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Trusteeship Magazine

Toward Transformative Change: Finding a Path to Systemic Reform

By Stephen Pelletier

Major changes in society—from the global financial meltdown to demographic patterns to the emergence of a world economy—argue that higher education should embrace faster and more significant change than it currently does in order to remain competitive and relevant. Transformative change is needed.

Governing boards have a key role to play in stimulating institutions to undertake such change—and in seeing that they sustain the process.

Campuses that have engaged successfully in transformative change provide insights for other institutions seeking to reform themselves.

The old saw about change in higher education is that it comes only at a glacial pace. There is truth in that stereotype—and value as well. Higher education's inherent conservatism helps preserve traditions that constitute the pillars of the academy's overall strength. That's not to say that higher education isn't capable of change. Indeed, universities are always evolving.

Today, however, one can argue that "evolving" isn't enough. In policies, programs, and processes—to say nothing of perspective and mindset—many universities appear insufficiently prepared to respond to the profound challenges of our times. Stark economic realities, a dramatic evolution in demographics, and the emergence of the global marketplace constitute a new world order. In this context, the academy's traditional approaches to adapting—glacial-paced reform, incremental change, or tinkering around the edges of campus programs—may all constitute inadequate responses.

Profound changes in society demand profound changes in institutions. Colleges and universities, through their governing boards and top administrative leadership, must find ways to embrace change more fully, readily, and agilely than they have in the past, say leaders and policy analysts who have studied the issue. True reform is needed, they say—change that reaches deep into the heart of an institution and results in significant shifts in thinking, actions, and culture.

One can argue that there is, in fact, some urgency around the need for large-scale, big-picture, systemic, cultural, transformative change in higher education. There are practical, productive ways to make that happen—and key roles in that process for governing boards to play.

Why Change?

Many factors drive the need for transformative change in higher education, but several are particularly compelling today. Current financial models are not sustainable, say many policy and financial analysts. Our universities are not yet adequately serving students from fast-emerging demographic cohorts. For example, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's Measuring Up 2008 report, dubbed "the national report card on higher education," reports that while 59 percent of white students currently complete a bachelor's degree in six years, only 47 percent of Hispanic students, 41 percent of African Americans, and 39 percent of Native American students do so. Universities in the United States lag behind institutions abroad in preparing students in areas critical to success in the global workplace. According to a November 2008 report by the Council on Competitiveness, for example, the United States ranks 17th globally in the proportion of its college-age population that earns degrees in science and engineering, down from third several decades ago, and ranks 26th in earned mathematics degrees.

Speaking to these challenges, William (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, says that higher education's conservatism has been a strength, helping to stave off fads and to preserve "the integrity and the quality of the enterprise." Still, he argues, today's specific concerns call for more transformative change in the academy.

"The cost of education is rising at a rate that is, quite frankly, just not sustainable," Kirwan says, so colleges and universities "are just going to have to find lower-cost ways of providing high-quality education." Transformative change is needed to hardwire cost-consciousness into higher education's DNA, he says. In addition, Kirwan believes that to better serve tomorrow's college students, universities must move to "work in a more collaborative and productive way with the K-12 sector to reach out and provide educational opportunities for populations that historically have not been served well by higher education."

Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, offers an even more direct prescription. "The country and almost all states have a need for higher education to produce many more graduates than the pocketbook can afford if we don't do business differently," he says. In the main, Jones says, "that's going to mean being successful with students who have historically not been very successful in higher education." In that context, he argues, "it's almost a national imperative that higher-education institutions, individually and as a collective, find ways to be much more productive than they have been."

Change in Action

Look beyond the clichés about change in higher education and you will find universities that have capably recast themselves in significant ways. A few notable examples show that even if it's not the norm, transformative change is indeed possible.

In the early 1990s, Olivet College, a private, liberal-arts institution in Michigan, redefined its academic direction to incorporate a distinctive focus on students' developing an ethic of responsibility. Under the theme "Education for Individual and Social Responsibility," students integrate learning from both inside and outside the classroom. They are required to take a highly active role in their own education, and they are expected to develop competencies in such areas as reasoning, individual and social responsibility, and communication.

Portland State University completely redesigned its undergraduate program to offer students a cohesive program of integrated learning experiences. Among other emphases, the program stresses group collaboration, the development of problem-solving skills, and helping students apply their knowledge in real-world settings.

Charged by its board of regents to contain costs but still promote affordability, access, and quality, the University System of Maryland developed a system-wide initiative to help its universities operate more effectively and efficiently. Started in 2004—and now part of the system's culture—the program to date has saved more than $100 million, officials say.

Based in Orlando, Valencia Community College decided to make itself more collaborative and learning-centered. In a transformation that took several years, the college moved from seven discipline-specific expectations of students to four required core competencies, under the rubric of "think, value, communicate, and act." Those concepts were integrated into a new curriculum, faculty development, and student assessment. In addition, Valencia developed a comprehensive new advising system to help students navigate both the academic and social aspects of college life, develop education and career plans, and acquire study and life skills. The overall effect of these and other changes has been what a campus document called a "sea change in institutional culture."

Transformative Reform

What makes some institutions capable of large-scale, transformative change? One of the first criteria is that there has to be recognition that change is needed. Close on the heels of the first criteria comes a second—the need for courage to start down the path toward reform.

The impetus for transformative institutional change can come from within a university, but is perhaps more likely to come from outside. "Very few institutions are going to be self-starters on the change agenda," Dennis Jones believes. "In the normal course of events, it's almost inevitable that the change agenda, in some form, will be imposed externally." The current economic turmoil provides a compelling outside impetus for change, Jones notes, giving university boards and leaders the incentive to ask, "Can we do business differently?"

Another facet of transformative change is that it frequently takes a visionary, persuasive leader—often the institution's president—to drive the effort. Findings reported in a seminal publication from a national project on transformational change in higher education, conducted by the American Council on Education ("On Change V: Riding the Waves of Change, Insights from Transforming Institutions," see Resources, p. 13) underscored the importance of effective leadership in institutional transformations. That project found that successful leaders of major change were driven by principle, took a long-term view of reform, and knew how to regulate the pace of change. Moreover, they had the requisite skills to engage their campus in new ways of thinking and in different kinds of conversations, and often turned to experts off campus for ideas.

The importance of consistency in transformative leadership cannot be underestimated. Turnover in top slots is one of the most notable impediments to successful reform. "There's no substitute for leadership," Jones says, and "no substitute for leadership that sticks around long enough to implement" planned changes.

Judith A. Ramaley was president of Portland State when it embarked on the effort that resulted in a transformed University Studies general-education program. She's still an agent of change in her current role, as president of Winona State University. While Ramaley believes that transformative leadership is indeed a predicate for transformational change, she says it doesn't necessarily have to come from the president. "Leadership can come from anywhere in your network of people who care about your institution, including your trustees, who have a vision of what you could do together that no part of your institution could do separately," she says.

Ramaley acknowledges that the literature on change debates the ultimate source of the spark for reform. In her experience, though, she has found that it "usually comes from a situation, most frequently external to the institution, that is so uncomfortable that something different looks more attractive than the familiar." The American Council on Education (ACE) project found, in fact, that external pressures for a university to change actually invested institutions with a certain creative freedom and energy for reform.

Change can also be set in motion on campuses, Ramaley says, "by people who have a clear sense of what the future might be like." Paraphrasing a colleague, Ramaley says that "during a crisis, some people have the courage to push the reset button." The crisis "sets in motion a different way of thinking about the institution, how its assets are used, what its future might look like, and what its highest hopes might be," she says.

A key part of successful large-scale change comes from a willingness to go outside your comfort zone, to stop relying on traditional ways of responding to what's happening in the environment around you, Ramaley says. "I honestly don't think you can be comfortable with transformative change," she adds. "You can convince yourself of its value. You can see the real consequences in human as well as institutional terms. But transformational change is always unsettling." Change agents have to accept a certain level of discomfort, she suggests, until "you're deep enough into it to see that this is, in fact, better than what was happening before."

Some institutions have become practiced in what might be called superficial change, but that does not mean they are accomplished in making systemic changes. Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, says that in the last decade or so institutions have conducted "all sorts of small tinkering" in such areas as collaborative learning, assessment, and technology, but without "the underlying, fundamental changes" that could ensure the reform will have a deep and lasting effect.

Fundamental changes might manifest themselves, for example, in closer alignment of goals and reward systems. Too often, Kezar says, colleges that proclaim a.desire to improve undergraduate education have reward systems that "continue to focus on grant-seeking and doing research."

Jones also sees a rewards disconnect, at the policy level. "If the public-policy environment doesn't reward continuous change, then it's very unlikely to happen," he says. States are beginning to experiment in this regard, he reports, citing a program in Indiana that pays for students' course completion rather than enrollment and in proposals elsewhere that would base state allocations on students enrolled at the end, versus the beginning, of a semester.

Focus and intentionality are cited as other core characteristics of successful transformative change, or as various sages have indicated, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. One of the challenges in transformative change, Kezar observes, is that "institutions have far more options for change than they can effectively implement." The.key, she suggests, is focus: "It goes back to how you select which improvements and.innovations are going to best serve the.institution."

Transformative change comes about when institutions decide intentionally to undertake reform on a large scale, and take pains to create processes and practices that foment reform. Every institution has a strategic plan and can say that it is progressing toward well-defined goals, Kezar says. Yet in talking with campus administrators during her research studies, she regularly finds stories of failure to execute plans and achieve strategic objectives. Processes go awry for many reasons, she says, including "lack of buy-in from the bottom, turnover of leadership at the top—lots of things make a poor environment." The ACE project found that successful change efforts paid as much attention to the process of change as they did to their substance—choosing the right time to address the right topic for an institution, for example, and committing institutional resources to activities that would advance the change agenda.

Perhaps a final criterion for change is that institutions recognize that reform is not "one size fits all." Successful efforts toward transformative change typically grow organically at each college or university, reflecting that institution's distinctive culture, values, and ways of working.

The Board's Role

Governing boards have an important, perhaps crucial, role to play in helping institutions accomplish substantive, transformative change. An institution's volunteer leadership might start, Jones suggests, by asking such key questions as, "How productive are we right now?" and "Can we become more productive?"

"Boards can deal with the questions of what and whether," Jones says, and can monitor progress and hold people accountable, but shouldn't address "the question of how." Jones says, however, that boards need staff support, including key data, to be able to recognize when transformative change is needed.

Boards play a "huge role" in leading change, Kirwan agrees, and in "insisting and ensuring" that change does, in fact, occur. As an example, he cites the board of the University System of Maryland in the system's effort to improve effectiveness and efficiency. "Quite frankly," Kirwan says, "I don't think we would be nearly as successful as we have been without the role of the board taking this on as a system initiative, expecting me and the presidents [of the system's universities] working together to produce results and holding us accountable for those results."

Jones offers another insight. "The role of trustees, in many ways, is to represent the needs of students, not necessarily the needs of the institution," he says. "In the broader context of higher education and service to individuals in society," Jones suggests that trustees should ask, "How do we maximize our service?" rather than "How do we maximize our status?" In most institutions, he says, governing boards are the only entity that can play that role.

In an era of regular turnover in top administrative positions, boards can also help ensure institutional consistency. Too often, Jones observes, "presidents are hired to overcome the shortcomings of the prior one." That has the effect, he says, of putting an institution "into total fibrillation as far as consistent pursuit of an agenda." To prevent that confusion, he says, boards can play an important role in setting expectations for a new president that build strategically on the institution's recent accomplishments.

Transformative change is not easy, but it can happen in higher education. And current realities—be they economic, demographic, or geopolitical—strongly suggest that change on a substantive scale not only is needed in higher education today, but perhaps is imperative.

"I am very concerned that higher education is trying to move into the future looking at what has worked in the past," Kirwan says. Rather than emulate practices that have helped institutions advance over the past several decades, he says, "we need to be spending more time thinking about what the next decade is going to look like, both fiscally and demographically, and building strategies that will be responsive to those realities." In other words, he suggests, universities working to position themselves for the future ought to be mapping their own version of transformative change right now.

Elon University: Transformative Change in Action

Few institutions can demonstrate the longevity of ongoing, significant change that Elon University can. A private, comprehensive college in North Carolina, Elon saw its dramatic improvement during the latter decades of the 20th century documented in the 2004 book Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College's Strategic Climb to National Distinction, by the late George Keller, a respected higher-education author, scholar, and academic strategist. More recently, under the leadership of President Leo Lambert, Elon has continued to transform itself almost continuously. Among countless advances, Elon has added new schools

and programs, improved its academics, constructed buildings and purchased land to expand the campus, and raised the academic caliber of its student body.

In part, Elon's fast-track climb has been possible because the campus has inculcated something of a transformation mindset. Institutional self-confidence is one component part, Lambert says, dating back to when his presidential predecessor and the board and faculty at the time "summoned the courage to take that great leap of faith to develop a much more prestigious, academically solid, beautiful campus that would eventually gain a national reputation." The campus community embraced that ethos, which continues to define the school's culture.

Vision also plays a role. Lambert says the college defines itself by a sense that "there is a destiny out there for Elon that is not yet realized." Also part of Elon's transformative culture is the notion that change is a constant: Elon is "very change-oriented" and "a restless place," Lambert says.

And board engagement has been a vital part of Elon's metamorphosis, he adds. The board insists that the college's strategic plan be an active document: "Our board members will not tolerate wishy-washy goal statements and language. They're always asking, 'How are you going to know that you got to where you wanted to get to?'" The board and leadership hold themselves and staff accountable for execution of the institution's plans.

Lambert says the board keeps its focus—and thus Elon's as a whole—on a long-term vision, "making sure that we're accountable to our strategic plan, making sure the strategic plan is current, swinging for home runs." Importantly, too, he says, the board recognizes "in a profound way that the institution is not going to get any better than the board" and works to regenerate itself with high-quality appointments.



Extensive literature exists on change in higher education. Here is a sampling of resources tied to experts whose ideas helped inform this article.

  • "On Change," a series of papers from ACE's Project on Leadership and Institutional Transformation and the Kellogg Forum on Higher Education Transformation. See
  • "Good Policy, Good Practice: Improving Outcomes and Reducing Costs in Higher Education: A Guide for Policymakers," by Patrick M. Callan, Peter T. Ewell, Joni E. Finney, and Dennis P. Jones (November 2007). Available online at
  • For more information about the "Effectiveness and Efficiency Initiative" at the University System of Maryland, see
  • "Moving Mountains: Institutional Culture and Transformational Change," by Judith A. Ramaley. Chapter in Field Guide to Academic Leadership, edited by Robert M. Diamond (Jossey-Bass, 2002).
  • Taking the Reins: Institutional Transformation in Higher Education, by Peter D. Eckel and Adrianna J. Kezar (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003). 
  • Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College's Strategic Climb to National Distinction, by George Keller (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

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