The higher education landscape has changed drastically over the past 10 years alone. Student debt is at an all-time high, the gig economy is growing faster than ever, and the online education market continues to grow. And while these new trends continue to transform the industry, higher education institutions are having a hard time keeping up with the changes.

Why is change so hard at universities? Well, first off, change is hard in general. The president of Valencia College noted, “People aren’t afraid of change, they’re afraid of loss”. Specifically at colleges and universities, factors like multiple stakeholders, large committees, multi-layered organization charts, and being in the public eye (for public universities) can all make change difficult. These factors, coupled with the long standing value of tradition at institutions and the fact that individuals are often more committed to their department or unit rather than the university, make change very difficult at higher education institutions. 

So what does it take to create change at an institution? A culture of change. Faculty, staff, and even students need to be in an environment where change is good, and welcomed. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, culture is “the shared set of attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize an institution or organization”. Greg Satell, a business consultant, describes culture as being made up of two elements: values and practices. He says companies often mistake practices for values, which can lead to failure. 

In order to create a culture of change, higher education institutions need to make change — or the desire to always be evolving — a value. Once you’ve established a value, the next step is putting that value into practice.

We took a look at research and advice from thought leaders in both the higher education and institutional culture space to show you 4 ways that you can start to create a culture of change at your college or university.


  1. Find champions and influencers.

When it comes to change, fully understanding the problem, the current process, and the people involved is crucial to adoption. According to Ellucian, getting stakeholders involved from the start can greatly affect overall adoption. By speaking with stakeholders, you can begin to confirm your assumptions around the problem, the teams involved, the proposed solution, and the impact. 

As you speak with stakeholders, it’s important to seek out champions and influencers. Champions are teammates who support the change, can serve as a point of contact, and are aware of the full scope of the problem that you’re solving. For example, if you are trying to bring on a new software that will help increase retention rates, a champion would work as the liaison between the software representative and the institution, and “vouge” for the new solution.

Influencers are also an important piece for change. Influencers are often members of senior management that can help sway the opinion of leadership. They have a grasp of the organization and its goals as a whole, and can help communicate how this change fits into the bigger picture.


  1. Acknowledge how to deal with losses.

As we noted earlier, people aren’t typically afraid of change per se, they are afraid of what they could lose. In order to subdue this fear, acknowledging the potential losses is an important step of creating a culture of change. After acknowledgement, the next step is creating a plan for how to deal with that loss. For example, a proposed change could cause courses to be eliminated. How could you deal with that loss? The faculty member affected could be given more freedom in creating a new course.


  1. Emphasize the importance of adapting to changes in your industry’s landscape.

Not changing is always going to be easier than changing. However, as higher ed continues to change rapidly, institutions will have no choice but to change — or fall behind. Instead of telling staff and faculty why you want to create this change, help them internalize the importance of this change and how it will directly impact them. For example, there is an increasing amount of non-traditional students enrolling in college. This coupled with a new understanding of how students want to learn present a unique opportunity for a college to rethink the way it structures its course offerings and recruitment strategy. And the more successful the college is in this strategy, the more impact faculty will be able to make on its students.


  1. Involve individual contributors.

In order to transform a culture, you need to involve the “boots on the ground”, or individual contributors. Leadership can create guides and values that they’d like staff and faculty to follow, but they won’t become a part of the culture unless individual contributors actually put it to practice. It’s important to involve employees, encourage their ideas and feedback, and allow them to teach each other. Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager, noted that “people often resent change when they have no involvement in how it should be implemented”. Instead of telling people about a change, make them feel like they are a part of the change.


  1. Feedback. Feedback. And more feedback.

In order to create a positive environment of change, gathering feedback through every step of the way is crucial. Matt Littlefield, the Senior Director of IT Project Management at Ellucian, recommends asking those directly impacted “What concerns do you have?” This gives colleagues a way to express any questions or unknowns they have, and hopefully allow these concerns to be addressed earlier in the process rather than after the fact.

Whether you are building support for a proposed change, or implementing a change, building in steps for feedback along the way will help you create transparent communications that will ensure no one feels surprised or caught off guard. For example, before you decide on a change, you may want to hold an open office hours to field questions and concerns. Then, once you implement the change, you can hold training sessions and bi-weekly office hours to check-in on adoption of the change, and learn about any issues. You can also utilize online surveys to get honest feedback from colleagues, and making them anonymous can help solicit more constructive feedback.

In order to determine if the “change” as been successful, you’ll need to establish ways to measure success. This could be by increasing a certain statistic — for example, if you are implementing a new software that is meant to help improve student graduation rates, you can use that as a direct indicator of success. However, if it is something less quantitative like a new team structure or a new course offering, you may want to consider surveying those impacted before and after to get a Net Promoter Score (NPS), so you can assess whether you see an increase. NPS is typically utilized to measure customer satisfaction with a company’s product or service, but it is also a great way to measure internal processes, were the customer is actually the staff or faculty member.