Negotiating Change on Campus
From the February 2001 AAHE Bulletin
For each of the last five years, campus teams have traveled to the Rockies to spend five days at the AAHE Summer Academy. Although from a wide range of institutions, these teams convene with a shared objective: to explore and refine their vision of how to bring about meaningful improvements in student learning.
The changes the participants pursue go far beyond tweaking an existing program. Enhancing student learning requires challenging struggles with curriculum implementation, organizational structure, and university systems. The action strategies that teams develop during their intensive summer work sessions reflect their experience and the understanding that the change process is frequently difficult, fraught with resistance, and yet, ultimately, well worth the effort.
This article looks at the methods two veteran Academy team leaders use to overcome impediments to their change initiatives in four general areas: communication; leadership; policies, procedures, and processes; and resource strategies. Bob Hampton, associate provost for academic affairs and dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, has led five Summer Academy teams. Mary Cullinan, dean of the College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences at California State University, Stanislaus, has participated in four Summer Academy teams and led two.
For example, at the University of Maryland, Hampton offers periodic open campus information sessions where the ideas and successes of the pilot program can be showcased and where feedback from individuals and coalitions across the university can be shared. At Cal State University, Stanislaus, Mary Cullinan’s teams have held open forums on campus, distributed documents to the campus community, set up a website, and sponsored workshops for faculty involved at the ground-level development phase of the change effort. Both of these initiatives aim to broaden understanding and acceptance of the project’s goals and objectives.
The Summer Academy provides a launch for some of these leadership strategies. For example, Hampton attributes some of his success to what he calls the "van experiences." Hampton describes that traveling the long distances from the airport to the Summer Academy location provides the opportunity for him to acculturate his captive audience in the van with his vision for change. The drive time also provides the campus team with an uninterrupted opportunity to prepare for the experience and, perhaps, to start to build the community of ideas and relationships that will sustain them over the change process.
Cullinan echoes Hampton’s enthusiasm for the Summer Academy opportunity. She explains that as dean she can offer support, recognition, and rewards for those who have agreed to participate in the change process. As such, it is crucial that she join with the team in both planning and executing each year’s major initiatives.
Both Hampton and Cullinan describe their leadership efforts as more evolutionary than revolutionary. Hampton believes that a stealth approach is the appropriate model for introducing change. He says that it’s important to align your team’s project with other university objectives and to be patient with incremental adjustments to the institution’s strategic direction.
Cullinan concurs that, in her environment, "revolutionary wouldn’t fly." It helps, she says, to move slowly and give people a lot of warning and a lot of support.
Cullinan’s campus teams have planned and executed a range of projects at the Summer Academy. Success has bred success. At Cal State Stanislaus they can now rely on past achievements to guide new initiatives. What has been critical to acceptance of project implementation over the last four years, Cullinan reports, is to simultaneously maintain the best elements of the status quo. As such, keeping the initiative small at first creates minimal upset and buys time for Cullinan and her team to demonstrate the benefits of the new initiative to concerned parties.
Policies, Procedures, and Processes
One of the strategies that has been successful at both the University of Maryland and Cal State Stanislaus has been constant attention to selecting and fostering the development of the membership of the campus team. Cullinan and Hampton recommend the following
Both Hampton and Cullinan report that these guidelines and their success at fielding teams have evolved with experience at the Summer Academy. Early on, Cullinan says, her team was composed of a preponderance of administrative members. Broader outreach efforts have netted subsequent teams that have been able to provide the perspective to anticipate challenges from the wider campus community.
Hampton explains that recruitment tests one’s salesmanship. To get the right combination, he has relied on his ability to adapt his pitch to appeal to the particular interests and talents of each team member he recruits.
From all reports, team membership really is the linchpin to project success. For example, although he asks for a limited commitment to only the five-day-long Academy, Hampton often sees ongoing contact between the team members throughout the academic year. He emphasizes that if team members hold decision-making roles on campus, it raises the likelihood that the campus team’s culture (such as changes in language) will be integrated across the institution. In addition, dyads and triads may then be created to collaborate on other projects or subcommittees during the implementation phase.
At Cal State Stanislaus, Cullinan’s initiatives require ongoing engagement with the implementation of a fully developed plan and detailed month-by-month project timeline. Back on campus, her teams are in constant communication, often by email, with respect to issue preparation, political strategizing, and information exchange and support when inevitable turf concerns are raised.
Changes to established organizational structures and procedures are also proposed, including developing cross-academic-unit work groups; incorporating students in project teams; and actively involving faculty in design, planning, and implementation. Summer Academy participants recognize that resistance to change is natural, and develop plans that reflect sensitivity to the process of change. Many campus teams plan to make participation in the change initiatives that they bring back to campus voluntary (at least initially), and to phase in their initiatives gradually. In addition, many teams report that linking their initiatives to institutional goals and articulating the benefit to the institution as well as for the individual increases the possibility for acceptance.
Policy changes are very difficult, although perhaps not as problematic as many teams consider. Hampton believes that policies themselves are not necessarily the problem. It is, he claims, operationalization of the policy where many problems occur. Both Hampton and Cullinan have had greater success working around the fringes of policy through innovative approaches to reward, recognition, and resource allocation.
Cullinan stresses the importance of the political work with regard to resources — by explaining budget constraints and finding incentives to legitimize changes (e.g., funding to backfill a faculty member who has been pulled into an interdisciplinary course or program). Cullinan is also very sensitive to the turf issues inherent to new initiatives. This requires, she says, thoughtful strategies on how to mitigate fears about the impact on long-standing programs and constant communication to address the "What’s in it for me?" question.
It is also important to recognize that change projects do require extra work. Cullinan recognizes and supports involvement in Cal State Stanislaus’ innovations through methods such as stipends and letters of support in tenure files.
Both Hampton and Cullinan stress the importance of constant environmental scanning — knowing when it’s the right time to press forward and when it’s appropriate to put progress on hold briefly until the culture is more receptive and ready. And both believe the journey gets easier. Academy-enabled teams, they say, give them ballast. Many campus teams move from the concrete and successful experience of the Summer Academy to broaden their sphere of influence, to realize that significant change is possible, and to make constant progress toward a goal of improved undergraduate education.
In his article "Organizing for Learning" (AAHE Bulletin, December 1997), Peter Ewell cautions that typical change initiatives in higher education can be described as where "each effort thus tends to become a train on its own track" rather than cutting across or assimilating into the overall campus culture and structure. "New initiatives aren’t usually launched with much awareness of what we know about how complex organizations actually change and how they can be best induced to do so." The Summer Academy aims to expose teams to a systemic view of organization change — a view that negotiates, manages, and plans for the effective integration of the new initiatives into the greater institutional whole.
It is clear through the case examples that the campus teams and team leaders we describe are aware of the necessity to plan for and integrate their projects into the broader institutional culture, mission, and goals. Without this link, the initiatives are likely to remain an interesting idea or experiment with limited future potential and institutional influence.
Susan West Engelkemeyer is director of the AAHE Summer Academy, and an associate professor of management at Babson College.
Elaine Landry is an assistant professor of management at Babson College and a faculty associate of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.
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