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Private nonprofit higher education within the United States has experienced unprecedented disruption and discontinuous change over the last several decades. To make matters more difficult, institutions that make up this segment of higher education are not known for their flexibility and adaptability. Recent studies suggest that the benefits and attributes of unit-level ambidexterity help to provide balance between paradoxical tensions and that these coexisting pressures can create strategic agility for organizations. This ethnographic case study describes how the culture-sharing senior leadership team of a private nonprofit U.S. institution of higher education leverages tensions to create strategic agility. The results of this qualitative study yielded six major themes including (a) Fostering a culture that seeks and embraces innovation through paradoxical tensions, (b) Creating a mindset for innovation and growth, (c) Generating collaboration and partnership, (d) Forming teams mindfully and purposefully, (e) Managing tensions positively, and (f) Increasing institutional responsiveness through the creation of flexible capacities. Through the synthesis of the study’s results, along with current research in the area of paradoxical tensions and unit-level ambidexterity, a conceptual model has been proposed. The aim of the proposed conceptual model is to aid in the transferability of the results of this study to other like institutions for the purposes of creating greater strategic agility.

Publication Date



International Institute for Innovative Instruction




Educational Leadership

Leveraging Paradoxical Tensions:​ ​​An Ethnographic Case Study of a Private Nonprofit U.S Higher Education Institution



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