Change leadership: Why does higher ed need it?

Change Leadership

It’s just human nature: we crave stability. From a psychological perspective, we’re all resistant to change—even when we know that the change will bring about favorable results. For colleges and universities, it’s certainly no different; higher education institutions have a tendency to resist change.

And there’s a good reason for that. Colleges and universities are built on tradition, and represent some our most revered values. That kind of historical veneration is a key component to the collegiate experience (and, not coincidentally, also a pivotal talking point for some institutions, whose marketing departments prominently tout the year the institution was founded), and no one wants to rock the boat at a school with storied traditions and a solid reputation.

As those who work in higher ed will readily attest, change occurs slowly at institutions for other reasons as well: the loosely coupled structure of institutions with multiple stakeholders and seats of power, large representative committees, fear of punitive action from state legislatures (for public institutions), or myriad other factors. Higher education institutions are not like corporations—there is no all-powerful CEO who can push for change quickly, at his or her discretion, and demand that others fall in line.

Yet even though institutions may be slow to enact change because of culture and tradition, one thing is abundantly clear—in one form or another, all institutions must tackle change, and in the near future, those that fail to adapt will quickly lose ground.

What is change leadership—and why do institutions need it?

First, it’s crucial to define a couple of terms.

What we mean by “change” is more of a continual process. Sometimes, especially in higher education, there’s a mindset that “change” means abruptly shifting course and doing something differently. That’s not the case here, and certainly not conducive to the successful operation of a college or university. Change—whether planned or not—is a constant. What we’re talking about here is a process by which a college or university can navigate change and find stability—not just now, but for every bump, hurdle, and hiccup in the future. And the tool we use to facilitate that is called change leadership.

What is change leadership? It’s important to note what it is not. Change leadership is not the same thing as “change management.” The latter is more akin to a method for keeping the status quo in the face of some kind of challenge. But change leadership is a more proactive approach, a kind of growth-oriented mindset. It’s a way of thinking that empowers individuals and institutions to tackle changes, make the most of them, and create advantages from them.

Today’s higher education institutions can benefit immensely from change leadership—especially now that higher education is at a critical inflection point in history, primarily due to eight factors.

The eight drivers of change

Broadly speaking, there are eight cultural, demographic, economic, and historical movements converging to force change upon higher education institutions.
Adrianna Kezar discusses these eight reasons for change in How Colleges Change: Understanding, Leading, and Enacting Change.

Not all institutions will face these challenges at the same time. But the message is clear—change is coming to higher education, and these are the primary drivers behind it:

  1. Connection to the global economy
    Today, higher education is more relevant for skilled jobs in the knowledge economy, and around 65 percent of the job openings in the next 10 years will require post-secondary education. That means institutions must anticipate a shortfall of college graduates needed for the workforce, and higher education will come under considerable pressure to provide up to 300,000 college graduates each year to meet this demand.
  2. Growing public accountability
    You’ve no doubt heard this question many times already: “Is college really worth it?” Higher education is under increased scrutiny from federal and state agencies to demonstrate greater accountability and transparency—and, in essence, to “prove” that the service the institution provides is truly of value to the student (and taxpayers.) With this increased scrutiny, more agencies and organizations seek to shape the purpose and direction of higher education. And with the looming specter of substantial student debt, more parents, students, and others are beginning to question whether there’s any value in paying so much for an education.
  3. Increasingly diverse students
    There are more college students today than at any point in history, all coming from varied backgrounds with different needs and expectations. Add into that equation a significant number of “non-traditional” students, or students with families who work multiple jobs. There’s also some concern about these students being academically prepared—Complete College America states that 57 percent of students entering community college in the US require remediation in core classes such as math, English, and writing.
  4. More corporatized environment
    In the past, a college or university president was most likely a former professor who worked her way up the ranks, and had most likely been in academia her entire professional life. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. A growing number of college and university presidents are coming from outside of academia, from the business or tech sectors, and have never been faculty. Twenty percent of college presidents in the United States now come from fields outside academia, a sharp increase from 13 percent just six years ago, according to a new national survey by the American Council on Education. Nearly a third have never been professors. These leaders bring a strong business-sense to the job, and fully expect the institution to be operated like a business. That means increased emphasis on outcomes, profitability, and rapid response to market pressures.
  5. Competition and the rise of for-profit education
    Traditional higher education institutions are facing more intense competition for student enrollment. Today’s students are more aware of their options and which institutions will or will not meet their needs. But perhaps more importantly, for-profit schools are having the most profound impact on traditional higher ed. For-profit institutions now serve 13 percent of all students, the same number as not-for-profit private institutions.
  6. New understanding about learning
    New ideas about and approaches to pedagogy represent the most significant paradigm shift for higher education. These changes can fundamentally alter how an institution fulfills its mission, with more emphasis on active, engaged learning, and the “flipped classroom” model. And that’s because the students themselves are changing, and they demand institutions adapt to their style of learning. There will always be a place for the traditional lecture hall, but today’s college students may learn as much in an online course as in an in-person course. It’s now estimated that over one-third of higher education students are taking at least one online course, and that number is still rising. Further, some 88 percent of students say they learn better when technology is incorporated into the class.
  7. Internationalization of campuses
    Institutions—and students—are increasingly seeking collaborators around the globe. That means students may be taking courses from institutions in multiple countries, and, conversely, institutions must grapple with the pedagogical implications and challenges of educations students from different cultures and nationalities.
  8. Innovative technology
    Technology is the linchpin for the seven drivers of change already outlined above. Innovative technological tools to help colleges and universities run more efficiently and educate students more effectively will have a tremendous impact on higher education. Robust technology geared for higher ed can help institutions engage its students more deeply, track and analyze information to enable data-driven decisions, foster collaboration, and communicate meaningfully with faculty, staff, prospective students, and alumni.

What does it mean for higher education?

For higher education leaders, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best is not enough, and furthermore, it’s not even a strategy. The aforementioned drivers of change will most certainly impact every institution at some level. Change leadership will allow institutions to not only roll with the punches, but also find new and exciting ways to be more efficient, collaborative, transparent, and, most importantly, help students succeed.

As an important first-step in change leadership, higher education leaders should adopt a mindset that anticipates change: it’s inevitable, it’s coming, it may be disruptive, but there may be opportunities to thrive. Of course, it isn’t ideal for just the college president to adopt a change leadership mindset. Rather, change leadership should be baked into every strategic plan at the institution, at every level.

If institutions alter their thinking along these lines, then they stand a greater chance of successfully steering through potentially rough waters—and finding that the waves can yield some spectacular opportunities.

This is the first blog of a four-part series. Part two will introduce different models of change leadership and their pros and cons. 

Meet the authors
Tim Coley
Tim Coley
Senior Strategic Consultant, Ellucian

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