Leadership & Institutional Change

Defining Change

Dictionaries provide us with over thirty definitions of the word change including to transform, to make different in form, and to replace or substitute. As an academic leader you are called on to not only be a leader of change but to be sensitive the many reasons why change in programs or procedures are not only needed but becoming more urgent. Change, both within and outside the academy has become a way of life, a constant condition for those of us working in higher education. Recognizing that successful leadership requires a wide range of knowledge and skills, the academic leaders and scholars who developed the National Academy identified the specific knowledge and skills required by those in leadership positions. Their efforts led to the range of resources that are being provided and programs that are being offered.

While calls for research based higher education reform and innovation have been with us for years, only recently have a number of forces, both inside of and external to the academy, combined to increase the urgency for action.

First- and Second-Order Change

  • First-order change is doing more – or less – of something we are already doing. First-order change is always reversible.
  • Second-order change is deciding – or being forced – to do something significantly or fundamentally different from what we have done before. The process is irreversible: once you begin, it is impossible to return to the way you were doing before.

The characteristics of first- and second-order change

  • First-order change
    • Adjustments within the existing structure
    • Doing more or less of something
    • Reversible
    • Restoration of balance (homeostasis)
    • Non-transformational
    • New learning is not required
    • Old story can still be told
  • Second-order change
    • New way of seeing things
    • Shifting gears
    • Irreversible
    • Often begins through the informal system
    • Transformation to something quite different
    • Requires new learning
    • New story is told


  • Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton, 1979.
  • Bergquist, William. The Modern Organization: Mastering the Art of Irreversible Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Reasons to Change

After brainstorming on potential barriers to change, the forty educators designing The National Academy’s workshop on Leading Institutional Change: A National Workshop for College and University Teams (January 2000) considered the factors that would facilitate the achieving of significant and sustainable change. Here is their list of success factors, in the order in which they were proposed, with some factors applicable to the institution as a whole, some to the change initiative’s leadership group, and most to both:

  • dissatisfaction with the status quo
  • a clear mandate
  • a spirit of shared ownership
  • skating to where the puck is – or is going to be
  • crisis
  • availability of time (patience)
  • consistency of vision
  • opportunities for multiple venues for conversations
  • allocation of appropriate and adequate resources
  • open communication
  • a defined process
  • the will to engage
  • the will to implement
  • sufficient training
  • repeated articulation of vision
  • powerful and consistent metaphors
  • assessment and willingness to adjust
  • celebration of approximations of success
  • continuous cultural change
  • a collective understanding of why and how change is being undertaken
  • recognizing the fear associated with change
  • an integrated and collective leadership
  • the right, the helpful data at the right time in the process
  • a focus on teaching and learning; a focus on students
  • anticipating sources of resistance and being prepared with responses
  • recognizing multiple cultures
  • tangible rewards for faculty engaged in change
  • linking all change efforts to mission

The resources of The National Academy for Academic Leadership can help you build upon those factors for successful change that are securely in place on your campus, strengthen those that you identify as underdeveloped, and develop those that would contribute to the success of your change initiative.

The Urgency for Change: Recommended Readings
  • Bok, Derek. (2006). Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press. 413 pp.
    • The author, a former long-time Harvard University president, surveys the condition of American higher education with respect to its ability to educate its students at a high level and thus serve the human development needs of society. Bok reviews the evolution of American colleges and undergraduate education, faculty attitudes toward undergraduate education, and its purposes. He then devotes eight chapters to various aspects of undergraduate education. These include communication, thinking, character-moral development, citizenship, dealing with diversity and a globalized society, and career development. Bok’s arguments are well-thought out, and he demonstrates command of the relevant professional research literature. The realities beneath public perceptions of undergraduate education in America “are not as impressive as they seem…. When one moves from opinion polls to direct evidence of student learning in college, the reasons for concern grow clearer” (pp. 310-311). His book skillfully illuminates these problems, describes his view of what institutions should be doing in undergraduate education, enumerates important barriers to reform, and makes proposals for change
  • Gardiner, Lion F. 1996. Redesigning higher education: Producing dramatic gains in student learning.  ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report vol. 23, no. 7. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass [225 pp.] Available at http://www.josseybass.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-187838063X.html.
    • This review and synthesis of research on student learning and development describes how students develop important abilities, the institutional qualities required for this development to occur, and the educational effectiveness of academe, specifically of curricula, instruction, academic advising, and campus climate, and suggestions of researchers for substantially improving educational quality—using research to produce “dramatic” gains in student learning.  The primary purpose of this book is to provide conceptual tools and empirical evidence for raising the level of urgency for change on campuses, and a wide array of resources for improving quality and for designing assessments to monitor quality.
  • Gardiner, Lion F. 1998. Why We Must Change: The Research Evidence. Thought and Action, 14(1), pp.71-88.  Available electronically at http://www2.nea.org/he/heta98/s98pg71.pdf. Reprinted in 2000 in a retrospective volume of this journal: http://www2.nea.org/he/heta00/f00p121.pdf.
    • Intended to help increase the level of urgency for change on campuses, this article reviews research on aspects of college student development and the effectiveness of higher education in fostering that development.  Numerous barriers to learning and development are identified.  The author suggests systematic application of modern, research-based professional practices can help all of our students develop to a high level, with a marked impact on society and the world more widely.
  • Hersh, Richard H., and Merrow, John (Eds.). (2005). Declining by degrees: Higher education at risk. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 244 pp.
    • This book, critical of the educational performance of American higher education, is composed of topical chapters written by 16 different authors, each treating an important area of concern for quality in higher education. These include, among others, media coverage of higher education, public attitudes toward the academy, admissions, liberal education, educational goals, a disconnection between students and their colleges, and minority group students. Each editor provides a concluding afterword.
  • Field Guide to Academic Leadership 2002 (Robert M. Diamond, Editor.) Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
    • The following chapter in the Field Guide are brief, to the point, and directly related to the content focus of this section:
      • Chapter 1. Pressures for Fundamental Reform: Creating a Viable Academic Future by Alan E. Guskin and Mary B. Marcy. A review of the forces for change in higher education and the impact these changes are having on faculty and faculty appointments.
  • Marchese, Theodore J., “Whatever Happened to Undergraduate Reform?” (2006). Carnegie Foundation Perspectives #26. Palo Alto, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching.
    • A succinct review of the last two decades of higher education reform and of the challenges now being faced by colleges and universities.
  • Newman, Frank, Lara Couturier and Jamie Scurry. The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Risks of the Market. 2004. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass. [303 pps.]
    • Discusses the forces for change, the changes that are taking place and what institutions and academic leaders must do to address them if higher education is to maintain it compact with the public.

Requisites for Change

The following questions are designed to help you and your colleagues determine how ready your college or university is for accomplishing substantive academic change. Everyone involved – whether the president, vice presidents, deans, chairs, key faculty members, or board members – should consider these questions about your institution from the perspective of his or her particular role and with the different levels of specificity that role requires.

  1. Does your institution have an effective mission statement, one that is consistent with its institutional values, guides work throughout the institution, and addresses the needs of a changing society?
  2. Are there gaps between the mission statement, institutional practices, and the needs of the publics you serve?
  3. Are decision makers knowledgeable about research on teaching, learning, and student development?
  4. Does the institution consistently encourage and support the use of best practices in curriculum development, instructional design, and academic advising?
  5. Is the institution committed to the systematic and continuous collection of data about its stakeholders and units, about academic processes and outcomes and does it use these data to improve programs?
  6. Does the institution encourage and support the appropriate use of technology to achieve learning goals?
  7. Are the institution’s decision makers able to use their interpersonal skills effectively in interactions with other?
  8. Are decision makers committed to supporting both formal and informal leadership and to the critical role each plays in effecting change?
  9. Do decision makers have the support and collaborative leadership of key members of the administration, faculty, and staff?
  10. Do administrators, staff and faculty members have appropriate and ongoing opportunities for professional development?
  11. Is the institution’s financial and academic planning integrated to achieve the educational mission?
  12. Does the institution’s reward system for faculty, staff, and academic units enable achievement of the educational mission and priorities?
  13. Does the institution have an effective, shared governance system consistent with its mission and culture?

The National Academy for Academic Leadership has been established to help key campus decision-makers become effective leaders able to work collaboratively toward meaningful institutional change. Participants in our programs will learn more about themselves and their institutions, about the complexities of change, and about issues at the heart of contemporary higher education. They will gain the knowledge and develop the skills necessary to being effective agents for change in times more and more often described as “permanent whitewater.”

More on Barriers to Change

Leading educators from across the country, convened to design The National Academy’s January 2000 workshop Leading Institutional Change: A National Workshop for College and University Teams, brainstormed on the subject of barriers to change. Here is the resulting list of potential barriers, in the order in which they were proposed and, because no particular institution or change initiative was at issue, in general terms:

  • a tendency to mandate change from the top
  • organization-wide initiatives that lose sight of individual units
  • overwhelming people with too much at once
  • operating from wrong cultural assumptions
  • the desire for instant success on the part of the leadership
  • appropriate resources not available
  • change by memo with no discussion, no ownership
  • comfort with the status quo
  • constant reinforcement (celebration) of “how good we are”: so why change?
  • a reward system that doesn’t match reality
  • some people thrive on chaos and don’t want issues solved
  • competing cultures: trustees, students, faculty, staff, each thinking they “own” the institution and not agreeing in fundamental areas
  • a culture that supports working independently
  • a “public” image that does not fit with the reality internal to the institution
  • comfort with going it alone
  • an organizational structure that doesn’t facilitate cooperation, that encourages competition
  • a habit of critique: faculty are more comfortable critiquing than working together
  • lack of knowledge on the part of leaders about team building, conflict resolution, the change process, etc.