The Culture of Change

While colleges face major questions, this year's meeting of the American Council on Education suggests that tackling them is impossible without winning over campus stakeholders.

March 13, 2012

LOS ANGELES -- While the theme of this year's annual meeting of the American Council on Education is "Ahead of the Curve," college and university administrators might leave the conference with the impression that they are not changing fast enough.

In the conference's opening lecture, Arizona State University President Michael Crow talked about the "massive change" that has to come to higher education, highlighting the major shifts in production required to meet President Obama’s completion goals -- and how most of that must be accomplished by the entering class of 2016, less than four and a half years from now. Michael Mandelbaum, co-author of That Used to be Us, spoke about the critical challenges the United States faces in the global economy and higher education’s importance in addressing them. In another talk, Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, spoke about his own work and its potential to change educational delivery. Clayton M. Christensen, co-author of The Innovative University, who spoke at the conference last year, held a session on the innovations that make meeting such challenges possible.

The general takeaway: higher education needs to change, it needs to change quickly, and it needs to change in major ways. And while the threats and the potential solutions have been kicked around for years, even presidents who grasp the challenges have sometimes faced resistance when they have tried to bring changes to their campuses.

But an underlying current of this year's conference -- which brought together hundreds of top college and university administrators -- is how leaders can bring significant change to their institutions quickly while working within the context of shared governance with faculty and staff members, a feature that sets the college presidency apart from many other managerial roles that often have more authority to act unilaterally, and one that has slowed down and tripped up several leaders in the past few years.

At the University of Illinois, President Michael Hogan, who has attempted broad revisions to the system’s identity, received an effective vote of no confidence when about 130 faculty leaders and endowed professors sent a letter to the university's governing board asking for Hogan to be removed from office. Similar events occurred at the University of Northern Iowa, where faculty members passed a vote of no confidence in the university's president and provost after several academic programs were put on the chopping block.

In both cases, the presidents' responses to criticism were similar. Their institutions face so many pressures, they said, from increased competition for students to decreased state appropriations, that they must change quickly and in major ways, and the cost of delay is great. In that haste, maybe there is not room for shared governance, which in the past has proved to be a deliberative, time-consuming process. "We were getting things done so fast that I gave people the perception that I was more interested in getting things done than I was in hearing opinions," Hogan said in an interview Thursday.

So while most of the conference's major talks were about the problems and potential solutions, several breakout sessions here touched on exactly how to go about changing quickly and dramatically at institutions that often struggle to do so, as well as how to get stakeholders to buy into the need to make change.

Sessions with titles such as "Shared Governance in the New Normal" and "Understanding Culture to Leverage Change"  touched on what role various campus constituents should play in decision making and how presidents should not appear to act unilaterally. At other sessions, veteran presidents shared their own stories about enacting change, sometimes quickly, within a shared governance framework.

Elson S. Floyd, president of Washington State University, said in one session that the job of president has changed in a way that sometimes makes the formal deliberative process that defined shared governance a generation ago seem obsolete. “The pace of change is so rapid that you have to respond quickly. I don’t always have the luxury of calling up my kitchen cabinet,” he said.

But he noted that just because faculty can’t always be involved in every decision doesn’t mean that they and other stakeholders should be kept in the dark. “We’re going to have to respond much faster, but we have to balance that with the overall environment of communicating what we are doing,” he said. Floyd said he tries to release information about decisions as quickly as possible.

"The most effective presidents are the ones who widely share information," John Downey, president of Blue Ridge Community College, said in a session on shared governance.

If the pace of change precludes faculty members from being as involved in decision making as they were in the past, panelists said, presidents and other administrators should make faculty feel valued in the strategic planning process, which should then inform how the president makes day-to-day decisions.

Administrators should make sure that cuts reflect institutional priorities that were formed in a shared governance process, and planning processes should be designed to reflect the notion that cuts are likely. "You need to figure out what are your institutional priorities and reflect that in the planning and budgeting process," said Carol M. Bresnahan, vice president for academic affairs and provost at Rollins College, and a member of the shared governance panel.

While most panel speakers were administrators, session organizers did work to include some faculty voice in the conversation. In one session, Maria Maisto, an adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Commuity College and board president of the New Faculty Majority, a national group that represents adjunct and contingent faculty members, spoke about how current shared governance structures are also outdated. Many fail to adequately represent contingent and adjunct faculty, and while it is sometimes the fault of administrators, blame also often falls on other faculty members. "Tenure-track faculty have been reluctant to let part-time faculty in on governance," she said.

Several presidents stressed the importance of defining institutional objectives, values and goals before a campus enters a crisis such as the budget cuts that public institutions have faced in recent years. If administrators practice shared governance when possible, and there’s a general sense on campus that administrators are willing to listen to faculty concerns, faculty are more likely to buy in to decisions made when they cannot be consulted, said Suzanne T. Ortega, senior vice president for academic affairs for the University of North Carolina system.

Even if the outcomes are likely to be the same, simply letting faculty members know that their opinions are valued can often change the response.

While reacting to major changes is part of a president’s job, many are also being asked to implement new programs and policies at their institutions, such as curricular reform. In these instances, administrators on the ACE panels said, being a college or university president is much more about trying to win constituents over to your position than imposing ideas. “If you want to effect change, let it be someone else’s ideas,” Floyd said.

Floyd also noted that change takes time, and that a president can push new ideas, but has to give faculty members and other stakeholders time to come around to his ideas. “If we rapidly engage in change, that’s not a change that is sustainable,” he said.

That lesson is particularly important for new presidents. In a "lessons learned" session, four veteran presidents all cautioned new campus leaders on laying out an agenda too quickly after getting on campus.

Take time to get to know the institution, those who work there, and what vision they have for the institution, they said. "If you look at presidents who get in trouble, it's organ rejection," said Lawrence S. Bacow, former president of Tufts University. He noted that presidents try to implement a vision without molding it to the institution and getting faculty and others on the same page.

This might have been part of the problem at the University of Illinois. Charles Zukoski, a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at the university’s campus in Urbana-Champaign, said in an interview last week that one reason he signed the letter calling for Hogan's resignation was that the president hadn't articulated any broad vision for where the institution was heading or made his case to faculty members. He only tried to put new policies in place.

Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso, said the sense that change has to happen quickly is somewhat manufactured, and that presidents should not feel like they are too rushed to consult with others, particularly when it comes to vision. "Information technology has driven an urgency that is far excessive than it needs to be," she said.

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Kevin Kiley

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