Why Change is So Difficult in Higher Education – Part II

It’s no surprise that Higher Education has been my professional home for most of my career.  I have made it so because higher education matters for our economic prosperity and our quality of life.  I have also made it so because the intellectual life is attractive.  But higher education’s importance is why I have expressed concern about how little changed it is, especially in light of so much other global change since my days as a graduate student almost 40 years ago.

This is not to say that there has been no change in 40 years.  Tuition is substantially higher.  The for-profit sector along with state governments has made more choices widely available.  Higher education is no longer just for the elite. Adult reeducation has continued to increase. Graduation rates have declined. Post-college debt loads of graduates are way too high along with accompanying too-high default rates. Online courses and online degrees are becoming more commonplace – and acceptable, and it has become increasingly hard to find a traditional course at even the most elite universities that does not include some digital, e-learning resources.

So why is the American higher education system so little changed – overall and in more positive ways?  Why has innovation been so constrained?  There are many reasons. Most of them stem from core institutional aspects of higher education. Here are a few reasons – and some innovative remedies.

With all the new development and changes we are still seeing faculty educated much the same way they were centuries ago – with lengthy, intensive doctoral programs.  Study in a traditional doctoral program focuses primarily upon research rather than teaching.  The experience is characterized by close collaboration with a single mentor – the major professor.  The experience for those of us who have been through it is often frustrating but life changing.  Then there is the experience as an assistant, untenured professor, again little changed since my days.  This is a time where research is still the focus, despite teaching responsibilities.

Colleges and universities – at least the overwhelming majority of traditional ones – remain structurally very similar to my experience of 40 years ago. They are still places of shared governance between administrators and faculty. Shared governance in and of itself can be a value, but complex decision-making processes directed toward protecting individual faculty and departmental interests do not serve the student and public well. The low level of innovation, the lack of focus on employers’ needs from graduates, and the infrequent change to curricula, learning methods and degree programs are all testimony to the more negative aspects of what is a protracted academic decision-making process that is the norm and expectation.

What is also limiting to innovation – and surprising to some – is the too-frequent absence of institutional leadership for innovation.  Whenever someone talks about leadership, one usually refers to “the leader.”  In the case of higher education that leader is presumed to be the president or chancellor.  But as one long-time university president and friend of mine stated, the president is at the bottom of a pyramid in the decision-making structure of a traditional, faculty-driven institution.  Leading from below or behind is hard.  Moreover, presidents and chancellors usually lack the independence of a corporate CEO or lack the close collaboration between CEO and a small, focused board that can align around innovations. And innovative leadership from higher education demands alignment of committed boards with visionary presidents and chancellors.

However, board structure, CEO leadership and a collaborative faculty-administration relationship cannot assure innovation.  Stakeholders’ interests challenge it in higher education. For that matter, stakeholders count in all organizations’ change efforts.  Employees can block change because of fear of transformed reward structures.  Customers block change by their choices and preference for product and service.  But for higher education, there are additional layers of stakeholders, including students, alumni, employers of graduates, and, in the case of state institutions, the public taxpayers whose taxes provide some proportion, although much smaller than before, of the institution’s budget.  Not surprisingly, finding alignment among this complex array of stakeholders is a challenge.  Moreover, stakeholders have varying degrees of knowledge of the state of a given institution and its market. It is no surprise that, without adequate market information and inside information about the condition of a school, they limit innovation as well.

With innovation so dependent on board and CEO alignment and so constrained by faculty preparation, decision-making traditions, and stakeholder interests the likelihood of increased innovation is low. Still there are ways to innovate in Higher Education. The Hudson Institute presented a wide-range of remedies to the lack of innovation in higher education. Its report, Beyond Retrofitting: Innovation in Higher Education, was not very surprising in some ways but the range and focus of the recommended changes were.  The report included stepping back from some recent, new federal regulations: (a) the creation of a definition for a credit hour in the face of dramatically different eLearning and (b) the requirement that institutions seek state-by-state authorization for a state’s citizens to enroll via the internet in an online course.  The recommendations also included changes to accrediting bodies with further shifts toward measuring outcomes like graduation and employment rather than inputs like planning and particular curricula.  The recommendations also called for increased acceptance of four basic principles: (1) an outcome focus, (2) openness to new providers along with the traditional, (3) unbundling research from teaching and student services from learning, and (4) a more competency-based assessment process that enhances portability.

Innovation is challenging, but the U.S. is seeing its competitive position eroded by countries that invest more in research and eduction, that have higher college graduation rates among citizens, and whose value for education is higher. Whether one accepts all recommended changes of the Hudson Institute report, considering them and calling upon accrediting bodies, boards, and institutions, themselves, to pursue them is very much in our interest – and in the interest of innovation.


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