Change in higher education is hard, but not impossible

Transformational change requires something closer to the culture of a start-up, which pilots and tests new ideas, takes risks and prizes creative disruption, writes Brian Rosenberg

Brian Rosenberg's avatar
Macalester College
10 Jun 2024
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image credit: iStock/JackF.

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Since publishing a book about higher education’s entrenched resistance to change, I have repeatedly been asked one version or another of the same set of questions: how can institutions that have been around for decades or even centuries change in meaningful ways from within? Short of starting a new university, are there ways of bringing about transformational change? Is it possible for colleges and universities facing existential pressures to move rapidly and adroitly enough to save themselves?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and the work of bringing about necessary change will be hard. Hard, however, does not mean impossible, and doing hard things should be something that those truly committed to the value and power of education should embrace.

After working for several years with the African Leadership University, which is less than a decade old, and speaking with faculty, administrators and trustees on a number of campuses in the United States, I’ve arrived at three strategies that seem to hold some promise and are certainly preferable to doing nothing, attempting to compete with online behemoths or putting off the inevitable by simply cutting programmes and positions.

Pilot and test

Transformational change requires something closer to the culture of a start-up, which pilots and tests new ideas, takes risks and prizes creative disruption, than to the cultures at most established colleges and universities, where processes move very slowly and the focus is mostly on business as usual. New ideas require space to grow, the opportunity to fail and space to grow again.

Colleges and universities, therefore, need to operate as what Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman call “ambidextrous organisations” – that is, they must “separate their new, exploratory units from their traditional, exploitative ones, allowing for different processes, structures and cultures; at the same time, they [must] maintain tight links across units at the senior executive level”.

On every campus there are people with both good ideas and an openness to change beyond the incremental. Too often, however, they run quickly into a wall of intransigence and retreat back into the safety of well-established practices. Institutional leaders should identify these people (generally they will be the ones who step forward to lead committees and task forces and to take on unenviable tasks), present them with a problem to solve and provide them with the opportunity to wrestle with that problem without fear of being quickly discouraged. Wall them off from business as usual, sometimes literally by locating them away from it, and provide them with both resources and encouragement. Nurture their best ideas and allow them to mature before being subjected to broad public scrutiny. Without this start-up culture and the opportunity to pilot and test, established practice will almost always consume innovation, even if established practice is failing. 

Connect with your local and regional community

Right now, it would be hard to tell from the programme offerings at hundreds of private and regional public institutions in the US whether they are located in central Michigan or northern California or western Massachusetts. Curricula have largely been designed by looking inward at faculty interests and outward at other colleges and universities.

Schools whose draw is predominantly local and regional (that is, most of them in the United States) could benefit by establishing much closer connections to the communities within which they are embedded. Visit business leaders, invite local politicians to speak on campus, engage with service organisations, perhaps even invite a small business owner to teach a class on entrepreneurship. What do the employers, large and small, need from the graduates of the local college? What are the most pressing needs and most vexing problems in the community, and in what ways can the college and its graduates help address those needs and solve those problems? This is happening sometimes in some places (Minnesota’s state college system works closely with the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development) but not nearly often enough and more often at two-year than at four-year institutions.

To the regions in which most of these colleges sit, comparative markers such as US news rankings are irrelevant. Focusing on the needs of the local community can and should affect programme offerings, help attract students and strengthen relationships with important parties.

Maximise experiential learning opportunities

There is considerable evidence that experiential learning, or “learning by doing”, is more effective in many settings than the classroom-based practices that dominate higher education, yet colleges and universities have been slow to incorporate this form of learning into their curricula. At many schools experiential learning activities such as internships are considered “co-curricular” and receive no academic credit.

This is a missed opportunity to improve the quality of education, prepare students for employment and slow the rate of growth of the cost of college. Outside the boundaries of every campus are practitioners who would be willing to provide students with learning opportunities for little or no cost. Faculty can invite relevant guest speakers to classes and career centres can more aggressively pursue internship possibilities. Schools that take best advantage of this asset will be able to offer distinctive and attractive programmes to students without taking on the expense of starting new academic departments or hiring large numbers of new faculty members.

Each of these strategies is to some degree difficult to implement, but not as difficult, I would suggest, as watching a college slowly (or rapidly) succumb to the steadily increasing pressure of rising costs and declining demographics.

Brian Rosenberg is a president emeritus at Macalester College and visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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