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Honorary Lecture

March/Olsen Honorary Lecture 2024: Professor Kerstin Sahlin

The Department of Government has the pleasure to present the annual March / Olsen Honorary Lecture, featuring Professor Kerstin Sahlin as our distinguished speaker with a lecture on "The Institutional Ambiguity of Universities".

The March / Olsen Honorary Lecture
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UiB

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The annual March / Olsen Honorary Lecture is a celebration of James G. March and Johan P. Olsen's significant contributions to organizational theory and institutional theory. The Department of Government has had a longstanding collaboration with both March and Olsen, and their work has greatly influenced the academic direction of the department. This year's speaker is Professor Kerstin Sahlin from Uppsala University, Sweden. 

Kerstin Sahlin is Professor of Organization in the Department of Business Studies at Uppsala University. Her major research interests include decision-making on complex projects, the expansion and translation of management ideas, organizational reforms of public sector, transnational regulation and more recently university governance and collegiality. She has recently led an international comparative research project of collegiality in higher education and research. The results of these studies were published in 2023, in a double special issue on collegiality (Research in the Sociology of Organization, vol. 86 and 87). Kerstin Sahlin has been Vice President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Secretary General of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Swedish Research Council, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala University. She is currently Chair of the Research Program WASP-HS (The Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program–Humanities and Society). 

Lecture:

The Institutional Ambiguity of Universities:

Recent changes in university systems, debates on academic freedom, and changing roles of knowledge in society all point to questions regarding how higher education and research should be governed and organized. Universities are subject to mixed modes of governance related to the many tasks and missions that higher education and research are expected to fulfill. Mixed modes of governance also stem from reforms based on widely held ideals of governance and organization. Furthermore, universities are challenged by political transformations and by new forms of knowledge production and dissemination. What counts as knowledge and who counts as knowledge producers is increasingly debated, even as the knowledge society is celebrated as foundational to national and global developments. The extensiveness and intensity of these challenges vary across the world. Yet, in this lecture, I will argue that following such recent changes, universities across the world are facing institutional ambiguity. This has implications for decision-making and learning as well as for scholarly work and the role of scientific knowledge in society. 

When characterizing current developments in terms of institutional ambiguity, I relate to the seminal work of James March and Johan P Olsen to enlighten contemporary changes in universities. Recent changes in universities have added to the ambiguity that March and Olsen clearly showed to characterize decision-making and learning in university settings. 

Against the backdrop of recent transformations, we may also ask how various aspects of ambiguity have evolved over the years, and how those various aspects are related to each other. For example, how formal organizing matters – often in unpredictable and unforeseen ways. Another reflection that comes to mind, when relating current developments to the well-founded concepts of March and Olsen, has to do with theoretical developments. The studies of university settings by James March and Johan P Olsen formed important grounds for the development of organization theory. Leading organizational scholars in the 1960s and 1970s largely based their approaches to organizations on the study of universities and, thus, had a wide impact on organization theory in general as well as on the analysis of business firms, public administration, and other types of organizations. In addition, this theoretical development formed a clear basis for appreciating the specific features of universities as organizations. This leads me to reflect upon how the specifics of universities are reflected in contemporary conceptual frameworks and how today’s studies of universities contribute to the theory of organizations.