The impact of leadership on institutional culture and mission: A case study of St. John's University, 1989–2005

James P Pellow, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation is a case study of St. John's University for the period 1989-2005, during which time university leaders made a strategic decision to adopt a residence life strategy after 127 years of serving a local market. This decision marked a major shift in mission and led to significant changes in organizational culture. This research addressed three questions: What factors led St. John's to embrace comprehensive institutional change, and what role did leaders play in supporting or resisting that change? What was the impact on mission and culture, and what are the implications for the future? And, what lessons can be learned from this case study that will provide guidance to leaders at other institutions? Research included a review of: the literature on leadership, organizational culture, and mission; books and articles written about St. Vincent de Paul and the university; archival material from the St. John's Library; and internal documents from the president's office. More than three dozen interviews were then conducted. The author found that the change at St. John's was driven by the interaction of several factors: a new leadership team; a collegial planning process grounded in data analysis; and an ongoing debate about the university's mission in a contemporary setting. The president was the most influential individual, as both a resister and a champion of change. Trustees affected the change by encouraging management to think boldly in response to a changing environment. At the core of the change to residence halls was an active, university-wide planning process that revisited and prioritized the elements of the mission statement. The results of the change were positive: student demand and quality increased, academic quality was enhanced, and the financial position of the university improved. Broad engagement in the planning process and a central focus on mission have changed the organizational culture. Leaders can apply these lessons by engaging in an ongoing discussion of mission, prioritizing mission elements, and implementing business strategies that are based on data and assessment. While leaders impact culture in many ways, their interpretation of mission is central.

Subject Area

School administration|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Pellow, James P, "The impact of leadership on institutional culture and mission: A case study of St. John's University, 1989–2005" (2006). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3209992.