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Changing the Lens: How Higher Ed Institutions Can Better Adapt to Shifting Market Realities

The EvoLLLution | Changing the Lens: How Higher Ed Institutions Can Better Adapt to Shifting Market Realities
In order for colleges and universities to keep up with the industry’s pace of change, it’s critical to begin thinking about the role of higher education institutions—and the work they do—differently.

Virtually all US postsecondary institutions today are grappling with profound and near unprecedented change and disruption, both of which are redefining much of the American higher education marketplace. Among the factors and conditions driving these changes are the proliferation of technology and access to more agile learning platforms, shifting demographics, price-point divergences and sensitivities, new market entrants and competitive threats. This new environment is also the result of a more discerning and increasingly sophisticated consumer base, and growing scrutiny of the relevance of today’s colleges and universities relative to tomorrow’s economy.

While institutions may experience similar symptoms and outcomes of this new environment, there is significant debate about how to best manage these changes across the higher education landscape. Anchoring one end of the spectrum is Northwestern University’s Office of Change Management, which aims to support and facilitate successful and best-practice change management strategies across the university. At the other end are the myriad small universities that have recently closed or consolidated, largely because of their inability to effectively manage change. Detroit’s Marygrove College, West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University and Grace University in Nebraska are just a few recent examples of this new reckoning. Despite these more extreme cases, we see a wide variety of approaches to managing and harnessing change across the spectrum.

The magnitude of change and disruption impacting higher education is no more dramatic than that facing the private sector in the US and around the world. Disintermediation, the merging of physical and digital technologies, and the development of more agile, scalable platforms—reduced entry barriers and smart technologies, for example—have redefined the global competitive landscape. Today, change is exponential and pervasive. But how do so many global companies—Ford, John Deere and Cargill, for example—thrive, survive and effectively manage change as they transform themselves to adapt to this new environment? Why is there no codified approach to change management in higher education? Certainly, our institutions have been around long enough to see this coming. Why do colleges and universities have such difficulty managing the changes resulting from today’s economic and competitive reality?

There are several factors inhibiting change management across higher education, including institutional design structure, the safety and comfort of orthodoxy, aversion to risk, the misalignment of institutional operating models, and the expectations of a market that demands agility and choice. I believe, however, that by recognizing a few salient conditions, colleges and universities can dramatically improve their capacity to manage and even harness the change around them.

External Orientation

Too many academic institutions remain wedded to the notion that while they may operate in a competitive economic environment, they are not of such an environment. There is a pernicious and anachronistic belief that developing an operating structure based on conventional economic forces—supply and demand, risk and reward—is inconsistent with the more noble ideals of higher education. Colleges and universities are multi-million (and sometimes billion) dollar enterprises, and despite their historic immunity, they are directly impacted by the forces of a free and competitive marketplace. We should embrace this. For most institutions, their mandate is to contribute to a broad and evolving body of knowledge via research, scholarship and creative work, while simultaneously impacting the human condition by helping to shape thoughtful and contributing global citizens who are prepared for jobs and markets that don’t yet exist. The insularity and inward orientation of many academic institutions serves only to foster the myth that colleges and universities can remain largely disconnected from the very communities they seek to impact.

Recalibrating Quality

Before Drew Foust stepped down from Harvard, she talked about the importance of creating knowledge for the sake of knowledge. While the value of the basic research that has emanated from America’s elite universities is incalculable, institutions that lack the capacity and resources for such endeavors often remain wedded to research agendas that yield inconsequential thought leadership or stakeholder significance. Creating innovative cross-disciplinary academic programs that provide transformational experiences for students is invaluable, as defined by a different but equally valid set of metrics. If faculty and leadership can coalesce around alternative notions of excellence and performance that align with their institutional capabilities and those of the market they seek to serve, I submit that they could be more efficient and drive their institutions’ reputations and competitiveness.

Culture Creation

Many academic cultures remain ossified and rooted in a higher education marketplace that no longer exists. There are tremendous opportunities to work closely with faculty to create a design structure and culture that is intentionally innovative, and focused on creating and capturing value based on the needs of students, hiring partners, and the communities we serve. Culture creation can mean recalibrating the faculty role, reimagining organizational and department structures, and adopting a fresh approach to defining and measuring success.

The real value is in thoughtfully, consciously and authentically engaging in the creation of a new and powerful institutional narrative around which the academic community can coalesce in order to manage institutional change and create a new future.


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