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Balancing Culture and Strategy: Innovation at the Modern University

The EvoLLLution | Balancing Culture and Strategy: Innovation at the Modern University
Setting institutions on the pathway for long-term success in today’s postsecondary marketplace requires leaders to be innovative, but sometimes those innovative changes come head-to-head against institutional culture.

Today’s higher education environment is immensely competitive, fast-moving and scrutinized by a range of key stakeholders, including legislators and students. One of the most significant critiques facing higher education is the charge that institutions are not meeting the needs or expectations of today’s learners, both academically and bureaucratically. Though institutions nationwide are moving to become more agile and responsive to student demands, many leaders point to the challenges of trying to be innovative in historically stoic and culture-driven environments. In this interview, Richard Pattenaude discusses the importance of balancing culture and strategy when shaping higher education institutions to address the realities of the modern postsecondary marketplace.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is culture such a significant impediment to change and transformation at universities?

Richard Pattenaude (RP): History and tradition play an important role at traditional universities and, as a result, institutions are slow to change.

I worked at a research university for a number of years and found there that the faculty had a very strong voice and was less interested in some of the pedagogy and student-centered issues. There was a pressure on them to publish and that was a particularly rigid culture. I later worked in an adult-focused comprehensive university in an urban area. That culture was more open to change and faculty saw their work as having more dimensions to it. Then you take the culture I’m in now, which is a large online adult institution without tenure and we change very rapidly. We have our appropriate governance conversations but there’s a general sense that change is good for the institution and that change allows us to improve.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that there’s a single culture of higher education. There are ranges and types of cultures emerging in all institutions and there is the sense that some changes are needed at a greater pace. It will happen faster online than it will at a research university.

Evo: When it comes to pushing a change forward, one of the critiques innovators face is the belief that a change spearheaded at one type of institution would never work at another. How accurate is that critique of major changes?

RP: There’s some fairness in that. The way we work at a large online university is really hard to translate into a traditional university. What most institutions are doing is creating an entirely new entity that is more aligned with the new modalities and then attaching that to the institution.

The bottom line is that you can manage change if you are ready to manage change. It takes work, you need to engage people, you need to talk to the faculty, find the core faculty who are interested in change, and, most importantly, don’t try to change the whole place. Some schools are going to move faster than others but the person in charge—whether it’s the provost or the president—has to be ready to have meaningful, thoughtful interactions with the faculty.

Evo: For a senior leader, what is the risk of proposing and introducing changes that really fly in the face of institutional culture?

RP: There’s very high risk. The ability to introduce change depends on the level of trust that you’ve established with your organization, your transparency and your patience. It will never go as fast as the trustees or the legislature want and it shouldn’t go as slow as the faculty want. Somewhere in between is a reasonable pace of change.

Evo: What can university leaders do to mesh the institution’s strategic priorities with the institutional culture?

RP: You need to be very honest with people. I used to say to the faculty, “We have to pay attention to these budgets because no money, no mission.” What that meant was that I couldn’t ignore the legislature or the governor or other people who wanted us to be efficient and who were worried about tuition levels.

You need to express the change factors in a language that makes sense to faculty and is linked to their core values. Don’t try to change everybody. You find your change leaders, you support them, be polite and thoughtful. There’s no need to fight and you move change at a pace the organization can handle. You have to accept some limits. You can’t just come in and wipe the slate clean. Getting an organization to prepare for change takes an investment in that work.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to avoid the culture-eats-strategy situation?

RP: My dissertation advisor gave me a wonderful piece of advice—he said daily activity drives planned activity. The leader has to work in the very short term on problem solving: making sure courses are filled, hiring, all that. Mid-term they have to think about what programs are coming down the pipeline, whether the institution is hiring the right kind of faculty, and whether the institution is engaged in good planning. Longer term requires thinking about deeper change.

A university leader has to think about the nature of the institution’s culture, spend some energy trying to move that culture forward, invest in it and have an alignment between the culture, the mid-term plans and the short decisions. That alignment is very important.

This interview has been edited for length.

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