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A Practical Guide for Institutional Change

This week in “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” we’re discussing the topic of institutional change. Specifically, we’re considering key strategies that will help us make important changes at colleges and universities. As we consider the development of our own strategies, Professor Davidson encourages us to “make alliances with other change makers” and “take change personally.” Along these lines, I would like to provide a brief practical guide to how those suggestions might be carried out.

The first step in building an alliance is identifying the problem that needs to be solved. That may seem obvious, but it’s not always easy. In my experience, the tendency is for a group to take on more than it can reasonably handle. If that happens, paralysis or fatigue easily sets in, and the effort is rendered ineffectual. Those seeking change should think critically about the specific facts they find troubling so that they can speak clearly and write persuasively about changing them.

Once a problem has been identified, specific and detailed outcomes should be proposed. Let’s say the issue is salary compression, which is when colleges fail to compensate faculty members according to their qualifications and levels of experience. There are many troubling aspects of that problem, but it is important to focus on the specifics of a workable solution. For example, the most desired outcome might be compression payments, a system using salary ratios that is discussed by Elizabeth Riley and her colleagues at the University of Akron. But what would those payments look like? Where would the money come from? How would it be distributed?

Working out the details of desired outcomes in advance of strategy development is important. Considering the details of consequences helps identify the group as problem solvers, not problem makers. It also helps those in administrative positions focus on a pathway to change instead of defending the status quo. If we don’t have in mind the specific ends of our work, how can we expect others to share in our vision of those ends? And most important, understanding the specific ends of our work allows us to develop the specific means required to achieve those ends.

It is then time to develop a strategy to carry out the change. This is the point at which an alliance can experience its most significant growth. When other people see a well-defined group of individuals developing the means to march toward a laudable goal, they’re compelled to join the movement. I think the imperative to “make alliances with other change makers” makes the most sense at this stage. As the coalition grows and moves toward its goal, it may need to reach out to other organizations or individuals inclined to support its mission. As specific strategies and relationships shape the discourse moving forward, surprising friendships and unlikely partnerships might spur the group toward success.

As strategies develop and progress is made, we should remember to “take institutional change personally.” Recently on this blog, Claire Antone Payton provided an excellent example of how to make change personal in her piece about the adjunct-labor crisis. As alliances implement specific strategies, ensuring that those strategies are personalized can increase the likelihood that they succeed.

One way to do that is by starting with the people we see every day. Instead of focusing initial strategic efforts at the college or university level, we can target departments, build partnerships with tenured and tenure-track faculty members, and give the issue a recognizable name and face. If the department can be convinced that solving a particular problem is the right thing to do on principle or that the solution will contribute to a stronger campus community, the department will become part of the group for change and set an example for other departments.

Even strategic data collection can take place at the departmental level. Once departments are on board, they can determine how the designated problem is manifest in facts that affect the department as a whole. Like-minded departments can team up in order to demonstrate their findings to deans and other decision makers. Provosts and presidents will see that alliances have been made for change and that they are supported by community-based facts. 

When we build change from the ground up, its strong foundations lead to strong results. When we strategically align ourselves with other change makers, our momentum spreads out and becomes difficult to halt.

When members of a campus community understand that the institution is composed of real human beings seeking fulfilled lives, they come together for good. In the process of implementing these simple ideas, we can leave the forums of our MOOC and transform communities into movements for institutional change.

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