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Douglas Vardeman and Laura Grace Dykes, The University of Texas at Tyler

Douglas Vardeman.jpgWhen Laura Grace Dykes.jpgconsidering the role, function, and possibilities of academic advising as an autonomous profession, greater thought and discussion can be given to the organizational structure of advising departments on college and university campuses. Academic advisors have the opportunity and responsibility of addressing the variety of needs college students face in academia. Advising should be a relational and transformational experience for the student, and, for this to be the case, academic advisors need flexibility, autonomy, and localized control over their work as opposed to a centralized, standardized, and transaction-oriented approach. In this article, the organizational structure of an organized anarchy will be presented as the best organizational structure for meeting the needs of advisors by providing the space to practice both transformational and developmental advising in a way that most effectively meets the wide-ranging needs of students. What organizational anarchies provide advisors, why organizational anarchies are necessary for transformational and developmental advising, and how organizational anarchies yield conducive environments for meeting the needs of students will be discussed.

Anarchy can be a loaded term with diverse intimations, depending on one’s understanding of it as a political or social structure. Kathleen Manning (2018) describes anarchy as a social order which “rather than the absence of order, [relies] on community . . . for organization.” A community of various smaller groups organized by specific interests and expertise can function together to meet the diverse needs of the greater community. Localizing control in the loosely connected parts of the larger organization can boost the effectiveness of organizational functions as autonomy and organizational flexibility and can positively impact communication, workplace culture, and innovation (Costa et al., 2014). As opposed to hyper-centralized control and rigid standardization of operating procedures, organizational anarchy respects the expertise of advisors, allows for the flexibility required to meet diverse student needs, and encourages open communication between advisors, faculty, and administrators by promoting a sense of community and mutual participation in the greater goal of student success.

Students come to advisors with varied needs that require advisors to function in varied roles, which is precisely why academic advising can best function in an organized anarchy. Academic advisors may be the single touchstone that connects a student to their academics, on-campus resources, student organizations, etc. An academic advisor is sometimes the one staff member on campus that a student will regularly meet with face-to-face throughout their college career. Manning (2018) notes that in higher education “no one person . . . fully understands the many realities and perceptions present in the organization” (p.135), which complicates students’ abilities to navigate all aspects of the university. Academic advisors are afforded the opportunity to function as a guide for students to both reach graduation through academic counseling and connect them with relevant and useful organizations and resources to advance their academic careers and address obstacles to the successful completion of their degrees. However, given the vast differences between colleges, majors, and individual students, advisors need the freedom and flexibility to meet each unique student’s needs in an individualized way. A single formula or plan will not work for every student on campus or even every student in a single major.

It has been describe that the three primary characteristics of an organized anarchy are problematic goals, unclear technology and fluid participation (Cohen et al., 1972). A closer look at each of these characteristics will further elucidate the benefits of an organized anarchy structure in academic advising. Cohen et al. (1972) describe problematic goals (or preferences) as “inconsistent and ill-defined preferences . . . [the discovery of] preferences through action more than [acting] on the basis of preferences” (p. 19). In academic advising, each student comes with their own problems and concerns. Often an advising appointment will address unexpected or unplanned issues. In order to make advising transformative for the student, an advisor needs to be able to interact with each student in the ways they need and require. Advisors act based on the problems and situations they bring into the appointment. If advisors rely too heavily on a preconceived idea of what an advising appointment should entail, then advisors risk losing the opportunity to help the student based on their needs in favor of a static, impersonal plan. Being open to and expecting problematic goals as an advisor opens us up to being truly transformative by meeting each student at their level. Working in a structure organized to encourage and nurture problematic goals allows for advisors to practice more transformative advising.

Likewise, unclear technologies—which “[operate] on the basis of simple trial-and-error procedure, the residue of learning from the accidents of past experience, and pragmatic inventions of necessity” (Cohen et al., 1972)—prepare the advisor to approach each student with an openness and adaptability that will suit their personality and learning style. Advisors transform students by working through the various goals they bring in navigating conflict and creating a personalized plan; advisors can relate to students through an individualized approach to interaction. Advisors spend much of their time working with students one-on-one, and in order to relate to students, advisors require the time and space to accommodate the individual through tone, delivery, medium, and substance. If advisors can relate to our students and create a rapport, then advisors are more likely to gain their trust and be able to help them succeed. Operating in a system of unclear technologies acknowledges the need to adapt to varying situations in order to be effective.

Beyond the conflicting goals and differing personalities which impact the style and content of advising, the third property of an organized anarchy reflects another actuality of academic advising: fluid participation. “Participants vary in the amount of time and effort they devote to different domains; involvement varies from one time to another” (Cohen et al., 1972). Manning (2018) describes it as a characteristic which “introduces dynamism, unpredictability, and complexity into higher educational organizational structures.” Students are generally on campus for four to six years, faculty members are often on campus for a decade or more, staff positions are sometimes held by long-term employees while others face frequent turn over, and administrative roles often change after several years. This means that members of the university community are constantly changing, and thus the goals and history of the university community are in a constant state of dynamic development. Even during the four to six years that a student is on campus, their engagement with an advisor changes throughout that time. They require more direction about resources and procedures in their early years, and the advising becomes more specific as time goes on. Some students get more involved with an advisor as they progress in their degree, while some students may transition to a faculty member for guidance. Life changes including health, family, housing, and finances can change a student’s participation in the university community, and advisors must be ready to adapt to that change.

Therefore, with the variable nature of each student, their circumstances and college/university circumstances, an organizational structure that promotes agility and autonomy is advantageous for professional advisors. Organizational anarchies provide the autonomy, flexibility, and opportunities to exercise professional discretion that will guide students through a developmental and transformational advising experience and best respond to issues as they arise. Entrusting academic advisors with the opportunity to utilize professional judgement and implement their best practices to meet the needs of their students is emblematic of organizational anarchies and is an appropriate organizational structure for serving the needs of their students.

Douglas Vardeman
Academic Advisor III
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of Texas at Tyler
[email protected]

Laura Grace Dykes
Academic Advisor I
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of Texas at Tyler
[email protected]  


Cohen, M. D., March, J. G., & Olsen, J. P. (1972). A garbage can model of organizational choice. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17(1), 1–25. https://doi.org/10.2307/2392088

Costa, S. D., Páez, D., Sánchez, F., Gondim, S., & Rodríguez, M. (2014). Factors favoring innovation inorganizations: An integration of meta-analyses. Revista De Psicología Del Trabajo Y De LasOrganizaciones, 30(2), 67–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rpto.2014.06.006

Manning, K. (2018). Organizational theory in higher education. Routledge; Taylor & Francis.

Cite this article using APA style as: Vardeman, D., & Dykes, L.G. (2020, June). An organization theory consideration for academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 43(2). [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2020 June 43:2


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