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.
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.
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?
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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