The Necessity and Mechanics of Institutional Change

Over the past year, I have issued short descriptions of the topics covered in How University Boards Work: A Guide for Trustees, Officers, and Leaders in Higher Education. In this post, I attempt to summarize the challenges and methods of institutional change.

You no doubt have read the stories about falling college enrollments and the closing of small private colleges. Did you know that the number of potential new college freshmen in the Northeast and Mid-West is projected to decline by about 15% over the next five or six years? The causes for this decline are falling birthrates, reduced numbers of international students, developments in higher education and policies in other countries, and economic pressures on families, among others. For tuition-dependent campuses, this projection should be a call for urgent action.

Unfortunately, many trustees are not knowledgeable about higher education and think they can cut their way out of trouble by replacing full-time faculty with part-timers and substituting technology for teachers. Other trustees and presidents think they can fundraise their way to the future, thus taking their attention away from the need for changes in how institutions operate. Many staff members who understand the challenges are isolated from decision-making and many faculty members seem unaware of the urgency of the situation because critical information is not shared. As a consequence, leaders and faculty members do not seem to appreciate the need for new strategies, including the need for dramatic changes in the cost structure of their institutions and even the possibility of a merger with a partner institution.

Given these circumstances, the president and the senior team must master the methods of institutional change and understand the “points of leverage” for achieving it. Only then can they assure the alignment of mission, goals, strategies, resource allocation, rewards, and results. And they must do this in ways that not only respect the campus culture but also find ways to make it more welcoming of change. After all, as Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

One of the more popular models for shaping institutional change was developed by McKinsey, a consultancy. The McKinsey “7S” Model specifies the following elements.

  1. Strategy: Goals and rationale must be clear.
  2. Structure: The campus must be informed and organized for achievement.
  3. Systems: Day-to-day tasks must be accomplished even as change is implemented; communication must be constant; support must be available.
  4. Shared values: Core values must be acknowledged; organizational culture must be understood; even small “wins” should be shared and celebrated.
  5. Style: Attention must be given to the manner of implementation; engage the community in it.
  6. Staff: Faculty, staff and students, alumni, and neighbors. All stakeholders are important and must be engaged.
  7. Skills: The competencies needed for implementing change must be available; the metrics for monitoring progress must be known.

The points of leverage to support the change agenda include both actions and occasions that can be used to support the attainment of strategic goals. They are available on every campus and can be used to emphasize the mission, values, and goals. They help reinforce the change agenda and highlight the alignment of mission, goals, strategies, alternatives, assumptions, resource allocations, rewards, and results. Is realignment called for? In what areas can resources be reallocated from lower priority to higher priority activities? Consider the following:

            *The mission statement- the statement of purpose- the touchstone for goals and results.

            *Board By-laws provide the framework for board responsibilities and actions.

            *The Campus or Faculty “Handbook” includes the policies and protocols for the campus and is another means of reinforcing shared values.

           * Full faculty and all-campus meetings provide opportunities to share goals, imperatives, means, and results.

            *Annual academic program and administrative unit reviews.

            *Annual goals and objectives for senior officers, deans, and their direct reports.

            *Annual budget requests and allocations for continuing and new initiatives.

            *Staffing decisions at all levels.

            *Funds for faculty, curriculum, and program development as related to priorities.

            *Funds for administrative staff development and recognition.

            *Annual awards, rewards and other forms of recognition for meritorious service. These include appointments, reappointments, tenure, promotion, and compensation decisions.

            *The Board of Trustees public agendas.

            *Regional accrediting and professional program self studies.

            *Articulation agreements with community colleges and professional and graduate programs.

            *Fundraising materials.

            *Meetings with area employers.

            *A foundation grant to support the change agenda.

            *Orientation activities for new employees and students.

            *Other training activities, and

            *Other forms of public recognition for people and efforts.  

Change is difficult. Nevertheless, with declining numbers of potential students due to demographics, immigration policy, visa restrictions, developments in other countries, and economics, institutional leaders must find the right balance of revenues and expenses, and the optimal alignment of mission and results. The conditions require thoughtful but urgent action. Venerable institutions are closing. The tools included above can help manage necessary changes and assist in assuring appropriate progress.

Robert A. Scott is the former president of Adelphi University and of Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is the author of How University Boards Work: A Guide for Trustees, Officers, and Leaders in Higher Education.