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Change Leadership in Higher Education

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The school will either have to close its doors in the near future or find a way to deal with these severe challenges. But the immediate question is: How should the university change? 


The posting below describes two approaches taken by institution presidents to address a major financial crisis.  It is from Chapter 4 – From Change Management to Change Leadership, in the book Change Leadership in Higher Education: A Practical Guide to Academic Transformation, by Jeffrey L. Buller. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Academy

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Change Leadership in Higher Education


Successful change leadership at a college or university will borrow aspects of all the change theories we just explored. It will work to develop learning cultures, emphasizing the importance of adapting to new circumstances, making positive assumptions about the motives of stakeholders, encouraging transparency from all parties, and thinking in terms of inclusive systems rather than conflict between an in-group and an out-group. It will borrow from the change leader’s road map and the change journey, recognizing that each change process is unique and resisting the tendency to apply artificial formulas, patterns, and precedents. It will draw inspiration from theory U and mindfulness-based leadership, encouraging leaders to reflect on their own values and the values of the programs they serve and refraining from premature judgments and false assumptions. And it will engage in creative leadership, taking time to build a culture that admires innovation and sees change as an asset, not a threat. 

To see how this combination of ideas can come together to promote lasting change, let’s imagine an institution that has several options about how to plan for its future. Our hypothetical university started out as a two-year college and has already gone through a number of significant transformations. Its first programs were all applied areas, particularly the practical skills needed by secretaries to work in large offices during the 1950s and 1960s. Early catalogues for the college list such courses as typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and business writing. 

Over time, as secretaries became administrative assistants and needed a different type of education, the college’s academic program grew, and the school eventually offered all four years of an undergraduate degree. New academic areas were added – the arts and humanities, health professions, education, engineering, and public administration – and this expansion ultimately led to the college’s first master’s degrees. Enrollment rose, and the college sought university status.  It began awarding doctoral degrees, first in applied areas (the EdD and PsyD) and then in research fields (the PhD). 

Now the school appears to be at another crossroads. An economic downturn in its primary service area has resulted in plummeting enrollment, significant losses of philanthropic funding, and pressure from the community for the school to “stick to the knitting” (in other words, to eliminate programs that aren’t vocational). Some type of change seems inevitable. The school will either have to close its doors in the near future or find a way to deal with these severe challenges. But the immediate question is: How should the university change? 

Scenario One 

In one possible scenario, the university hires a new president who established her reputation by saving another school on the brink of financial ruin. She’s widely regarded as a visionary change agent, “just the sort of person we need,” the university’s governing board said when they hired her. Throughout the entire interview process, everyone she met mentioned how ready the university was for substantive change and how following its current path would destroy it. 

With such a strong mandate, the new president assembled a leadership team (including a number of new vice presidents she brought in because she had worked with them before and knew she could trust them), scheduled a planning retreat with her administrative team and the governing board, and gave her first State of the University address less than a month after being hired. In it, she announced a sweeping new strategic plan that she called 10,000 in 10, with a goal of raising the university’s enrollment to ten thousand full-time students within the next ten years. To accomplish this goal, the school would radically alter its academic programs. It would refocus on professional programs, deemphasize the liberal arts and PhD programs (which were “irrelevant in the twenty-first century anyway,” according to a very vocal member of the governing board), offer all its programs online, accept credit for massive open online courses and professional experience, condense each baccalaureate program to only three years, and cut the price of tuition to less than half its current rate. At the same time, the institution would aggressively recruit students into its applied doctoral programs and set an ambitious target for federal grant support, which would give it access to sizeable amounts of external funding. 

Since the president had been through a similar change process before, she believed she knew what to expect. The Kubler-Ross model of change told her that there would be strong resistance to her ideas initially, but the Kruger and Kotter models of change told her what she’d need to do. She’d pay close attention to the power dynamics lying just below the surface of the organization, spend her time communicating her vision to the faculty and staff, empower others to implement the initiatives developed by her leadership team, and celebrate small victories. After all, two steps in the Kotter model were already behind them: there was a strong sense of urgency at the university, and she had created her guiding coalition. As a result, she was quite surprised when the new strategic plan was met with widespread enthusiasm rather than anger and denial. Faculty and staff embraced the ideas with a sense of relief that there was finally a plan in place, and they could understand their role within in. I must’ve lucked out, the new president thought. Things were so bad that people are just glad they finally have visionary leadership.  

As the fall semester got under way, however, that initial honeymoon period ended abruptly. A rumor emerged that in order to reduce costs, there would be layoffs of faculty members in the liberal arts and PhD programs. Even in fields like business and public administration, the rumors said, full-time faculty members would be replaced by adjuncts who would cost less since they didn’t qualify for benefits. The new adjuncts could be located anywhere in the world since their courses were taught online. The faculty senate, which had once welcomed the new plan, increasingly resisted it as its members saw the impact it would have on their own workload. Once the students and alumni learned that major changes were in store, they mounted a campaign against the new plan on Facebook, wrote op-ed pieces for the local newspaper, and began showing up en masse in the president’s office. “I didn’t pay to get a degree from Online U,” one protestor was quoted as saying, and “Stop Online U” became a new rallying cry. 

By the end of the president’s first year, the office of research and sponsored programs issued a report concluding that rather than increasing the amount of indirect funding received by the university, the plan to replace research doctorates with more applied degrees could reduce it by up to 90 percent. The president then fired the vice president for research for going public with this report. Opposition grew even stronger since this termination seemed to confirm everyone’s fear that many people would soon lose their jobs. 

The president reviewed her notes about the Kotter change model and decided that the university must be in the “never let up” stage. She redoubled her efforts to force through the new strategic plan, called additional meetings with various constituencies, and tried to counter the anger of the faculty, students, and alumni with a positive and forward-looking message. Her efforts backfired. The president’s calm demeanor was misinterpreted as indifference, and she found herself increasingly isolated. 

Within a year and a half of the president’s arrival, the university had reached gridlock. Faculty meetings were devoted to little more than arguing about which elements of the president’s new strategic plan were worse. A vote of no confidence concluded each meeting. Over winter break of her second year, the new president released a memo stating how much she missed the classroom and thus intended to return to the faculty at the end of the academic year. The university limped on, but its financial problems continued, and within three years, massive layoffs proved to be unavoidable. 

Scenario Two 

Our second scenario also begins with a university that hires a new president. But this time the president who’s been hired has worked with learning cultures, change journeys, and creative leadership at her previous institution. So rather than relying on a change model approach and prescribing her new vision for the university, she invests her first hundred days in getting to know the school’s primary stakeholders, asking about the issues that matter most to them, and letting them learn a bit about her and her core values. At a public forum, she addresses this broad group of constituencies: 

It’s not going to shock anyone if I tell you that our university is facing serious challenges, and that there are going to be lots of struggles ahead. But one of the things I learned in the last several months is how resilient you all are and how committed you are to the success of our university. After all, it’s not as though you haven’t dealt successfully with problems before. It was that innovative, entrepreneurial spirit you all have that most attracted me to this job. Just think of how creatively you’ve responded to every opportunity you’ve had in the past. You reinvented yourselves many times, first from a two-year to a four-year college, then as a university, and finally as a research university. Compared to what you’ve already done, the issues we’re all facing together now don’t seem all that threatening. It’s just an opportunity for us to build on the solid foundations you’ve all laid. I’ve got confidence in you, and I want you to have confidence in me. Most of all, we’re going to have fun planning our future together. 

Over the next few weeks, the president worked with the governing board and various faculty committees to establish a series of task forces that would examine possible approaches to the school’s challenges. Each group would have representation from multiple constituencies in order to provide a broad range of perspectives. Guidelines were established stating that no member of a working group’s vote or opinion would count more than anyone else’s. As a result, whenever a member of the governing board started referring to classes and degrees as “products” and to students as “customers,” the alumni, students, and parents on the task force would immediately counter this language by steering the discussion toward the importance of education and research. Conversely, whenever students or faculty members began to focus too exclusively on their own programs or interests, members of the upper administration or governing board would redirect the conversation toward the big picture. 

The process wasn’t smooth by any means. As occurs in any discussion of substantive change, early adopters ran into conflict with those who opposed any type of change whatsoever. Arguments broke out and, not infrequently, feelings were hurt. But rather than concluding, “We must now be at the depression stage of the change process. That means the acceptance stage is just around the corner,” the president would good-naturedly tease that the university was just making a short side trip to the graveyard of old habits or the opera house of emotion and respond accordingly. By being aware of the competing needs of all groups within her open system, the president was able to keep their attention on the goals they shared, not on the fears and vested interests that could divide them. 

After a semester, the working groups proposed four alternative pathways that could take the university back to a state of financial health. In order to keep people from becoming attached to their pet pathway, the members of working groups were shuffled so that a new set of working groups would study the feasibility of all four approaches. These new groups used our ten analytical lenses to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal, with the result that certain elements of one proposal eventually came to be combined with the best features of other proposals, resulting in a single hybrid or consensus pathway. 

When this consensus pathway was brought before the governing board, faculty senate, student government associations, and alumni board for their endorsement, no one was surprised by anything they heard. The details of each proposal had been shared with all constituents at various points throughout the process. Only the governing board endorsed the final proposal unanimously, although it received a majority vote (and at times an overwhelmingly majority vote) from other bodies. The resulting plan – to rebrand the institution as a national professional university, hire new recruiters who would aggressively seek out-of-state applicants (and who were each given a challenging quota so that the extra tuition that resulted would more than pay for their salaries), refocus the university’s PhD programs on a few pillars of excellence that would become the focus for large federal grants, and offer thirty select programs completely online to students located anywhere in the world – received sufficient support. Although there were challenges in its implementation, momentum kept the plan moving forward. When the president stepped down after ten years in office, full-time equivalent enrollment had reached more than twelve thousand, and the school’s financial status was rated “excellent” by its regional accrediting body. 

A Comparison of These Strategies 

Notice that the plans put in place in these two scenarios were not really all that different. But the ways in which the school developed these plans were completely dissimilar. Change models almost inevitably cause institutions to adopt hierarchical approaches, with serious problems arising for a distributed organization like a college or university. The strategy adopted in the second scenario retained enough flexibility to be workable in an open system like higher education. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the first president who seemed to be following a traditional leadership role by promoting her vision and her change process ended up trying to manage change; she never reached the point of leading it. Although the second president stayed more in the background and empowered various working groups to develop the actual strategy, she was demonstrating effective change leadership. She created an environment in which successful change became possible. 

The first president focused on the intended outcome and expected the culture to adapt in such a way that it could bring it about. The second president focused on the culture and put enough trust in the process that it produced a desirable outcome. Her leadership was demonstrated through building relationships, encouraging people’s confidence in themselves, and reminding the institution that it already had a creative learning culture. 

The first president saw the world in dichotomies: success or failure, adoption or rejection of her vision, adherence to or violation of a specific change model, us and them, and so on. As a result, she became afflicted with what Rolf Dobelli (2013) calls alternative blindness – the failure to recognize that there may well be more options than those on the table at any given moment. The second president, by directing her energy toward the culture rather than investing in any one particular outcome, allowed a wider range of alternatives to be considered. At the same time, she developed maximum buy-in for the consensus proposal because people had already had plenty of opportunities to have their voices heard. 

To be sure, these scenarios are largely hypothetical, even though I’ve based them on situations I witnessed firsthand. I altered only enough details to protect the innocent (as they used to say on Dragnet) or, perhaps, the not-so-innocent. And I’ll plead guilty to the charge of constructing them in such a way as to obtain the result I want. But if you’ve been around higher education long enough, you probably know people who bear more than a passing similarity to the two presidents, even if the people you know happen to be provosts, deans, or board chairs. If you recall the last major change process that failed at your own college or university, it’s almost certain that you’ll find the missing ingredient wasn’t strong, decisive leadership from the top down or sufficient adherence to one of the traditional models of change management. What’s much more likely to have occurred is that someone tried to promote his or her vision for the future among stakeholders who had contributed little or nothing to its development, fell victim to alternative blindness in believing that the choice had to be all or nothing, gathered a leadership team that said only what that person wanted to hear, and to this day still hasn’t taken responsibility for the way things turned out. At colleges and universities all over the world, that process is unfolding right now. 


Dobelli, R. (2013). The art of thinking clearly. New York, NY: Harper.