True story, 2017:
President Smith assured the trustees he was working hard to get the faculty to offer more online courses and programs. He had instructed the provost, commended the few faculty who were already online, and pointed out the competition’s increasing online enrollments. Online instruction did not increase. The assumption that faculty members resist change was allowed to stand and much lamented.
Then a consultant reported that the institution’s information technology systems were about a decade out of date and maddeningly unreliable. In addition, the president had cut the instructional support staff by 80 percent. There was no one left to help faculty move courses online.
Moral: Resistance to change is an excuse, not a reason.
Trustees can be effective thought partners and better assess conditions when they ask about real obstacles to innovation:
- Institutions cannot do what they are not allowed to do, even when it makes good sense. They are caught in webs of regulatory and legal requirements from federal, state, local, and accreditation bodies. Their number and complexity cannot be overemphasized.
- Not all executive teams demonstrate both strategic vision and change leadership skills.
- Innovation is risky. Wholehearted participation requires trust, which is easy to lose, especially in the wake of painful decisions.
- With an increasing proportion of part-time faculty, an institution may lack a critical mass of academic leaders who are fully vested in the institution’s future.
- Academic innovation requires developing and applying new pedagogy and technology capabilities. It takes expertise, infrastructure, time, and money.
- The curriculum is highly interdependent. Wide-scale change requires extensive consultation, which takes time, and time costs money.
- The most profound, game-changing possibilities for institutional transformation require expertise, planning, project management, consultation, and very significant development time. Taken for granted in business innovation, the need for venture capital is almost never recognized or addressed in higher education.
Today’s relentless financial, regulatory, and societal pressures require more than short-term survival strategies. When universities and colleges make transformational changes that better fulfill their fundamental reasons for being, they improve the entire value equation. Getting there is a highly rewarding team effort when trustees and executives understand the obstacles and invite faculty to share leadership for change.