Effecting Transformational Institutional Change

There is a deep concern that so few reform efforts have reaped the major success expected when the efforts were initiated. This concern and participation in the dynamic planning work for The National Academy for Academic Leadership and its programs lead to the writing of  this article. The goal is to help those readers who are themselves in the throes of planning significant institutional change – and vexed by its difficulties.

Transformation not evolution
The focus should be on on major, institution-wide reform – that is, transformational or second-order change. Evolutionary reforms, valuable as they are, are not here the subject. Neither are such activities as presidential searches, student enrollment improvement, academic department improvement, or investment and audit assessments.

The process of change
When undertaking comprehensive change efforts, a college or university first assesses the quality of its programs of teaching, research, and service to its community and then embarks on strategic planning for the significant realignment and addition of financial resources necessary to attain the institution’s renewed educational mission.

The gathering of institutional data and assessment of where the institution currently stands is usually undertaken as an internal matter dependent upon the internal resources of loyal people and strong expertise. Individuals with professional knowledge of everything from management and organizational psychology to mass communication and policy analysis populate our campuses. Trustees are selected for their ability to raise and manage money, for their leadership experience in businesses, not-for-profit institutions, and legal firms. Colleges and universities traditionally have made their way through “master planning” without looking beyond their own communities for help.

Convincing data suggests that this business-as-usual approach is no longer enough. What is the difference now? A robust U.S. economy and large populations of potential students may lull us into comfort with the status quo, but the challenges facing higher education today are extraordinarily complex and rapidly intensifying, and the solutions are costly. Competition for “our” students is escalating as new institutions offer “just-in-time” education in places and at times convenient to registrants. On-line degrees, made available at less cost to the student and with less expense to the offering institution, are proliferating while the cost to students of our traditional degrees continues to rise and is typically sharply discounted by funds from our own operating budgets. Faculty and administrators are pressed for time as their responsibilities expand, yet for major policy recommendations to the governing board, campus culture demands long hours of involvement from all constituencies. Given such circumstances, a few top administrators leading the way simply will not be sufficient to significantly strengthen and transform our colleges and universities.

The requisites for successful change
What might be the components essential to success in these times? Drawing on the perspectives of scores of experienced and enterprising educators, The National Academy identified thirteen institutional requisites for achieving significant, sustainable change that transforms the institution itself and transforms learning within the institution. Among these are: an effective mission statement, the use of research and best practice in teaching and student development, the collection and use of institutional data, and an understanding of the critical role of collaborative leadership.

The absence of one or more of these requisites could well lead to a derailing of an institution’s best-laid plans. Many of us have experienced such circumstances. It is daunting to encounter the sudden voting down of a long-planned curriculum reform or extensive student affairs initiative because those who will implement the change have no sense of ownership in it or because the financial resources necessary to support the change have not been allocated. Alas! too that presidents in the midst of reforms demanding extraordinary interpersonal and political skills find themselves inadequate to the task – and sometimes even forced to resign. Often well thought out actions of an earlier era lead to unexpected consequences for an institutional change initiative. A long-revered mission statement that no longer matches actuality can lead to a calamitous division on the governing board.

The requisites for successful transformation are vital, but assuring their existence in an institution is only the first step. They must be potent components of an integrated system of change. It used to be said that perhaps only the college or university president could see the institution whole, could understand how all its parts worked together to perform the functions essential to its well-being. That was a shortsighted statement. Any institution whose president alone has this ability, whose president alone takes on this responsibility, will be unable to markedly transform itself. Every member of a campus community must have appropriate understanding (the level of understanding dependent on the individual’s campus role) of the institution as a whole.

What a demand! Higher education has taken pride in its innate giftedness. Most new faculty members are expected to easily and quickly learn on the job how to teach and to direct student research. Most administrators learn both their complex leadership roles and the mastering of management tasks on the job. Most more or less meet this demand after a year or two of often hard experience, and such successful administrators and faculty members quite reasonably take pride in their professional abilities. The danger lies in a frequently confirmed belief that they know the answers and a concommitant reluctance to acknowledge before others that they have more still to learn.

In truth, all participants in higher education leadership positions have much to learn. The learning personality is an asset. A learning community that also plans and acts will be successful. Learning from each other within a community is satisfying and cost-effective. And – tapping into national resources and experienced outside consultants can both accelerate needed learning and extend the range of institutional thinking.

External help
Is your college or university ready to garner external assistance in its quest for major educational change? Identifying assistance that matches your particular institution, its stage of development, and its needs is key. Using effective outside assistance on internal issues is far from a sign of weakness. It could well prove to be the act of courage that leads to transformation – and even to competitive advantage.

– Paula P. Brownlee, Senior Associate