Published on 2018/06/22
The EvoLLLution | 3 C’s To Help Innovative Leaders Advance Beyond the Status Quo
Though there’s a tendency to stick rigidly to the status quo in higher education, leaders can help move their colleagues past it by employing a few critical steps that make continuous improvement exciting.
I’ve been asked many a time why organizations that are centered around learning and knowledge generation, have a wealth of talent across a wide range of areas, and serve an ever-changing group of people (i.e., students) are so resistant to change. After all, higher education certainly isn’t known for being nimble.

These questions have come from parents of students, corporate partners, external funders, and colleagues new to the academy. After many years of both observing and leading change initiatives on campuses, I’ve come to believe that to a large extent, it’s our very strengths—the things that most define us—that reinforce the status quo.

Reasoned inquiry sits at the core of higher education. Academics are taught to pose questions, critique existing paradigms, seek new evidence, and put forward new, carefully constructed arguments. We are deeply vested in the centrality of critical thinking, and often feel called upon to defend its value. We expect it of ourselves, and we expect it of our students. We’ve built our structure and culture around it (e.g., job talks, peer reviewed publication, tenure and promotion). We’ve created protected space to preserve it (e.g., academic freedom). It is a beautiful, powerful thing, and the academy—faculty—are the guardians of reasoned inquiry for future generations.

Though many who sit on the administrative side of higher education have come through the faculty ranks, administrative work can feel quite remote from the inquiry-informed work of our earlier years. Nowhere is this made more clear than with our model of shared governance. The daily tasks of increasing student access and success, while balancing dwindling budgets and complying with a universe of regulations, can leave us wanting simple, efficient, quick change to address challenges. Deeply steeped in the process of reasoned inquiry, faculty often take issue with this approach. When faced with change, they expect to get the same carefully constructed argument and opportunity for review as they would from any colleague. In theory, it’s this very tension that undergirds the concept of shared governance and leads to better decisions in the end. In practice, this tension can reinforce the status quo if not thoughtfully negotiated.

Though the academy remains one of the oldest institutions in modern history, the fact of the matter is that change is not only inevitable, but needed, even in our hallowed halls. If we don’t proactively pursue the changes needed to better serve our students and communities, change may be forced upon us. And this is where I suspect administrators and faculty alike can quickly agree—we academics don’t take kindly to being told what to do.

So how can creative leaders in higher education introduce and gain support for change? Being the academic I am, I am quick to point out that other academics have studied the phenomena of leadership and change management, and I highly recommend visiting those literatures.

What I share with you here are three concepts that summarize the factors I’ve seen play out in the successful (and unsuccessful) implementation of change initiatives across a wide variety of circumstances.

  1. Be Clear

Have a clear vision and detailed plan for achieving your vision. Make meaning of the change you propose. What is the challenge or problem that is fueling the need for change? What do you want to do and what are the desired outcomes? How will this help the institution? My experience is that in the absence of information, we tend to draw our own conclusions (and often assume the worst). Be as thorough as you can and be prepared to answer questions. Anticipate that your idea will be fact-checked and put to the test.

I’ve seen several proposed changes fail after faculty consulted the literature only to find minimal support for the effectiveness of the proposed approach. Know of what you speak before you put a stake in the ground.

  1. Be Collaborative

Identify the individuals who can help you articulate your case and gain support for change. Include both individuals who have conceptual expertise and those who can comment on practical issues and feasibility. Are there individuals who have been lobbying for change and are natural partners? Just as important, who is most likely to be resistant to change?

Many of us try to minimize meetings, but sometimes there is no substitute for getting folks in a room so that together you can connect the dots. The academy is remarkably siloed; make sure your proposed change won’t be working at cross-purposes with other initiatives on campus.

  1. Be Considerate

Clarity and collaboration are themselves part of the culture of reasoned inquiry, and are critical. In this culture, however, there’s one ingredient to successful change that I have often seen overlooked: remembering to treat people like people. In an environment where intellect is the core currency, we can quickly forget that, at the end of the day, we’re all human. Change tends to evoke a variety of feelings—fear, anxiety, confusion, exhaustion—all of which are enemies of change.

Go back to the fundamentals of good relationships—be an active listener; ask, don’t assume; be honest; invest time in one-on-one conversations; know when you’re reaching your frustration point (or someone else is) and give yourself (or them) some space. Don’t interpret rigorous questioning of your idea as a personal attack; instead, expect that passion combined with inquiry may result in challenging conversations. I’ve been known to say that working in higher education sometimes feels like living in a Jackson Pollock painting. Education as a field is susceptible to trends, and the “throw it and see if it sticks” approach can be incredibly frustrating. Be judicious with change. Every person, and system, reaches a point of saturation. If you’re asking people to weather a storm, provide some anchor points, whether they be core principles, clear timelines, and/or quantifiable benchmarks. Treating people with consideration goes a long way to building trust and respect. When people trust and respect you, they’ll give you grace when plans go askew (and in our complex institutions, even the best of plans do).

Make no mistake, though: Being considerate doesn’t imply that you shouldn’t also be firm and clear in your convictions. Especially when the need for change is driven by moral imperative, as exemplified by the #MeToo movement and revelations of widespread abuse of women in some institutions, a delicate balance of both is needed.

Keep Your Chin Up

Affecting change is rarely easy, and in the case of higher education, the strengths that we hold dear create some unique challenges to affecting change in our institutions. It may sound corny, but on days where I find myself particularly perplexed, there’s nothing better than walking through campus. It’s good to remember why it is that we’re here, and it’s good to remember that we all have that in common.

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