The University-as-Theater: Are we just putting on a performance?

Is the university just an act of theater obscuring what is… or isn’t going on?  Are we caught up in traditions that have shielded us from realizing our own faults?  from public criticism?  Are we ready for the impending changes to higher education as a whole?  Thinking about higher education as a theatrical performance exposes some of these questions.

51RvjzXNOnL._SL500_Organizational theorists Bolman and Deal recognize two bodies of theory that make up this notion of the university-as-theater. The first, dramaturgical theories, focus internally. They describe performative acts that involve “social interaction among individuals and on internal situations” (Bolman and Deal, 2008, p.296).   Institutional theories, the second, describe the “interface between organizations and their publics” (Bolman and Deal, 2008, p.296). When combined, these theories posit that not only is the university putting on a show for the external public/consumer, but also internally in the way the staff, faculty, and students interact with each other. The university thus constructs an outward facing reality, but also produces an internal perpetuating culture that socializes its constituents to think and act in certain ways. Akin to the garbage can model of decision-making, the theatrical view of universities does not function on a rational basis, but a symbolic one that advances through a messy process of change.

The notion of organization-as-theater is based on the concept of socially constructed reality. Social constructivism posits that knowledge, rather than being part of a one-to-one correspondence with the real world, is instead constructed through our language, culture and history. For example, the concept of the “university” conjures up scripts of an idyllic setting with grand architecture populated by old sage-like professors who wear fancy caps and gowns. These symbols, and the enactment of ceremonies and rituals, such as convocation and graduation ceremonies, are the theater of the university. This theater is the reality. The organization-as-theater concept makes a postmodern ontological claim that is in stark contrast to “traditional” theories. Traditional organizational theories, like those of Weber, are often mechanistic and premised on the notion of organizations functioning as tidy rationalistic enterprises with neat causal chains leading towards decisions and educational output. The university-as-theater concept reveals an organization that is illusory and is socially constructed reality.

phd061814sViewing the university as a performance can profoundly challenge how we understand higher education and the value we place on it. As a symbolic entity, universities engender faith in the public that they are reaching towards ideals of knowledge and producing students that are transformed and upwardly mobile. The rhetoric, ceremonies and rituals of the university function as arcane mystical practices that have, in the past, allowed higher education to largely escape public scrutiny. Universities also sell themselves to students on these symbols through marketing and glossy college view books with idealized pictures of campus life. These symbols, however, can obscure the messy process of education and the difficulty inherent in measuring educational outcomes. When viewing universities through this lens, one may begin to question the validity of the university itself and whether or not higher education actually achieves its stated goals.

This is one of the main challenges facing higher education today. As public confidence in colleges and universities erodes, and there are increasing calls for accountability, the old discursive practices of higher education are no longer as effective. New forms are of higher education are emerging. The for-profit institutions are experimenting with new methods of online and distance learning. The college degree is being unbundled into certificate programs and individual courses. Open educational resources and open courseware are demonstrating that educational outcomes can still be obtained without all of the trappings of the traditional residential college. If universities are revealed as theater, and if it follows that they are therefore a farce, then how are they to maintain their legitimacy and hold on the public discourse?

60-6066-T5ZD100ZThe concept of the university-as-theater, however, need not lead one to the conclusion that the entire enterprise is a farce. Universities do produce positive constructive change even if their processes for getting there may not be completely rational. Understanding how the university, and the broader society itself, functions as theater can allow informed actors to accrue power and produce change within the system. The view does, however, expose the fact that universities are not simple organizations. Universities and the public participate in an elaborate meaning-making dance where each one shapes and is shaped by their perception of the other. Internally, the staff and faculty also participate in rituals that perpetuate their own cultures and norms. The use of critical theories, such as the institutional and dramaturgical, allows us to examine some of the underlying assumptions and subtext that undergird the structures of higher education. By being able to examine these, we can develop new ways of constructing education and our relationship with it.

The organization-as-theater view helps us understand how higher education institutions functioned in the past as well as how they may be shaped in the future. Although at first blush this lens may seem to cast universities in a negative light, it also emancipates us and allows for a new form of agency. If higher education is socially constructed, then it follows that we can also reconstruct it in the future. In light of the rapid pace of technological change, the opportunity for radical reconstruction might be here sooner than we think.

Are we ready for this change?

Do we possess the right cultural orientation to respond to this change?  OR

Are we stuck in the past or otherwise unaware of our faults?


Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Photo credit: Bahman Farzad, Cartoon from Conde Nast (buy a print here), Cartoon from PhDComics

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