“Change?”: How to Drive Continuous Improvement on a University Campus
“When the winds of change blow, some build walls, others build windmills.”
– Ancient Proverb
There is a joke making the rounds of Academia recently:
Question: How many faculty members does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Change?
While the joke may strike too close to home, we believe that academics are both change averse and change agents. In fact, universities have not survived and thrived for centuries by simply being resistant to meaningful forces and change. From the earlier models of Italian and French universities, to the British and German models, and culminating in the American multiversity, higher education institutions have absorbed and filtered external forces to build the modern American university. While initially focused on teaching clergyman and tradesmen, universities adopted a more inclusive public educational mission with the Morrill Act, then partnered with government and industry to conduct research to benefit society, following Vannevar Busch’s report: “Science, the endless frontier: a report to the president.” These transformations may have seemed radical at the time, but now appear so natural that people believe that universities have always existed in their current form.
In our judgement, what is different now is that the pace of change in society has accelerated and while universities remain amongst the most successful and stable institutions, external and internal societal pressures are forcing the universities to grapple with fundamental (some may even say existential) questions at ever-increasing speeds. In surveying the national higher education landscape through our own lens of provost, president and academic leaders, we have identified the following forces that universities must confront in order to thrive in the short, medium, and long terms:
First, the financial and business models must be updated, second the mission of each university must be sharpened with a particular emphasis on students’ access and success, and last, the campus climate and processes must adapt at social media speeds. In trying to respond to these forces and others, university leadership must convince the various constituencies to engage, debate, then support the resulting efforts. A first step in this process is to convince the internal constituencies (deans, chairs, faculty, staff and students) of the “clear and present danger” character of some of the external forces. Too often the refrain of “we have been here before and we survived, let us just wait” is heard and the first step in any change discussion is to make sure that everyone understands the necessity of planning and acting now versus delaying. We believe that leaders must be both convinced of the seriousness of the situation as well as having access to accurate data that reflect the position of their own institution within the higher education landscape.
The next step is the ability to articulate the need for a thoughtful process to other constituents (governing boards, parents and community, and legislature in the case of public institutions). These groups in general are already convinced of the need to change but expect it to happen quickly with less understanding of the interconnectedness of the university processes and departments. It is incumbent upon the leadership to translate the concerns and interests of both groups into actionable processes.
Last, but not least, and with the preliminary buy-in of the various groups, a team that can conduct the necessary research on how to respond to the external and internal pressures may be formed in order to adopt best practices within the culture of a particular institution. The results of this process will then be shared with an ever-widening circle of university constituents, allowing the eventual change to become better known and accepted. There will always be those who, for one reason or another, will never engage positively with the process, but their resistance will weaken using this approach.
In our case, one example of a major change we undertook was the reduction of the required credit hours for graduation. At the University of New Mexico, the minimum number of required hours as stated in the 2013 university catalogue was 128, but no one could point to the year that requirement was established by the university. In fact, to many, it was believed that it was a state or accreditation requirement. When we began researching the subject, we also found out that the issue goes beyond a certain number of minimum requirements. According to our research (see report), students not only graduate with more credit hours than required, but the increase in the excess credit hours accelerates for programs with larger minima. In fact, students at universities requiring only 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree graduated with about 20 percent more credit hours than needed on the average, while those at universities with higher minimum requirements, graduated with around 30 percent or more extra credits. Given the national concern around timely completion and student debt, it seemed to us that reviewing the reasons for requiring 120 or any specific number of student credit hours would be a beneficial exercise.
Enter accreditation! The most common reason given for requiring a higher number of credits was the quality of the program, as indicated by professional accreditation requirements. In fact, many of us have heard the refrain: “We will lose our accreditation if we were to drop below a certain number of credit hours.” In our research however, we collected data to show that the number of required credit hours and the quality of the program (either by rankings or accreditation) are not correlated. Armed with this information, we set out to explain to our faculty that scientific justification must be given for keeping their own program requirements above the new minimum threshold of 120. The process also included conversations with the Board of Regents and others, to explain that passing a law to limit every program to 120 credits is not a good idea. At the end of the process, every single program had examined their own learning outcomes and all were able to reduce their requirements. Many were able to stay around 120 credit hours, but some had to remain in the vicinity of 130 credit hours due to legitimate external requirements (e.g., professional certification or licensure). The change helped students graduate faster with no reduction in the educational quality. This was implemented over a period of time that allowed for discussion and friendly competition between the various colleges, allowing them to share some of their best practices.
As is well known, changes to the curriculum are a third-rail of academic management as it infringes upon the most sacred responsibility of the faculty in the shared governance model. While the process was not quick, the change has taken hold and future colleagues will probably look back at the old requirements with surprise, believing that their curriculum was perfectly balanced at 120 credit hours. An important characteristic of good academic leaders is the ability to distinguish the waves from the ripples, then to guide their constituencies in riding the waves.
 G.L. Heileman, Timely Completion at the University of New Mexico: Excessive Credits and Baccalaureate Degree Program Minimums: retrieved from https://provost.unm.edu/common/documents/reports–presentations/unm-timetodegree2013.pdf
Author Perspective: Administrator