A balancing act: An exploration of how a public flagship institution responds to pressures for racial equity and institutional excellence

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The purpose of this study was to explore how a public flagship institution responds to pressures for racial equity and institutional excellence in higher education. In particular, the study relied on an exploratory case study methodology to investigate the University of Maryland, College Park's responses to pressures for racial equity and institutional excellence from 1988, when the University was designated the flagship institution of the State of Maryland, to 2006. This study was informed by two streams of literature. The first stream examines how broad notions of equity and excellence are defined and measured and discusses whether these ideals are in tension within the broader context of American higher education. The second body of literature explores how institutions respond to external pressures, how contextual forces and human agents interact to shape institutional responses and how these responses affect the manner in which equity and excellence ideals are realized. The streams of literature are tied together through a conceptual model which suggests how demands for racial equity and institutional excellence are mediated by the strategic choices of key actors within the institution.

Data were collected through semi-structured interviews with nineteen informants and document analysis. Data suggest that specific strategies to mediate the demands for racial equity were conditioned and arguably constrained by the University's responses to pressures for institutional excellence. The data also suggest that the University's longstanding efforts to link racial equity with institutional excellence through broader notions of diversity which celebrate a broad range of individual differences are perceived to have diluted the social justice focus of racial equity. The University's resistance to addressing issues of racial equity in favor of promoting diversity and its tendency to embrace traditional, status-based indicators of excellence may have contributed to divergent perspectives concerning the University's commitment to racial equity and may have undermined the ability of the University to advance this value.

Taken together, these and other case findings indicate that the orienting framework was a valid and useful theoretical orientation.