Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.
From: Goldie Blumenstyk
Subject: ‘Consultant Fatigue’ Is Real. How Can Colleges Learn to Welcome Outside Advisers?
I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.
Consultant fatigue — and other challenges when outsiders show up on campus.
Of all the issues I expected to find when the consultants from Entangled Solutions began their two years of free “turnaround” advising at Fort Lewis College, there is one that I really underestimated: overcoming the institution’s “consultant fatigue.”
That’s my description of it. More than one professor used an even-more-colorful term — “PTSD” — to describe some folks’ wariness about investing time and trust again in outsiders parachuting in with advice.
Consultants have been an ever-growing force in higher education for the past decade. (I highlighted the phenomenon a few years ago in this piece.) But spending time at Fort Lewis, a cozy, 3,300-student public college in Durango, Colo., a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest interstate, helped me to see firsthand just how far the ramifications of the trend — good and bad — have reached.
Overcoming the bad vibes and distrust spawned by prior consultants is Challenge 1 for the San Francisco-based team from Entangled, whose work at Fort Lewis I’m following. Those vibes certainly are not unique. I can only imagine how many other colleges there are where relations between campus leaders (increasingly transient) and faculty members (often more placebound) have been scarred by bad experiences with consultants, frustrating the momentum for change at a time when it is most needed. That’s just one of the ways Entangled’s engagement at Fort Lewis may be a microcosm of the challenges facing so many other colleges today.
Since Fort Lewis was chosen last September (you can read my story on the selection here), I’ve been listening in remotely from D.C. as folks from Entangled met face to face and by teleconference with faculty members, administrators, students, and trustees.
This month I got to see the process in person. Over four days I sat in on Entangled’s listening sessions and workshops with professors and deans, followed its meetings with local business leaders, and observed its one-on-ones with the president, the provost, and the chief finance officer. I’ll be interested to see how they take the fruits of that work, which included an exercise in which teams were asked to identify the college’s strengths and another in which they wrote a headline for a future news release about the college’s achieving its goals for new programs.
I even joined a daylong bus excursion with college leaders and consultants to meet with educators and students in Navajo lands. Getting a better feel for that culture is a crucial piece of Entangled’s work: About one-third of Fort Lewis’s students are Native American, and the college sees that constituency as an important part of its future. The scenery on that trip was incredible. The stories of hope and challenge we heard from students and teachers were even more moving. I’ll go deeper on that in a future newsletter.
I also hung out in Durango after the consultants left, and talked with some college folks on my own.
It’s still early days for this engagement. Yet already I’ve seen signs that Entangled’s open approach is helping to defuse skepticism that remains from past consultants, whose ideas for helping the college rebuild its enrollment — Start a swim team! Become a STEM school! Change the name! — came and went.
“I have been through way too many rounds of consultants,” a longtime English professor, Michele Malach, told me. “This is the first time I feel like we’re working with people who listen.” She called the Entangled approach “a complete 180” from prior consultants.
To be sure, how college administrators follow through can often amplify distrust. At Fort Lewis, professors and others describe a vague process under past college leaders that left them all very confused about which ideas were eventually championed and why.
It doesn’t hurt that Entangled is working free. “Before,” said another English professor, Jennifer Gehrman, “we paid a boatload of money.”
At the same time, she and others are still a little put off by the consultant-speak — all that talk of creating “lighthouse programs” and “future state design” goals can be a little disconcerting. The professors are also eager to see how exactly the consultants will decide what new programs to propose. As Malach put it: “We need the research to tell us where to focus.”
One lesson I took from my first visit: Timing is everything. Under its new president (Tom Stritikus started 18 months ago) and an even newer provost (Cheryl Nixon started last fall), Fort Lewis had already begun to reverse its negative mojo even before the Entangled team arrived. In the fall of 2019 it began a new First Year Experience course that has energized many faculty members, and an unusual entrepreneurship program that combines a course with a contest. Winners get the opportunity to own and operate a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory franchise store. (The company is based in Durango.) The college is also developing new master’s programs in education that, smartly, will rely heavily on local school superintendents for culturally relevant expertise and teaching muscle.
Even before Stritikus arrived, the college had found a creative way to save some Spanish offerings from extinction by reimagining them as part of a new interdisciplinary program called Borders and Languages. (Here’s our story on that.) As Gehrman put it, “we are already doing cool things.”
Entangled knew some of that before it picked Fort Lewis as its test case for this project. So if things turn out well, it may be hard to say who gets what credit. But clearly, it’s easier to be offering advice to an institution that seems ready to take it.
I’ll have more to say about this engagement in next week’s newsletter. But already I’m wondering how much of this resonates with readers’ experience. How much is different? Have you seen examples of consultants who have done a good job of “getting” the campus culture before they dig in? Or maybe you’re a consultant who’s struggled with the challenge yourself? What worked for you? Let me know, and I’ll publish some of what you send in a follow-up posting.
Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at email@example.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.