Religious Universities Between Gaining Legitimacy and Maintaining Identity

Monday, 11 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal 17 (Juridicum)
Distributed Paper
Andre ARMBRUSTER, Helmut Schmidt University, Germany
Cristina BESIO, Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg, Germany
Uli MEYER, Technical University of Berlin, Germany
Religious universities are hybrid organizations that combine scientific and religious logics, which could be contradictory. To demonstrate that, we present the case of the private YMCA University in Kassel; a newly established religious university that struggles to be seen as a legitimate actor within the organizational field of higher education. In order to get legitimation the YMCA University has to fulfill institutionalized scripts and it also has to be officially recognized by an accreditation agency. However, these scripts and institutional requirements are designed to shape the structures and activities of non-religious universities. Hence, they refer solely to the scientific logic. One could even say these scripts are trying to curb the religious logic. As a consequence, the YMCA University has to demonstrate the ability to handle religious issues scientifically (e.g. balanced presentations of dissenting religious opinions). At the same time, the YMCA University has to affirm its identity as a religious organization. This is a challenging task because since “the religious sector is very weakly institutionalized” (Chang 2013: 130) it cannot rely on institutionalized scripts when organizing the religious aspects. Available are only general cultural orientations with a strong moral content which can conflict with scientific scripts.

Our paper addresses the tension between gaining legitimacy by applying to non-religious (and even antireligious) institutional scripts and maintaining the religious identity: How is the YMCA University combining the religious and scientific logics in its decision-making processes? Relying on interviews with members of YMCA University, we stress the internal dynamics of a hybrid organization. By combining neo-institutionalism with system theory (Besio/Meyer 2014), we focus on decoupling, the difference between talk and action, the role of traditions, and the importance of the personnel selection (e.g. all staff members must be of Christian faith).