Presidents of colleges and universities often cultivate nostalgia in their communities, wanting alumni to treasure their years on campus. Presidents may even try to create prospective nostalgia among their students, especially near graduation, to seed an ongoing connection. Institutions also seek to build tribal identities, fostering the belief that the experience of belonging confers distinctive lifelong benefits. They dwell on particular traditions, things that mark and distinguish them.
But the fact is we are more similar than we are different.
We all share the same challenges inherent to the highly volatile landscape of higher education—challenges that demand strategic thinking. And the habit of nostalgia, particularly when rooted in the conviction of unique identity (what policy analyst Jane Wellman calls the snowflake phenomenon), impedes strategic thinking. In this respect, cultivating nostalgia is like putting on “rose-colored blinders”: you can no longer see the surrounding context that is so critical to strategy.
Most of the solutions, I believe, to higher education’s challenges will require collaboration, in which we will need to set aside our sense of exceptionalism.
Business strategist Vijay Govindarajan argues that all organizations must do three things: work to make their core business as excellent as possible, engage in purposeful forgetting of those activities or attitudes that no longer serve it well, and experiment with innovation. We are all good at the first, many are good at the third, but colleges and universities in particular have difficulty with the second. We inhabit institutions, as sociologist Neil Smelser has argued, that are accretive by nature. And we love to dwell on what is distinctively special about our school. But to adapt and prosper within today’s challenging landscape, we will need to engage in some deliberate forgetting of the unique identities we so assiduously cultivate.
Thanks to Flickr user Richard for the image of a Smith College reunion.