Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Christos Pantzalis, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Dahlia Robinson, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Sunil Mithas, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Richard Tarpey, D.B.A.


decision-making, organization adaptation, organization culture, stakeholders, strategic management


As educational leaders in small, private, nonprofit, mission-focused higher education institutions confront challenges, their decisions influence organizational identity, culture, and viability. Decision-making is informed in a complex environment of internal and external influences. The purpose of this research is engaged scholarship to inform practitioners of decision-making in mission-focused institutions with better understanding of why and how adaptation is occurring, and provide a conceptual framework for decision-making and further study of organizational leadership in this important sector of higher education.

Four-year private, nonprofit, degree-granting institutions represent 34% of all accredited institutions in the United States and serve over 5 million students. Most of these institutions are tuition-dependent and vulnerable to enrollment dynamics that threaten their long-term viability. This qualitative exploratory research studied four such institutions through a multiple case replication study utilizing semi-structured interviews of four to six leaders who participate in strategic and operational decision-making and represent key stakeholders at each site.

My findings suggest institutional outcomes are linked to competitive reputation, and that reputation is determined by perceived relevance, distinctiveness, and affordability. Organizational adaptation in complex environments is at the center of decision-making and outcomes. Stakeholder experience drives decision-making to enhance stakeholder affinity for institutions. Stakeholder affinity determines engagement and engagement influences viability. Outcomes influence decisions intended to produce relevance, distinctiveness, and affordability among present and future stakeholders.

Achieving institutional relevance, distinctiveness, and affordability among present and future stakeholders determines sustainable viability for small, private, nonprofit higher education institutions. Actionable findings are discussed and a conceptual framework for decision-making is presented.