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Working paper

University Merger And Sensemaking At The Threshold: Understanding Radical Organizational Change In Higher Education

This paper discusses radical change in higher education reflecting on its deconstructive nature. While the notions of adaptive and strategic change assume strengthening the existing settings of university organization, radical change means the deconstruction of the established organizational order. Radical change creates uncertainty and demands an understanding of social relations in the implicit or informal side of the organisation. This research is based on an empirical case of university merger as an example of radical and risky change in higher education. It applies the sensemaking approach to disclosing the cultural side of organizing. We argue that radical change in higher education originates a specific regime of sensemaking at the threshold where the symbolic order becomes the source of meanings for actors to deal with ambiguity. Analysing 22 in-depth interviews taken with top-level administrators and academic employees at three merged universities we show that radical change occurs through practices of labelling, rumouring and translation. They produce a virtual structure on the implicit side of organizing and influence the interpretation of change as a rite of passage or a rite of organisational degradation.