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What Does Change Management Really Look Like in Higher Ed?

What Does Change Management Really Look Like in Higher Ed?

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a movement in higher education to do a better job supporting student success and graduating students across the socioeconomic spectrum - particularly low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. Here at the UIA we’ve been leading that effort, but change is difficult, especially at large institutions. So, along the way, we’ve picked up an array of insights about what makes change possible in the higher ed environment.

To round out our recommendations, we talked to our UIA fellows, fifteen emerging higher education professionals embedded in the eleven large U.S. universities that comprise the UIA. We asked them what advice they have for their colleagues trying to introduce change on their campuses. Here’s what they said.

Small change adds up. We think of organizational change as really big, but it doesn’t have to be. Cumulative small wins make a difference. Pennies add up to dollars. Focus on what you can truly influence. Maybe you use process mapping to reduce the absurd number of emails incoming freshmen receive prior to orientation. Maybe you can pull some data to show that the holds from parking tickets and library books aren’t worth barring students from registration. Managing change doesn’t have to mean turning the university upside-down: it just means identifying a meaningful goal and working with campus stakeholders to make it happen.

It’s about building the muscles. By exploring new ideas regularly and by accumulating those small wins, you can cultivate a greater and ongoing openness to innovation and change. Build your institution’s change muscles over time and you’ll be better prepared to navigate large-scale change opportunities when they arise. Your institution will not only be a little more comfortable with ambiguity and exploration, you’ll also have shown your colleagues that you’ll be there to help them engage and adapt to shifts. In other words, change itself should be a competency that your institution builds over time.

Be a bridge builder. At the UIA, our fellows use relationship building as a key way to navigate their limited formal authority on campus. They work closely with senior leaders, but they also work closely with front-line advisors, financial aid staff, and student success teams. This means that when faculty and staff are concerned or unclear about institutional changes, the fellows can play an intermediary role to help make sure all their questions get answered. At the same time, when they meet with leadership about change initiatives, our fellows can articulate what they’re hearing from faculty and staff and make recommendations for how to improve communication and buy-in across campus. That has a lot of value for campus leaders. So instead of seeing a role of limited formal authority as a barrier to change, see it as an opportunity to engage as a critical facilitator. The ability to interface with a wide array of stakeholders means that everyone gets heard and there’s more trust to go around.

Change to what end? Make sure the purpose of your change is clear. Too many change efforts don’t include a clear vision for what success looks like, and it’s hard to bring people on board when they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Leaders need a clear value proposition around the purpose and end goal of a new strategy, policy, or tool. If leaders can articulate that purpose clearly, along with how they’ll measure success, it makes it easier for others to serve as ambassadors for the effort as well. Make sure everyone’s on the same page about where they’re going and why.

Money isn’t your only resource. Again, if you’re trying to advance student success and move the needle on equity at your institution, you don’t need to be a senior leader or have abundant resources and political capital to do that. UIA fellows have found a myriad of ways to tap into other non-monetary assets, like working with faculty members with relevant research skills. Would a landscape analysis that informs the design of the change initiative be helpful? See if capable faculty members would be willing to lend their expertise. UIA fellows have also found a lot of value in involving students. In some cases, students themselves can be the most effective advocates for making a change. Hearing their stories can also help overburdened staff members connect with the “why” behind something new or different.
Celebrate your change agents. We all give faculty and staff awards, sure. But how do you incentivize and recognize those who go above and beyond their roles to introduce positive change on campus? Some of our institutions provide small grants or stipends to support grassroots innovation among faculty or staff. Recognition doesn’t have to be financial. Public recognition, an afternoon off, VIP parking for a week, or even a really sincere “thanks” can mean a lot. What about an op ed in the campus paper about the change that was introduced and what it means to students? Find ways to acknowledge the person or people who led the change and make sure others know about their efforts.

If you’re interested in strengthening your institution’s change management muscles, here are some questions to consider:

  • How receptive is your campus culture to exploring and adopting new ideas?
  • Are you giving people space to tackle problems and pursue alternative strategies?
  • Are you identifying and communicating the purpose for change and helping stakeholders understand how they fit into the big picture and end goal?
  • How are you building your change team? 
  • Who’s on it? If you can’t designate formal change management roles, who will facilitate the change process?
  • At the leadership level, do you have a champion for your change effort? 
  • Do they have the influence and leverage necessary to see the process through?
  • How are you engaging stakeholders in the change process so they can feel a sense of ownership in the change process?
  • How are you celebrating your change agents? 
  • Are you acknowledging how significant even the small changes they usher in are, and the accumulated effect?

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