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Obstacles to Change in the Academic Setting

professor-in-reposeUniversities and colleges are faced with unprecedented challenges.  Institutions of higher education cannot be managed by wishful thinking or the belief that everything will “work out.” For years, this traditional mindset allowed academic institutions to perch on an isolated peak in the midst of an oasis. This idyllic state can no longer be sustained.

The reality is simple.  Resources are limited. Expansion is restricted. Technology is changing the core pedagogy. Students and their parents are no longer complacent consumers. In this context universities and colleges must change while adhering to their core mission of excellence in research, teaching, and outreach. They must become agile, entrepreneurial, and creative.

However, the very processes and structures that have allowed universities and colleges to expand in earlier times and under different circumstances are now sources of deep inertia and resistance to change.  It may be the case that it is harder to drive change in institutions of higher learning than in private-sector organizations. What are the underlying factors that cause universities and colleges to resist change?

Intransigent culture

Institutions of higher education have long taken pride in their culture.  From the biggest Ivy League school to the smallest private institution, individual traditions have drawn students, engaged faculty and staff, and sustained the interest and support of alumni.  However, culture and traditions that have been useful in building a sense of community may be a source of resistance to change.

Turf protection

Universities and colleges are riddled with artificial divisions.  Questions of turf arise in schools, departments, and fields. Collaboration and cooperation are the first casualties of turf battles.  Lasting change cannot be put into place when people are overly worried about losing ground, personally or professionally.

Administrative and faculty divide

Administrators have a distinctly different role in than faculty do, and these roles sometimes clash.  Administrators are usually more concerned with the bottom-line and maximizing income and faculty are first committed to excellence in teaching and research, and not as obsessed with how the bills are paid.  It is important to recognize the potential conflict that can be caused by differing administrative and faculty mindsets.

Power pendulum

The power pendulum swings with regularity in the university setting.  Sometimes higher ed gets on a “centralization” kick, where core support functions (IT, HR, Finance) are done by a single office.  Other times higher ed goes in the opposite direction, and gives schools and departments more latitude in how they operate, and allows more decisions to be made on a local level.  Both centralization and decentralization pose different obstacles to change.

Duplication of structures

What is the mission of a university? Ask a dozen people and there will be a dozen answers.  Multiple missions within the university can lead to a duplication of administrative structures—and therefore, a greater acreage of turf that needs to be protected.

It is clear that the 21st century will usher in great change for universities and colleges, and no one is certain what this “change” will look like.  There are built-in obstacles that make change difficult (some may say impossible), but by first recognizing what stands in the way of change, administrators and faculty can begin to deal with the factors that stand in the way of change, and clear the way for the next generation of students.



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