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Five Central Characteristics of Agile Universities

The EvoLLLution | Five Central Characteristics of Agile Universities
Institutional agility and, in turn, growth is contingent on a number of factors including committing to an aggregated extension division.

Changing the course of a public university is a little like changing the course of a giant cruise ship in the North Sea. It’s never easy and you have to beware of hidden icebergs. State universities, in particular, have been organized for flat-bottomed stability, not agility. Many don’t want to alter their courses for a changing market, slowly or quickly.

So why is it necessary for universities to become agile? In the case of the public university, social and financial pressures are forcing administrators, faculty, and staff to consider how to teach more students with less resources, conduct more research with less external funding, and fulfill more community missions with less public and state approval for spending. Fifteen or twenty years ago, state funds paid for approximately 75 percent of students’ college education. Now those funds in most states have been cut back to less than 25 percent.

As the public becomes less interested in financing public universities, the debt has shifted to the shoulders of students in the form of higher tuition, financed by loans. Unfortunately, it seems that many students—both fresh-faced high school graduates and experienced non-traditional learners—appear to have little understanding about how higher education loans work, believing them to be scholarships or assuming the payoff to be such a far distant future that the loan amount doesn’t matter. Only 17 percent of freshman with student loans actually claim they have no debt.[1] However, it is more important than ever before for students to have a terminal degree. The complexity of the world economy and the speed of change demand adaptable, critical-thinking skills.

One way to help lower costs is to restructure universities so they can better respond to the needs of all students. Agile business methods came out of the necessities of software development that were based on methods of fast, flexible response to change, with cross-unit and self-organizing teams, and a disregard for fixed policy in favor of continuous improvement based on client/developer interaction. This, of course, is in many ways the direct opposite of the university management model, which is largely based upon tradition, mentor/apprentice relationships, clear-cut social demarcations between administrators, faculty, staff and students, and individual faculty-designed and delivered course content created without much student input.

Agile universities could produce just-in-time occupational programs, competency-based online education, engaging course materials designed with student input, rolling registrations, and adaptable course materials for different learning styles and needs.

Here are five characteristics of universities that will need changing if we want universities to become better with agile methods for course and degree production.

1. Centralized Unit for Extended Learning

Extended learning, distance learning and/or adult learning constitute the profit-generating side of most universities (public and private). Without state support, these units generate their own publicity and account for the marketability of each degree offering.

Traditionally, these units are organized in a distributed manner—under each separate college—or, when they have been centralized, in a particular school or extension unit. While unit administrators prefer the autonomy of the distributed approach, only the centralized organization has the manpower and resources to become financially successful. They also are the only unit on most campuses that are able to avoid some of the extremely elaborate processes demanded by states, federal regulations, and faculty unions.

Although programming comes from the relevant subject matter departments, agility should start in extended learning units, while at the same time consulting with the other university divisions. Whether the issue is quicker admissions and registration, cheaper tuition, different faculty pay, etc, extended education units have overcome these obstacles.

Any university looking for agility should look to centralize and boost resources in its extended learning unit, aware that the for-profit side rather than the state-supported side of the university will be the future.

2. Commitment to Faculty Equity

The lack of equitable pay, security and status between full-time and part-time faculty is not only unethical, but also incomprehensible. Full-time tenured faculty have a living wage, benefits, job security, choice of schedule, time and supports for research, chance for promotion, and other perks. Part-time faculty have piecework. While many part-time faculty hold the same credentials as their full-time colleagues, there simply aren’t enough faculty jobs defined as full-time tenure tracks.

The current system of compensation loses the full abilities of more than half of universities’ faculty who are part-time and have no control over their ever-shifting pay, schedules, lack of benefits, or workload. The consequent invisibility of half of the faculty from meetings where innovation might take place means that the university has only half as much agile input as it could have if all faculty were equal and more permanent employees. Larger classes, self-paced online learning, and the introduction of more flexible and responsive degree programs could help pay for this.

3. Integration of Student Feedback into Course Design

Most online programs have first-generation online courses modeled after traditional classroom courses. These are courses that are based on learning management software, with textbook assignments, automated multiple-choice quizzes and discussion boards designed by teaching professors. Class sizes are small due to all the writing assignments that need manual grading.

Second-generation online courses are different. These courses depend upon competency-based and problem-based learning and self-paced, individualized online modules. Stringing together segments consisting of one-minute micro-videos followed by a quiz question can build self-paced, personalized learning modules. This allows for some automated grading so larger enrollments are possible. Real-world problem solving and projects create student engagement and should require the completion of the learning modules. Additional learning occurs from peer-to-peer interactions and online, just-in-time tutoring help. Competency-based software focuses on databases of competencies unlike the older LMSs.

4. Participatory Leadership

Senior administrators in universities today have a difficult job.[2] Presidents are being asked to balance budgets that simply don’t balance without strongly protested cuts. They must have excellent speaking skills combined with sympathetic and open personalities. At the same time, they must be analytical, organized leaders with a mind for finance, projects, people and events. It doesn’t hurt, as they say, to have the energy of a two-year old and the wisdom of Yoda.

Presidents must actively believe in the strengths of their faculty, the value of the educational mission, and the importance of consultative governance. Publishing clear budgets are a start. Many university budgets are hidden or come in pieces and resemble shell games rather than priorities.

Additionally, the inherent breech between provost and CFO must be healed. These positions represent the split in values between an academic and a business model. It is up to the president to bring these two sides of the university together if substantive change is to happen.

5. Staff Motivation

Without a motivated staff, university business cannot move forward. There are many reasons why staff in university settings are unmotivated: lack of promotional possibilities in stagnant institutions, unionization to the point of overprotection so that work has no relation to pay or loss of job, non-unionization in a campus culture of fear. Staff are also often patronized by faculty, micro-managed by short-sighted managers, uneducated or uninterested in their job assignment, isolated in their unit and assigned to the same repetitive tasks. However, staff need to know one another and get used to working as a team with those in other units, and be given incentives for initiative and creativity of solutions for change to occur.

If a university is moving from manual processes to technological processes or, for example, changing from a nine-month process to a one-month process, teams will need to be built that cross all service units. A change in a registration process will affect billing, financial aid, undergraduate and graduate studies, IT, admissions, disabilities, and academic departments. Keeping up with these changes requires staff at all levels to buy into the changes on deck and to be excited about moving forward with projects focused on effectiveness, efficiency and cost reduction.


Any university that can centralize its extended or distance learning programs, provide equal conditions for faculty, enlarge its online course enrollments through the use of high-quality, self-paced modules, ensure participatory leaders and engaged staff should have a chance of calm winds and happy sailing.

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[1] DiGangi, C. “The Most Terrifying Stat About Student Loan Debt Isn’t What You Think,” Time Magazine, December 17, 2014. Accessed at

[2] S. Nelson. Leaders in the Crossroads: Success and Failure in the College Presidency (2009) and S. Trachtenberg, G. Kauvar, and E, Bogue. Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It (2013)

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