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Balancing Acting and Reacting: Agility in Today’s Higher Ed Environment

The EvoLLLution | Balancing Acting and Reacting: Agility in Today’s Higher Ed Environment
Agility is critical to today’s colleges and universities but that doesn’t mean leaders should rush to transform; measured, strategic change is the best way to achieve agility.

Across the higher education space, college and university leaders are searching for ways to make their institutions more agile. The industry and its students are changing, and it’s critical for institutions to be able to adapt and respond to these shifts. However, it’s equally important not to dive in when you don’t know how deep the water is. In this interview, Thomas Grites shares his thoughts on the importance of agility for today’s institutions and reflects on the balancing act between reacting and acting strategically.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is agility so important for colleges and universities today?

Thomas Grites (TG): The first step to talking about agility is defining it. To do this, I used my own sports background in football and in track, my athletic history. The term is often defined or at least interpreted in a way that implies a movement that is graceful, strategic and swift. Those are the kinds of things I think institutions would relate to as well when considering an agile approach.

Now why is it important? The world in general—but higher education in particular—is moving quickly and institutions need to keep up with the changes. Higher education has probably progressed more than in the last 10 years than it did in the previous hundred. With technological advances, legal considerations, the completion agenda and so forth, institutions have to be on board with the changes, but they can’t just jump on every bandwagon that comes along when it comes to adapting. They need to be strategic and they need to move swiftly and seamlessly (rather than gracefully).

If we don’t keep up the pace and use these strategies, we’re going to be left behind not just by other higher education institutions, but and by the rest of the world.

Evo: You mentioned a number of changes across the postsecondary space over the past 10 years. Does agility tend to appear as a buzzword solution to these changes, or as a genuine strategic vision for how higher education institutions should operate?

TG: The truth is somewhere in the middle. I’m seeing more of a knee-jerk response first, then followed by a deliberate and cautious one. People often rush to judgment about strategies that they might assume are going to transform their institution because they saw it happening someplace else. They think, “Let’s try that because it worked there!”

It started out that way when all the pressures from the completion agenda first hit higher education. Over time, we have become more strategic in identifying approaches that might improve agility and move more students toward completion, whether that be more online offerings to generate more course enrollments or more grant opportunities so that students can try to increase some of their academic support, as well as the introduction of other student services. There was an initial knee-jerk response but now it’s becoming a little bit more seamless, strategic and deliberate. MOOCs, for example, came upon us very quickly so people started looking at that as a way to increase enrollments and try to figure out how to give credit. Badging has followed the same path. These things come up very quickly and people need to be aware of them and see them as opportunities and use them strategically—if at all—in their plans for improvement.

Evo: What are a few of the most significant barriers standing in the way of agility-focused changes?

TG: Traditions, first and foremost. Most institutions have to move through a process and sometimes changes are not understood clearly—and sometimes resisted—because of certain kinds of traditions.

Laws also play a role. We’re bound in the public sector by state laws, federal laws and then by our own institutional policies and procedures and traditions. We don’t have control over the laws but I’m seeing more and more state legislatures look at approaches that have worked in different places and say, “That looks like a good idea let’s try it here.” Then, all of a sudden, wind up saddled with an idea that hasn’t been tested under our conditions. Sometimes we get delayed and sidetracked in other approaches we’re trying.

The last thing—and this is not going to apply to every institution but I do see it happening in my own—is that collective bargaining agreements in unionized institutions can sometimes cause a barrier. This is not to say that they are bad, but the process becomes broader and more diversified and can cause a barrier to the effort to move quickly, with agility. This process can be an asset in the long run but can be a barrier to the initial efforts.

Evo: How important is it to get buy-in from across the entire institution when making significant changes that could significantly improve institutional agility?

TG: It’s critical to gain buy-in from all affected parties before implementing a change. You can’t have parts of the institution working against each other intentionally or knowingly. Fortunately for us at my institution, it’s almost been a part of the culture for a long time.

I speak to colleagues at other institutions and when discussing a project or change we have ongoing they will reply, “Well that will never happen on our campus.” It’s just so natural at my institution but I see value in it. You’ve got to have buy-in from everybody because the decision can be made or reversed based on a single piece of feedback.

I’ll give you an example of what happens without full consultation. We made some changes to the academic calendar a year or so ago at the direction of the president and provost and we really didn’t include anybody from the student affairs area. All of a sudden I got a call that said, “Am I reading this calendar right for next year? Is student housing going to be open a week longer? That’s going to cost us more money and we’re going to have to feed the students.” I thought to myself, “Why didn’t we have them in on these conversations on building the calendar?” We were thinking in the silo of academics but didn’t consider the wider impact. Here was going to be a situation that we already had in place and another unit is going to have to spend a lot of money because of a decision we made.

An occurrence like this is rare but those things happen. The collaboration, cooperation and sharing of information and proposals is so critical, as is keeping other people from across the institution informed.

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