Conversations About Change

An emerging theme in my weekly blog posts is the question of change in higher education.  Most of us would acknowledge the need for change, which would, of course, vary by institution.  Yet we also face several challenges: we may disagree with our upper administrators and other colleagues about the changes needed.  Even if we find common ground, there will inevitably be conflicts about how to make these changes.  And an increasingly hostile mood hangs over these discussions.  Citing the case of a dean at the University of Saskatchewan who was fired for disagreeing publicly with his president, I wondered recently how to have necessary and timely conversations about change in higher education if the threat of being fired and silenced hangs over us.

In response to that post, a couple of readers asked if I would write about overcoming the fear of diving into the conversation and trying to make change at their universities.  Whether because they are junior, worried about making waves, or just not sure where to begin, such fears or trepidations are understandable–but also surmountable.  What follows is a kind of mental checklist that might help initiate the process.

Goals: What do you want to accomplish?  What are your priorities?  In other words, choose your battles.  Many issues in higher ed would benefit from attention/change/a breath of fresh air, but no one can do it all.  What is important to you?  Changing the curriculum for the major?  Modifying student advising? Lobbying for different promotion and tenure guidelines?

Scope: Having identified your goals, make your work manageable and do-able.  Scope is everything.  Chances are changing your department’s tenure and promotion guidelines, for example, is a big task.  How can you break that change into smaller pieces?

Allies: Make common cause with folks who share your concerns.  This can be especially useful for junior faculty who may not be able to give voice to all of their opinions.  At the same time, choose wisely.  The firebrand who speaks passionately about something you care about, but also seems to inspire eye rolls when he/she speaks at faculty meetings, may not be your best bet, especially if you’re not tenured yet.  But chances are there are some sensible people in your department/college/program with whom you can unite.  And don’t hesitate to look beyond your own unit or college.  Universities are trying to do more with less these days.  If you can find interdisciplinary or cross-college allies, your plan may be more appealing.

Leverage: Be in tune with what your relevant professional organizations, accrediting agencies, and other organizations are saying about your area of interest.  The ability to leverage the position of groups like the American Historical Association, National Association of School Psychologists, or National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (to give a few examples) will lend credence to your arguments.  Administrators don’t like to be perceived as out of touch with larger trends.  And for better or worse, there is research that suggests some conversations go better if your audience thinks it’s not your idea.  (See my blog post about this).

Timing: Though the time for making change will never be perfect, be cognizant of other changes and developments occurring in your unit and at your institution.  You may have a great idea about the core curriculum that could garner support but if your institution is already implementing a massive curricular change, you may do better to wait.  On the other hand, being aware of these other changes may convince you that your ideas dovetail with things that are already happening.

Persistence: Academe moves at a snail’s pace (though I think it doesn’t have to move quite as slowly as it does).  I’ve been trying for over a year to get a medical humanities program off the ground at my institution.  Despite the support of faculty colleagues and deans, it is slow going.  So even a decent idea with reasonable support can take time.  So be willing to see your plan through to its conclusion.

Reality check: With all of these factors in mind weigh the pros and cons of starting your change conversation.  What will you need to do and who will you need to work with to get the conversation going?  Will you be able to do this work without too much of a cost to other responsibilities (research, teaching)?

Are you ready to take the plunge and start the conversation?

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