In Defense of Incrementalism

Higher ed needs to change – but if college leaders value “nimbleness” over thoughtful deliberation, they will not serve their institutions well, writes Terry Brown.

December 18, 2012

“We don’t do nimble.” 
--A college administrator on change in higher education

In “Lincoln at the Movies,” Louis P. Masur argues that Spielberg’s film about Lincoln reiterates “a faith in slow, deliberate, incremental transformation, in proceeding on an issue only when time is right, and then pouncing.”  Masur’s excellent analysis of Lincoln’s thoughtful but tactical approach to change has relevance not just for today’s political leaders, as Masur argues, but perhaps more urgently for today’s campus leaders, for whom the imperative to change has never been more urgent, or widely shared. 

Consider the results of a recent national poll where 83 percent said American higher education "needs to change to remain competitive," or Vartan Gregorian’s call for a president’s commission on higher education. There is widespread recognition of the unprecedented and inexorable drivers of change -- demographic, social, technological, and economic. Few people on or off a campus would defend the status quo in American higher education today, as it does not appear to be serving anyone very well.   

Since 2005, I have served as a dean and provost at two regional campuses in the University of Wisconsin System, a time of extraordinary change, disruption, even upheaval, where political leadership has been a significant driver of change, not just in how we fund public colleges and universities but in how we deliver college degrees.  These have been tumultuous years for higher education in the state of Wisconsin, with 2011 our annus horribilis, beginning with UW Madison’s move for independence and ending with the UW system intact but redesigned to allow more independence for, and increased competition among, campuses within the system.

Through these difficult years, I have not heard anyone seriously defend the status quo.  For the most part, there has been consensus that institutions need to adapt to the brutal new realities.  For the most part the debates have been not about whether to change but about how to change and at what pace.

“I have been described as an incrementalist.  It is true,” University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said last June in response to concerns of the Board of Visitors that she wasn’t moving the campus to change fast enough. “Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.”  Many people have said many things about the state of American higher education in 2012, but none resonated more for me than those of President Sullivan. Her firing and reinstatement may be read as a cautionary tale for ready/fire/aim-style leaders who believe that urgency justifies acting first and thinking later. 

What are the unintended consequences of acting first and thinking later that may “lead to costs that are too high to bear”? 

For one, the sacrifice of the core values of our profession -- the academic freedom to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead and the value of shared decision-making.  Too often quick, sweeping action -- what is sometimes, benignly, called “nimbleness” -- leads us to compromise our core value of shared governance.   

I have been told that over ten years ago, as they faced the reality of what the Internet meant to the future of the news industry, the leaders of one of our national newspapers sat down and, after some discussion, identified their core value as providing objective, accurate information and analysis to citizens of a participatory democracy.  As long as the core remained unchanged, everything else was on the table.  We need to have the same conversation in higher education (a presidential commission should begin here) and on each campus:  What are our core values?  How do we adapt to the current realities without compromising those values?  I contend that thoughtful, deliberate, inclusive decision-making remains a core value. 

We hear from politicians and the public the lament, why can’t universities be more nimble, like businesses?  We must be careful in looking to business for inspiration and guidance, as theirs is an industry built on a different set of values, values that are good for business but not for educating citizens of a democracy.  We must be mindful of the alienating effect of bottom-line thinking on our faculty, staff and students. 

A faculty colleague at a university in the UK, someone who has inspired me with the example of her outstanding accomplishments as a teacher and scholar, recently admitted that, after a brilliant, 30-year career, she was feeling “miserable” about the state of higher education.  A fellow administrator on a campus in the U.S. broke down in tears over her frustration at working for “five provosts in three years.”  On too many campuses faculty and staff feel bone-deep fatigue or calloused cynicism brought on by a spaghetti-against-the wall approach to change that sends people scrambling in different directions, expending diminishing energy on counterproductive strategies without effective coordination or communication. 

It is true that we are faced with an existential choice: adapt or die. But if in adapting we lose who we are, we have not survived. I encourage campus leaders to put down their Harvard Business Review and go see Spielberg’s "Lincoln," whose example of leadership in the midst of great social turmoil has more relevance to the context of American higher education which was itself founded on “a faith in slow, deliberate, incremental transformation.”  


Terry Brown is interim senior special assistant for academic and student affairs in the University of Wisconsin System, and a former dean and provost at two campuses in the system.


Back to Top