Stratified University Strategies: The Shaping of Institutional Legitimacy in a Global Perspective

Bjørn Stensaker, Jenny J. Lee, Gary Rhoades, Sowmya Ghosh, Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez, Hillary Vance, Alper Çalıkoğlu, Vannessa Kramer, Shuiyun Liu, Mahmoud Sayed Marei, Leslie O’Toole, Ivan Pavlyutkin, Cassandra Peel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Globalizing forces have both transformed the higher education sector and made it increasingly homogenous. Growing similarities among universities have been attributed to isomorphic pressures to ensure and/or enhance legitimacy by imitating higher education institutions that are perceived as successful internationally, particularly universities that are highly ranked globally (Cantwell & Kauppinen, 2014; DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). In this study, we compared the strategic plans of 78 high-ranked, low-ranked, and unranked universities in 33 countries in 9 regions of the world. In analyzing the plans of these 78 universities, the study explored patterns of similarity and difference in universities’ strategic positioning according to Suchman’s (1995) 3 types of legitimacy: cognitive, pragmatic, and moral. We found evidence of stratified university strategies in a global higher education landscape that varied by institutional status. In offering a corrective to neoinstitutional theory, we suggest that patterns of globalization are mediated by status-based differences in aspirational behavior (Riesman, 1958) and “old institutional” forces (Stinchcombe, 1997) that contribute to differently situated universities pursuing new paths in seeking to build external legitimacy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)539-562
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Higher Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 4 2019


  • Strategic plans
  • global rankings
  • institutional theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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