Five Ways Campus Communities Can Embrace Bold Change

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Dr. Marylouise Fennell

Dr. Scott D. Miller
Virginia Wesleyan University

In recent years, the traditional landscape of higher education has been repeatedly disrupted by one serious difficulty after another.

From the logistical and financial complications of safely delivering a high-quality education during the COVID–19 pandemic to fluctuating enrollment trends across many fields of study, institutions of higher education are facing not just one era-defining dilemma but a confluence of intersecting challenges.

Developing solutions for these problems will require adopting new strategies and behaviors at every level of the educational experience and reconsidering all aspects of how a meaningful education is organized, delivered, measured, and valued.

But knowing that changes are necessary and having a successful system for implementing these changes at the practical hands-on level are two very different standpoints.

Failing to achieve buy-in from critically important stakeholders in the process can lead to unnecessary slowdowns, prolonged debates, imprecise strategies, and ultimately failed attempts to achieve real change.

When that happens, institutions can become reluctant to even attempt changes in the future, instead falling back on the timeworn explanation of “we tried something like that once, but it didn’t work.” What’s usually left out of such discussions are the reasons why a change strategy didn’t work, and a comparison to the cases when it did.

Here are several ways higher education institutions can avoid similar roadblocks when implementing bold visions for change — the kind that don’t just sound optimistic, but which work at the day-to-day, year-after-year level.

Acknowledge that there isn’t just one answer

Often, decision-makers search for a “magic wand” solution: a single action with the power to solve a complex problem without creating additional complications. But the challenges higher education currently faces are not simple problems with one-size-fits-all solutions. Be proactive about explaining the nature of these challenges to your campus community, the reasons why a change is necessary, and the possibility that multiple approaches may need to be tried and measured to find the right fit for your particular situation. By setting everyone’s expectations clearly from the outset, you can more easily cultivate a culture that is receptive to implementing and adapting to change over time.

Involve participants from all affected departments in the change planning process

From administrators and faculty to students, staff, and alumni, we all have a stake in shaping the future of higher education. But top-down decisions that leave out key stakeholders can create rifts among constituencies who would normally work well together if given the opportunity to collaborate in advance. Be sure that representatives from each demographic within your campus community who will be affected by major changes are actively involved in the planning and implementation process.

Encourage and support innovative ideas regardless of where they originate

Believing that a bold vision or an innovative idea can only come from the top levels of an organization is a sign that an organization is more concerned about hierarchy than it is about success. Sometimes the best ideas come from the least expected sources, such as a person from a completely different department than the one facing the challenge, because they can see the problem with a fresh perspective. The truth is that good ideas can come from anywhere, but they all have one thing in common: they need nurturing, support, and appreciation in order to succeed.

Celebrate all wins, big and small

If your goal is to increase overall enrollment by 10% over a five-year period, don’t wait five years to celebrate all the small steps along the way. Instead, point out when even a minor goal or benchmark has been reached, and publicly acknowledge the efforts of the teams or individuals who have helped make it happen. As marathon runners know, every cheer they hear along the way helps give them the momentum they need to successfully cross the finish line.

Change is easier when it’s embraced, not feared

Adopting a new way of doing things can be stressful, even under the best circumstances. In organizations where change typically means “new headaches,” that stress can be exponentially magnified. This can make people extremely resistant to incorporating new ideas and behaviors, and in some cases can even motivate them to prove that the changes “can’t work” and should be abandoned altogether. To be fair, this does not mean that legitimate concerns about the potential complications of any change should be ignored. Addressing these concerns respectfully and in good faith is part of a responsible strategy and can help institutions avoid attempting to implement flawed plans whose shortcomings could have been avoided with broader inclusion and evaluation during the planning stages. But at the same time, “change” should not be synonymous with “worry.” For a bold vision to take root and lead to lasting changes across higher education, those affected must see that change not as a burden, but as an opportunity to achieve even greater outcomes.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan University, Virginia Beach, VA. Previously, he was President of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. He is Chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Hyatt Fennell, a higher education search firm.

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