Published on 2015/04/16

Responsive Responsibility: Empowering Faculty and Staff to Improve Organizational Effectiveness

The EvoLLLution | Responsive Responsibility: Empowering Faculty and Staff to Improve Organizational Effectiveness
By freeing staff and faculty to focus on innovation and growth rather than forcing them to focus on overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, institutions can reap benefits and grow their value for students.

Higher education institutions are not immune to the pressures of a competitive and increasingly global marketplace for education. Stakeholders in the form of politicians, institution boards, alumni, students, and the public have called for changes to higher education. Rising tuition, regulatory requirements, as well as an influx of adult and non-traditional students has put pressure on institutions to adapt to this changing environment.

As I described in a prior article, institutions today are regularly challenged to articulate the value proposition of their programs to students and the public at large. Many higher institutions are now dealing with the dual cuts of declining enrollment and reduced funding. This constriction of resources can limit the opportunities for growth and innovation, but attempting to simply cut operating costs is not a path to growth. A culture of reduction does not motivate your faculty and staff to reach for new opportunities. High-value programs do not exist in a vacuum; creating a really great environment for your students, faculty and the broader community is a challenge. Building student-centered approaches within your programs is key.

The low-cost leadership approach is a particularly difficult path to take, especially for an existing institution with fixed operational costs and long-standing obligations and established missions. New models of instructional delivery threaten to drive down the costs to offer standard degree programs. New entrants into higher education may capitalize on the low-cost operational models. However, higher education as a whole has a tremendous advantage over traditional industries: its core commitment to scholarship. Institutions are built around the longstanding commitment to academic excellence. The value of an institution is reflected in the selection of its faculty and staff.

By maximizing the creative and intellectual capabilities of the faculty and staff within your institution you can find ways to create value that will set you apart from other institutions. To this end, there are five things that higher education institutions can do to become more agile: Build your narrative, leverage your strengths, build partnerships, create flexible systems, and empower your faculty and staff.

Build Your Narrative

Your institution is a product of its environment. The origin of the institution—its traditions, culture and stories—connect you with your community of neighbors, alumni and those who are far away but still connected to your institution. You have a story to tell. You have a past, present and future. To shape the future, institutions can frame future directions and goals with this narrative. Building your story is a great way to develop your institutional culture.

It is critical to acknowledge your past as you frame your present and future. Once you have developed your story, tell your story. Find your audience and engage them with your narrative. Tell your prospective students how they can be part of it; tell your community your role and aspirations; build interest and engage your community both within and outside your institution. Your institution is unique. It would not exist now if it hadn’t met a need. It’s important to embrace your history, but set the path for your future. Identify your strengths, refocus your purpose and keep your institution moving forward.

Leverage Your Strengths

Universities are open systems, with many complex moving parts and relationships, many of which connect both internally and externally. Find the things that work for your institution and maximize your capacity. Do you have an innovative academic program that enjoys high demand? Do you excel in a particular type of academic program or excel at serving students at nights and on weekends? Embrace your strengths and support the people, processes, and technologies that are proven and make you successful. Leverage your strengths in your narrative and find a way to expand your capabilities.

Build Partnerships

Even the most comprehensive of institutions could use additional capacity to expand and grow. It is key to create partnerships with your community and your stakeholders. You have unique strengths, and others may have complementary strengths. Create partnerships with industry, researchers, faculty at other institutions, with your alumni, and with your students. Partnerships require commitments from both parties to be successful. Be earnest in your collaboration and put your best foot forward. Find your innovators, your extenders and your expanders. Engage with and invest in them. Support their passions. Innovators can take many forms in your institution. Faculty, continuing education professionals, graduate students, and staff who are seeking growth and challenges can help maintain these partnerships. Reward those who will create this capacity for you and build systems that support their efforts.

Create Flexible Systems

Over time, institutional processes and procedures become highly refined and focused on solving historical issues for you institution. Processes can take on a life of their own. Your innovators may become frustrated with systems that don’t provide capabilities they need to create new ways of doing things. Only the hardiest of faculty and staff will overcome institutional inertia in the form of systems and processes. In light of new opportunities for growth and development, it is time to take stock of the barriers that hold back your capabilities as an institution. These capabilities can take a number of forms: capabilities in the form of new programs, new faculty, new technology, new partnerships, new students, size and reach of the institution.

Review what is holding back your faculty, staff and students from truly engaging in the core functions of your institution. You hired the best faculty and staff, accepted the best students, and built relationships with those most important to your institutions. Tap your innovators who are used to dealing with extending your institutional capabilities to new audiences and in new formats in the form of Continuing Education and Outreach.[1] Re-evaluate your reward systems to ensure it lines up with your broader institutional purpose and goals.

Empower The Faculty

Finally, and most importantly, leverage the expertise of your faculty. Faculty hires are a huge investment by your institution. The expertise and knowledge of your faculty is a tremendous asset as you seek to adapt your institution. Faculty are trained to find the new and novel, to expand and extend knowledge with rigor. Build your faculty brand, support their innovative activities, support team teaching, interdisciplinary programs, outreach and extension. Support partnership efforts that they develop, create flexibility that allows them to make decisions about teaching and research that advance the institution. Use the diversity of faculty perspectives to help find innovative solutions. Reward and support the work of faculty and administrators who support strategic goals.

Higher education, despite the perception of it as outdated and insular, has the building blocks of innovation and opportunity as a keystone. Whereas businesses and industry are typically of a singular focus, higher education creates one out of many. Many perspectives, many students and alumni, and many possibilities. Building on your success and creating new capabilities for your institution are key to creating a responsive, vibrant institution that is engaging and ripe with opportunity.

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[1] Cathy Sandeen, “Innovation In Our DNA,” The EvoLLLution, March 12, 2015. Accessed at

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