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Review of the book Unique Campus Contexts: Insights For Research and Assessment
The Review of Higher Education (2007)
  • Ryan S. Wells, University of Massachusetts - Amherst
  • Paul D. Umbach

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Institutional research and assessment today address a wide variety of issues and do so in an equally wide variety of institutions. Especially in recent years, "special-mission" higher education institutions have become more prominent and require new and innovative research approaches.

These techniques and processes should not be based on researchers' prior assumptions or experiences, but on the specific contexts and characteristics of the institutions being studied. Unique Campus Contexts: Insights for Research and Assessment attempts to show why institutional context is such an important factor for educational research and outlines specific ways to do this type of work through five examples of often-neglected institutional types.

The first chapter effectively examines professional schools as institutions with unique missions and populations and which, therefore, require equally unique attention in research. The second chapter addresses the ways that religious institutions differ from other higher education institutions; it uses mission statements to suggest specific ways in which these distinctive institutions may be more effectively studied. Chapter 3 examines the growing phenomenon of transnational campuses and how they can best be researched in a dynamic, globalized context.

In Chapter 4, the authors analyze proprietary schools and their often-scrutinized, for-profit structures, distinguish them from not-for-profit institutions, and present implications for research. Finally, corporate universities, the most recent incarnation of corporate training centers, are explained, and the authors demonstrate why context-specific approaches are also necessary for these organizations. The sixth and final chapter, written by the editors, constructs some overarching lessons from the individual chapters, concluding with a call for greater attention to institutional context in higher education research.

The text is successful on a number of fronts. It reaches its objective of addressing "the research and assessment issues related to examining unique campus contexts" and in exposing "the challenges that can confront institutional researchers' investigation of special mission institutions" (p. 3). In addition, it successfully warns educational researchers against ignoring institutional context as a factor in all institutional analyses. The authors further caution against using outdated research techniques which may not be suitable for institution-types that have emerged fully only in recent years and also against any technique which is not grounded in an understanding of the institution's context as manifested in its mission, intent, artifacts, underlying assumptions, location, and culture.

The book does an admirable job of giving strategies and suggestions for research in various institutional contexts. Each chapter addresses a different category of special-mission institution, as described above, and moves away from the simplistic labels of research, comprehensive, or liberal arts. It recommends approaches and techniques likely to be relevant in each individual context and, in doing so, successfully exposes as faulty the "one-size-fits-all approach common within assessment, evaluation, and research communities" (p. 3).

However, since each type of institution is necessarily still subcategorized in a somewhat general way, the problem of this special-mission context becomes painfully clear. Most chapters acknowledge that there are still significant differences even within the narrower categorization. For example, professional schools may be further divided into those that are part of a university organization, are independent institutions, are affiliated with a university but effectively independent, perhaps even off-site, or those that are independent but lodged within a state system—all of which may be quite different contextually. Though this book does a good job of warning against reliance on too-broad assumptions, generalizations, and categorizations, this effort could lead to continual subdivisions which can only end with each institution in its own category.

Some of the chapters attempt to limit this problem by examining only one specific subportion of the institution-type under consideration. For example, Chapter 2 addresses only Christian religious schools that are members of the Association of Theological Schools. Though worthy of applause for not claiming broader generalization than the chapter really has, this approach omits a substantial number of religious institutions; some of the richness possible for analysis may have been lost. Given these two minor criticisms, however, the text did a commendable job of striking a balance and presenting an analysis which is rightfully context-specific but not so narrow that trivial differences and details would overwhelm the general...

Publication Date
Spring 2007
Publisher Statement
This book review was published by Johns Hopkins University Press & was harvested via Project MUSE.
Citation Information
Ryan S. Wells and Paul D. Umbach. "Review of the book Unique Campus Contexts: Insights For Research and Assessment" The Review of Higher Education Vol. 30 Iss. 3 (2007)
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