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Later this month, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education will, after numerous meetings, open hearings and draft statements, publish its final report calling for  a number of major reforms in higher education. In the report, institutions will be asked, among other recommendations, to become more accountable, to reduce their costs, to become more accessible to students from the broad of spectrum of society and to be more proactive in responding to international competition. It should be noted that some of the most severe criticisms of higher education dealing with the quality of teaching, learning and academic programs included in earlier drafts did not make it through the negotiation and revision process.

This report is the latest in a number of studies, task force reports, books and articles calling for significant change in how colleges and universities do business. Higher education has, unfortunately, had a long history of calls for significant change and of efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of what we do.

In the last  decade alone we have had reports, studies, and recommendations from the Education Commission of the States, the National Endowment from the Humanities, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the American Council on Education, the National Center for Postsecondary Education, and more recently the National Academies of Science and of Engineering, which concluded not only that major reform is needed in higher education but that the time for implementing these changes is running out if the United States is to retain its international leadership role in both higher education and innovation.

And yet, despite all the data, all the recommendations, and the many efforts to improve higher education that have been undertaken, little has changed for the better. In fact conditions may have even become worse. State and federal funding allocations have diminished or have been unable to keep up with need; the American Association for Higher Education, a major force for innovation in higher education for decades, has folded; more and more faculty are on part-time or short-term contracts; nearly 50% of students entering two-and four years institutions never earn their degrees; and higher education is no longer viewed by the majority of political leaders as a state or national priority.

In addition, need-based scholarships are being replaced by merit awards as academic leaders attempt to improve the national rankings of their institutions by improving the test scores of their entering students significantly decreasing accessibility to students from lower and middle income families. Over the same period, major initiatives designed to improve institutional quality, such as the accreditation movement for improving accountability through learning outcomes, numerous assessment initiatives, and the efforts to relate the faculty reward system more directly to teaching and learning and to institutional priorities have had only modest impact.

With this less than positive track record can we realistically expect this latest report to have any greater impact than those that preceded it?

Why institutions resist change

Significant change will never occur in any institution until the forces for change are greater in combination than the forces preserving the status quo. And in colleges and universities, the forces for resisting change are extremely powerful:

  • It is usually far easier and certainly less risky to do nothing than to attempt to change. Faculty, administrators and staff are no different than other populations and will rarely be willing to exchange what they already do, even if they are not happy with it, for the unknown which has the potential of being far worse.
  • Colleges and universities exist in a culture of competition among institutions, among programs and among faculty. As a result cooperation is often not only difficult to achieve but rarely rewarded.
  • In higher education, particularly at larger institutions, individuals are often more committed to their unit or, in the case of faculty to their discipline or department, then they are to their institution. Any shift of resources away from their own area is viewed as a loss to be avoided at all costs.
  • Tradition is an extremely powerful force both within and outside of the academy. For example, while their beliefs about their institution may be more wishful thinking or based on conditions that no longer exist, alumni can be a major force for maintaining the status quo. Just ask any president who has tried to address the overemphasis on athletics or modify the fraternity or sorority system on his or her campus.
  • Assessment and accountability are viewed by many as evils to be avoided rather than as tools for improving what they do or the quality of their institution.
  • External support for major academic innovation in colleges and universities has significantly decreased in the last decade. State and federal per capita funding has decreased, a number of major foundations have shifted their priorities away from higher education, and business and industry have changed their focus to supporting only those projects that are seen as having an immediate and positive beneficial impact on their bottom line.
  • Many individuals in leadership roles are unprepared to lead change and are not knowledgeable about the models that exist, the research on innovation and their own role in the process.
  • The reward and budget allocation systems tend to reinforce the status quo with  few, if any, rewards for taking risks. On some campuses, faculty perceive an inverse correlation between receiving the outstanding teaching award and getting tenure.
  • The search process for most leadership and faculty positions tends to place greater weight on preserving the status quo than on selecting candidates who are perceived as agents of change.
  • Academic leaders and most faculty tend to be isolated from the political leaders whose decisions impact their institution, from the communities their institution serves and from the schools that are responsible for preparing their students for higher education. As a result major issues are neither discussed or addressed, communications suffer and bad political decisions are often made.
  • Many academic leaders have personal priorities that do not mesh with the goals of these reports or with the stated priorities of their institution. The last decade has seen increased attention being paid to the often misleading national rankings, to athletics and to personal  promotion at a significant cost to their institution. Institutional “mission creep,” where an important stated goal of the college or university is moving up to the “next tier of excellence,” has become commonplace. At the same time, few campus leaders appear concerned with the growing percentage of their graduates who may leave their institutions undereducated and unprepared or about the impact this move might have on the very population the institution was established to serve. (For an excellent discussion of the problems associated with ranking and the role that institutional leaders have played in keeping crucial data away from the public see this article.)
  • Faculty unions, on those campuses where they exist, can also add additional, and often surprising, complexity to the change process. For example, on a number of campuses faculty and administrators have found that the wording of their faculty contract actually limits their ability to explore new and innovative instructional designs and formats.

Can institutions really change? Certainly. A number of colleges and universities have, under a unique combination of leadership and external pressures, undergone significant transformations. However, with few exceptions, where major innovation did occur, the institution faced the prospect either of taking direct action or of losing accreditation or of being forced to close. Innovation, in almost all of these instances, was a matter of survival.

Unfortunately, at most institutions, any attempt to implement a major academic innovation has been perceived by a majority of faculty as a temporary discomfort that will simply vanish if they stay the course and do nothing. Reinforcing this behavior pattern is the fact that there are rarely any serious consequences for behaving in this manner.

What it takes to change an institution

It is a combination of external and internal forces that are required before a majority of individuals on any campus will be willing to address many of the issues being raised in these reports. Leaders must keep in mind as they plan new initiatives that in many instances it will be individuals outside of the institution who will play a major role in developing the personal priorities of their faculty, administrators and staff, in establishing the priorities of their institution and in determining whether or not a climate of innovation can be fostered. All the elements needed to encourage significant and lasting change are not, unfortunately, under the control of the institution itself and those who lead it. 

For fundamental and lasting change in individual institutions to occur:

  • Political leaders must not only place pressure on an institution to change but they must reinforce this demand through both the statements they make and the criteria they use to allocate resources. Unless political leaders at the local, state, and national levels actively support these actions with policies and supporting dollars, few significant improvements can be anticipated. In addition, politically it may be far more effective, in the long run, to have leaders from outside rather than inside the institution raise concerns about academic quality, priorities and the effectiveness of  programs.
  • The public must also actively support addressing the problems that are identified. Keeping the public uninformed about the issues an institution faces may relieve pressure in the short run, but it is a major mistake long term. Higher education has buried its problems for too long. While there is some risk involved, educating the public about the issues facing higher education should be a priority of everyone at the institution, the local and national press, and as, noted previously, political leaders at all levels. If institutional priorities are to change significantly the public must demand it.
  • While most political and business leaders will be willing to play a major role in assisting institutions to change, they need to be invited to participate and to be involved from the beginning in any initiative. Getting the employers of students involved in a consultative role in the design of curricula can not only lead to an improved academic program but to internships for students and faculty and resources for the institution.
  • Individuals in campus leadership roles, both formal and informal, must be informed about the issues, knowledgeable about the research on teaching and learning and on the change process and be both willing and able to lead. This will require three concurrent actions. First, colleges and universities must commit increased resources to leadership training and development at all levels of the institution. Second, leadership programs and workshops, both on and off campus, must include this knowledge and skills in their curriculums. And third, the individuals themselves must keep abreast of the latest research on change, assessment, teaching and learning.
  • State and federal agencies, foundations and private donors must significantly increase their support of projects aimed at implementing major institutional change and for the professional development of academic leaders. They must also demand and support quality assessment and that each project they fund utilize the approaches that research and practice have shown to be most effective. While foundations have often placed the blame for the lack of impact of projects they have funded on the institutions, the foundations themselves have contributed to the problem by often limiting funds for evaluation and by funding projects that had, from the beginning, little chance of success.
  • Authors of reports and academic leaders must pay as much attention to the process of change that is needed after publication as to the identification of issues and the production of recommendations.
  • The reward and recognition system for faculty, staff and academic units, and the priorities of the budget and institutional development operations, must be modified so that they actively support the mission and vision of each institution and are sensitive to unit and disciplinary differences. For faculty rewards this will require an active role at the national level by the disciplinary associations. Far too often, institutions tend to increase the budgets of underperforming departs, where there are continuing problems, while at the same time providing minimum support to their most productive and creative units.
  • Teaching and learning must be a primary goal of every institution and be supported at every level and in every unit in both words and action.
  • State, regional and national accreditation agencies, while being sensitive to the differences among institutions, must continue to support and facilitate change, the clear articulation of goals and priorities and assessment and accountability.
  • The future needs of the institution, and the need for actual leadership at all levels of the institution must be given increased weight in the recruitment and selection process. Too often, the criteria used in making major appointments have little or anything to do with the knowledge and skills that individual will actually need to be effective in the position involved.
  • Every college and university must have a quality institutional research office, or on smaller campuses an IR officer, charged with providing those in leadership roles with accurate information on which decisions and actions can be based.
  • Institutional mission, vision and priorities need to be clearly stated and understood by every staff member, each faculty member and administrator, key political leaders and the public being served. The communication of these statements must be deliberate, well designed, reinforced and ongoing.
  • And finally, and certainly significant, with approximately 50% of all students entering post-secondary education without the basic skills necessary to succeed, it is imperative that every institution work directly with the K-12 programs in their area to address this issue. This interaction should have two goals. First, to inform teachers of the knowledge and skills faculty at the institution expect of students they accept to have. And second, to actively assist these schools in the design and delivery of the academic programs necessary to prepare their students for college and university work. Until the academic interface gap between high school and college is closed, few of the major academic problems faced by colleges and universities will be able to be successfully addressed.   

It should also be noted that technology can also be a major force for significant institutional change. In many instances it can have an impact far beyond what its advocates envisioned, impacting the mission, priorities and the very culture of the college or university.

Under these conditions significant institutional change is not only possible, but it is also probable. The knowledge on how to go about implementing major innovation exists. The examples and models are out there, in other institutions, in the public schools and in business and industry. While major academic innovation is never an easy process, change must become an integral part of the operating philosophy of every college and university in the country. For only then can American higher education meet the numerous challenges that it faces here at home and from competition elsewhere.

The key question is, are those in key leadership roles both, within and outside of the academy,  willing to take up the challenge, make the commitment and work together to bring  about major and lasting academic reform?

Only time will tell. For the future of the country, and each of our students, one can certainly hope so.

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