-called ‘new’ sociological institutionalism (Powell and DiMaggio 1991). One core tenet of this institutionalism is that processes of organizational homogenization stem from the institutionalization of speciﬁc ideas and models of ‘proper’ organizational forms and practices and the associated concerns around legitimacy. This institutionalization, so the argument goes, leads to institutional isomorphism. Several studies suggest that over recent decades universities have been particularly prone to such isomorphism as they respond to the uncertainties and pressures arising from changes in government policy and funding (e.g., Croucher and Woelert 2016; Stensaker and Norgard 2001; Marginson and Considine 2000; Townley 1997; Meek 1991 ). This is despite a widespread public policy agenda of transforming universities into organizations strategically pursuing competitive advantages through acquiring distinctive organizational forms, capacities and missions (Thoenig and Paradeise 2016; Whitley 2008 ; Krucken and Meier 2006). It has been argued that a number of speciﬁc conditions have contributed to this phenomenon. First, the knowledge-intensive work of universities is characterized by substantial uncertainty regarding the relationship between inputs and outputs (see Whitley 2008), with the associated missions and objectives of universities often being ambiguous and multifaceted (Fumasoli et al. 2015; Krucken and Meier 2006; Gumport 2000; Kerr 19 63). According to the classic account of institutional isomorphism presented by DiMaggio and Powell (1983: 154–155), such uncertainties are conducive to mimetic processes of isomorphism driving organizations to emulate other, ostensibly more successful and legitimate, organizations. Second, the continuing dependency of universities on government funding and policy setting makes them more likely to adopt speciﬁc organizational forms ‘‘to avoid sanctions available to organizations on which they are dependent’’ (Greenwood et al. 2008 : 7). This organizational response is summarized under the rubric of coercive isomorphism (DiMaggio and Powell 1983: 150). Third, universities continue to be professionalized organizations, mostly because in the selection of staff, considerable weight is given to academic credentials. According to DiMaggio and Powell, professionalization is a major driver for normative processes of isomorphism (1983: 155). There is an established body of research examining isomorphic dynamics in the organizational ﬁeld of universities ranging from a global perspective (e.g., Schofer and Meyer 2005) down to the level of individual institutions (e.g., Stensaker and Norgard 2001). Some of this research has employed a longitudinal approach to detect and track salient diversiﬁcation and homogenization dynamics within (and across) entire university systems (e.g., Reihlen and Wenzlaff 2016; Brint et al. 2011; Schofer and Meyer 2005; Skoldberg 1991), using relevant quantitative data sets where available. If carefully designed, such longitudinal studies can add to the understanding of institutional isomorphism in the university sector in at least two important ways. First, they provide a clearer picture of the various dynamics through which isomorphism progressively occurs, thus providing a corrective to those empirical analyses that examine institutional isomorphism in more static terms (see Boxenbaum and Jonsson 2008; also Hirsch 1997). Second, they allow for identiﬁcation of variation in the ways in which organizational actors belonging to one organizational ﬁeld – in this case universities – respond to isomorphic pressures over an extended period of time.
Importantly, the ﬁndings generated by such longitudinal empirical analysis may serve as a corrective to the tendency to posit isomorphism as a typical response of universities without checking empirically for any variations, in timing or otherwise, of such response. Moreover, taking seriously the dynamics of, and variations in, isomorphic forms of response may help to rectify the tendentiously passive and ‘mindless’ view of organizations underlying many empirical studies of isomorphism (Powell 1991: 194; see also Lounsbury 2008; Scott 2014) – including some of the research examining isomorphism in universities. Finally, in shedding light on variation within isomorphic forms of response, this sort of empirical analysis may also enhance our understanding of the complex links between isomorphic and divergence tendencies in university systems more broadly.
Building upon these reﬂections, this paper analyzes change dynamics pertaining to academic organizational units (AOUs) teaching law at Australian universities over the period of 1987–1996 as a discrete manifestation of broader isomorphic dynamics. This speciﬁc period saw sweeping structural changes to the Australian university sector, most of which can be linked to a set of radical national policy reforms occurring in 1988. These reforms paved the way for signiﬁcant expansion of the number of universities over the coming years, and they created environmental conditions that can be deemed conducive to isomorphism (see ‘Research Design’ and ‘Empirical Context’ sections for more detail).
The ﬁeld of law and law AOU s are the analytical focus for three reasons. First, previous research has identiﬁed the proliferation of law faculties and departments as one of the mor e salient manifestations o f isomorphism in the Australian university system (Croucher and Woelert 2016; Barker 2013). Second, the consequences of this proliferation have been enduring – all the law AOUs newly created over the period of investigation have survived to this day in one form or another; and the creation of additional law schools after 1996 means that today there remains only one comprehensive university in Australia not featuring a comprehensive law AOU. Third, changes to law AOUs are of particular interest because these organizational units are import ant to universities ﬁnancially and in terms of the institutional prestige and legitimacy they may yield (see Espeland and Sauder 2007).
Empirically, this paper investigates, ﬁrst, the distribution and organizational forms of law AOUs across all Australian universities and within selected university groupings over the period of 1987–1996. Second, it tracks and analyzes the corresponding changes in student numbers at each AOU. The changes in the distribution and organizational forms of law AOUs are proxy for tracking formal dimensions of institutional change. Changes in law student numbers provide the means for assessing the extent to which changes in formal structure correspond to changes in the actual activity structure of law AOUs (see Meyer and Rowan 1977). These sorts of data and analyses allow the identiﬁcation of salient patterns of convergence and divergence among key types of universities , including any striking variations in isomorphism. Analysis of these variations in turn enables inferences regarding universities’ potential motivations for making changes to their law offerings. The data does, however, not allow for a causal explanation of why speciﬁcally some universities decided to establish or expand their law AOUs and others did not. In terms of ﬁndings, the 10-year longitudinal empirical analyses presented in this paper illustrate how broader isomorphic change dynamics in the organizational ﬁeld of universities accommodate more localized divergence tendencies and differential patterns of institutional response to isomorphic pressures. Moreover, the speciﬁc patterns of variation in universities’ apparent responses to isomorphic pressures suggest that some isomorphic responses, at least, were driven by a dual agenda of manifesting not only similarity but also distinction