Why Is Change So Hard for Higher Education?

Principal Analyst

Top of Mind: Why Is Change So Hard for Higher Education?
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

I have heard this question for decades. Why can’t higher ed modernize, become more efficient, or run more like a business? Higher education requires significant change to succeed in the coming decades. However, unlike many other industries, because of its collaborative and collegial structure, significant change cannot usually be mandated. So, it is important to recognize that some of the reasons why change is so difficult in this industry are inherent to higher education’s mission and structure.

Since the mid-1980s, institutions have been challenged to simplify their antiquated, inefficient, and unresponsive practices. Why don’t they just operate “like a business”? Politicians, especially, loved this one. In my state, “Do more with less” was my governor’s unofficial motto.

And so, especially for state institutions across the country, budget cuts were made, and business executives began to become common hires as institutional executives. This trend continues across higher education. In many cases, the expected changes were unsuccessful, or at least less effective than planned. For example, budgets may have been cut, but the real effect might have been degraded support service, not improved processes and efficiency.

I am not going to debate whether higher education is, or should be, run like a business.  Though significant progress has been made, institutions need to learn to operate more efficiently, with higher customer service to students, faculty, staff, and their communities. Technology, process modernization, and solid financial and business practices have improved higher education’s ability to survive, even thrive, and better serve their communities and students, with more change to come.

However…

Higher education is unique. Higher education is slow to change. This reality increases the importance for institutions to continually transform themselves without losing the very essence of what makes them such a critical part of our society.

Why is higher education unique? There are many reasons—and these are some of the factors that also make change so difficult in the industry.

  • Breadth of function. Universities are like small cities, and the systems, processes, and policies that govern them need to be capable of managing the finances and activities of dormitories and food service and, at the same time, managing the finances and activities of research grants and public safety.
  • Breadth of roles and skills. This reason follows directly from the previous item. It is challenging to expect engineering professors, lab technicians, bus drivers, IT professionals, and CFOs to operate according to the same set of practices and processes.
  • Education is not a business—but it is. We have challenged colleges and universities to build solid economic models on top of excellence in academic inquiry and learning. Though it can and is done successfully, there is an inherent conflict between the academic freedoms required for inquiry and scholarship, and the harsh realities of cost containment, efficiency, and revenue to keep the doors open at any institution.
  • Faculty are focused on their academic pursuits. Based on the nature of their work, faculty may not be inclined to focus on the administration or economics of their pursuits and actively reject the idea that the institution is a business. Their work, culture, and focus often do not align with the administrators who support them.
  • Consensus-driven culture. Colleges and universities are rarely top-down managed organizations. Shared governance is part of the academic enterprise, forcing administrators to forge consensus on critical decisions. This need for consensus permeates much of the culture of institutions.
  • Mission-driven. Whether state, private, or religious, every institution is driven to educate, produce, and disseminate new knowledge and serve their communities, which is sometimes at odds with efficiency and cost containment.

Ironically, all of these factors that define a leading, innovative, and productive institution also slow the decision-making process and create barriers to decisive, innovative, and creative solutions to administrative problems that better support teaching, learning, and research. These factors increase the need for formalized, well-funded and staffed, and highly skilled change-management efforts to help institutions move forward—to modernize, digitize, streamline, and reduce overhead without losing the very nature of institutional culture. This work is often forgotten, relegated to the lowest priority, and misunderstood.

One of the fascinating outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic was to see how quickly institutions really can change. Most institutions went fully online in days or weeks. Many of those institutions had little or no online presence before the pandemic. One of the dangers of that outcome is the false belief that those changes showed that change in higher education is easier than we thought it was. These changes were not easy or painless—or cheap. Many dedicated staff and faculty worked uncountable hours to make them happen. And many people are still working unsustainable schedules to keep the constant reaction to the pandemic from stopping operations and stopping students’ educational progress.

Aside from the pandemic, what has changed in the last decade, and has it influenced change-management practices?

  • Communications methods. Institutional leaders lament the loss of email as an effective communication method for students. As more channels for communication are popularized, incoming students have less and less familiarity and comfort with email. Finding the most effective methods and channels and keeping pace with the ever-changing landscape of social media and instantaneous messaging make change communication increasingly complex.
  • Digitization. The digitization of everything, from instruction to the administrative business of the institution, requires both administrative and academic leaders to have a deeper understanding of technology and its potential to positively impact the student experience and the business of the institution.
  • Digital personas. Leaders have had to learn to project their ideas, personalities, and power through electronic media. These skills can broaden their impact and can directly impact the effectiveness of change efforts.
  • Pressure to change. Political, financial, demographic, and competitive pressures are causing institutions to see the need to make significant, even transformational, changes in technology, process, and organizational culture. In addition, institutions face increasing regulatory and compliance activities that tend to complicate processes. These pressures increase the need to effectively lead through change in an industry that has been slow to change.

These changes—and the inherent complexity and uniqueness that higher education represents—create an imperative to adopt modern change-management practices to enable institutions to transform more quickly and responsibly, with greater effectiveness. To become more adaptable institutions, ready to innovate while maintaining their identities and missions, senior leaders need to become expert change agents who pay close attention to the goals of their transformation and the methods used to bring the faculty, staff, and students to an understanding of the goals, the rationale, and their part in it.

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Dave Kieffer |

Principal Analyst

Dave Kieffer
Dave Kieffer is responsible for directing research focused on finance, and HCM applications, data management and other critical higher education technologies at Tambellini Group. He brings more than 30 years of creating, implementing, and managing enterprise-class applications in higher education. His experience includes all levels of applications development and management in higher education. Among other things, he has been responsible for ERP implementations, mobile, and web development, application architecture and integration technologies.

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