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Essay on why some colleges can't change

Failure to Change
April 3, 2012

Universities teach about the importance of societal and organizational change, but often have trouble changing themselves in any but the most superficial ways.  As a psychology professor interested in both individual and organizational modifiability, I have studied organizations, including universities, and why it is so difficult for them to change.  Meaningful organizational change requires five elements, and unless all five of them are present, the organization — whether a department, school, college, or university — remains static.

1. Ability to change. The organization needs to be able to change. This may sound like a given, but it is absent in some organizations.  For example, one summer when I was an adolescent I attended a summer session on marine biology at Nasson College in Springvale, Maine. It was a beautiful campus in a picturesque, relatively remote part of Maine. Founded in 1912 as the Nasson Institute, the college closed its doors in 1983. The personnel associated with the college — students, faculty, administrators, alumni — wanted to stay open, but by the time they aggressively sought to stay alive, it was too late — the place was on its way to the graveyard: The college no longer had the financial resources to survive.

Educational institutions may fail to change because they lack the material resources; but they also may fail to stay open because they lack the human resources. An ill-chosen president or board of trustees can send a college or university to a premature burial.  For example, in 1998 Allegheny University of the Health Sciences became the first U.S. medical school to declare bankruptcy. At the time, it had run up a huge deficit as a result of perhaps too rapid expansion.

2. Belief in the ability of the institution to change. Whether or not an institution is able to change, in order for it actually to change, its key stakeholders must believe it can. Like the “little engine that could,” it must think it can. Sometimes the key stakeholders think they are stuck, and the belief that they are stuck essentially creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Once when I was applying for an administrative position, I interviewed for a job at an institution that was not doing well financially and suffered from a structural deficit. Part of the interview involved a meeting with key members of the Board of Trustees. I spoke to them of some ideas to raise more money from alumni. The board chair blithely informed me that he thought the problem was that the alumni of the college just did not have the money and hence that I essentially would be wasting my time. He did not believe the institution could change — at least with respect to fund-raising — and he conveyed that attitude toward key personnel. I withdrew from the search.

3. Desire to change. Some institutions are able to change but, for one reason or another, the critical stakeholders don’t want it to. A college or university that views itself as highly successful in some way, curiously, may be stuck in the present or even the past because it has gotten into a cycle of reputation maintenance: it views any change as potentially able only to weaken the organization.

For example, in some universities, athletic programs have acquired a life of their own that has become largely independent of the academic mission of the university. Instead of focusing on athletics as an important form of leadership development in their students, these universities have come, in many cases, to view athletics primarily as a cash cow. Scandals result when the athletic programs become mired in various forms of corruption.  Presidents and trustees of such institutions often know that they need to change, but don’t want to for loss of the cash or fear of the wrath of alumni and various donors. For example, some universities have had serious ethical issues in their athletic program, a fact of which many top-level officials have been aware. But the universities have had their reputations to maintain; so officials were unwilling until too late to implement the reforms that were desperately needed. Some universities are so concerned with preserving their reputation that they are willing to run — only if it is running in place. They may make cosmetic changes but the institution remains fundamentally unchanged.

4. Desire to appear to change. Sometimes what halts modification of a university or one of its programs is fear of the appearance of change. Alumni as well as present personnel may have an image of a certain kind of institution and they just do not want to give up the image. Universities of very high status may be as concerned about their image as about their reality.

For example, some institutions admit at least a portion of their students solely on the basis of standardized test scores. This procedure allows in students with poor records of school achievement, no participation in meaningful extracurricular or leadership activities, demonstrated serious psychological problems, and so on. Other students whose test scores may be as little as one point lower (i.e., well within the standard error of measurement of the test) may be rejected, even though they have demonstrably better school grades, extracurricular activities, or psychological health.  But the appearance of change, more than the change itself, might disturb some people, such as professors and others who believe (usually on the basis of little or no data) that standardized test scores are strong predictors of academic success, or those who believe that setting a minimum test score provides a veneer of academic respectability.

At Oklahoma State University, we are introducing a new program for admissions, Panorama, to place new emphasis on our land-grant mission of admitting future leaders who will make the world a better place to live, measuring the creative, practical, wisdom-based, and ethical skills that standardized tests just do not cover. The goal is not to replace standardized tests, but rather to supplement them in assessing skills they do not measure.

Desire to change and desire to appear to change do not always go together. On the one hand, an institution may be willing to change but its leaders may have to hide the change so as not to offend those who are wedded to the status quo. On the other hand, an institution may go through the motions of appearing to change while its leaders make sure that nothing of any importance is altered.

5. Courage to translate ideas into action. Ultimately, meaningful organizational change requires courage because there are almost always individuals and groups with vested interests that actively and often vocally oppose change.  Members of various interest groups have worked, often for years, to maximize, to the extent possible, the fit of their interests to the way the organization functions; they may view any change as jeopardizing the fit or benefits they have worked so hard to attain.  Moreover, other institutions may be doing what your institution has been doing and it is always easier to follow the crowd than to defy it.  In the end, meaningful organizational change entails risk and requires leaders who are willing and able to persuade enough stakeholders that any threats to their interests are more than compensated for by the benefits to be obtained through meaningful and potentially beneficial change.

Change is not always for the better, of course. But a college or university that is static will inevitably fall behind more dynamic, positively changing institutions. And like any institution that fails to compete, it is on the path to stagnation or death.  A dynamic institution will change and, if the change proves to be in the wrong direction, will redirect itself until it finds a sustainable path. For example, some land-grant institutions, including Oklahoma State, that at one time moved away from their land-grant mission in pursuit of goals that were designed to enhance ratings found that they neither moved toward the fulfillment of their mission nor toward the higher ratings they sought, because they were not moving in a way that was true to themselves. Institutions can change — for the better — if they are able to change, believe they can change, want to change, are willing to appear to change, and have the courage actually to change.

 

Bio

Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education at Oklahoma State University. He is a past president of the American Psychological Association, treasurer of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and president of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

 

 

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