A Leadership Lesson About Change in Higher Education


In her paper titled Change in Higher Education: Not Enough, or Too Much?, Adrianna Kezar explores the many different elements that both encourage and impede change in regard to higher education as a whole. Her analysis demonstrates the obstacles that colleges of all sizes will continually have to hurdle while providing some suggestions on how to overcome these obstacles moving forward. This is an ongoing problem and Kezar’s article helps to point academic authority in the right direction in regard to proper change management as well as possible areas to search for better change ideas or direction.

higher education

The organizations in question are all establishments of higher learning. This includes community colleges, state colleges, and even prestigious and well-established universities. Granted, this article is not necessarily saying that each and every institution is in dire need of change or that every institution is somehow failing miserably, as it can be assumed that there are some intuitions that are operating in an effective manner. Instead, this article is meant to help enlighten institutions that might be struggling to discover why certain changes are or have been so difficult to achieve up until this point. It also helps enlighten institutions on the numerous and often redundant change initiatives that might currently be underway by any number of stakeholders on campus.

The many different change initiatives are actually the trigger event for the change initiative that Kezar writes about. Her research indicates that there are usually too many programs and initiatives underway on any given campus at any given time. These include initiatives from the President, initiatives from the board, initiatives from the faculty, and even initiatives from the students. It was found that if these initiatives were not redundant, they were often related to an initiative that someone else already had underway. Other times, their initiative would actually help or mesh nicely with another initiative already completed. Hence, much time and energy were wasted in an attempt to pursue a single initiative instead of combining efforts and seeing two victories. Examples of this might be in how a “green movement” change initiative would be pursued while on the other side of the campus, another group was trying to put together a solar energy change initiative.

Kezar points out that more often than not, the right hand was unaware of the left hand was doing. Few, if any, faculty or staff actually knew about all the different initiatives underway at any given time. This actually allowed the redundancy in many cases and hindered overall progress for the institution. In some cases, one initiative would actually hinder the initiative of another, which would simply impede progress all the way around and ultimately lead to the failure of one, if not both change initiatives.   

Progress was further hindered where priority for one’s own initiatives outweighed an initiative offered up by someone else. For instance, the initiative of the president would more than likely take priority over the initiatives of the faculty, even if the initiatives of the faculty would have made more sense for the institution and community at large. This was due in great part to the expectation of the trustees. Sometimes it was found that the President was unaware of change initiatives underway by the faculty and the faculty was unaware of any change initiatives underway by the president, thought both sides were working towards the same goal.

A powerful part of the article was a detailed description of how academia has “sold out” in many regards. Interpretation indicates that Kezar is pointing out that the mission of academia has turned from a place of learning, into a place for-profit and a place of conformity. This resulted in confusion in regard to change initiatives because different areas of the institution were pursuing different goals for different reasons. Some institutions are turning their backs on their core principles and attempting to be like the other institutions that they would like to be associated with. For instance, instead of being a university known for teaching, they turn into a research-based facility where teaching comes second, if not third.

The undertone of this section also indicates that learning itself has been pushed down on the priority ladder which might hinder possible student based change initiatives as well. Where higher learning used to be a place where people could explore ideas with freedom, it has now turned into a place where students are cycled through at the highest possible price the institution can receive. This places a bad stigma on the institution and is felt long term.

Higher profits are often times taking over the mission of expanding knowledge. Kezar points out that even community colleges have been known to push out or deny community members access to the college due to favor of international students who often pay more for their enrollment. Kezar points out this trend throughout academia and suggests this will eventually backfire on the establishments who give in to such temptations.

Kezar points to turnover as a key culprit of these problems and suggests that trustees who seek “visionary mavericks” actually hinder progress as well. She points out that government agencies, who would have normally invested in change initiatives in higher education, are now reluctant to do so because these agencies rarely see the payoff in the end. The payoff rarely comes because some other change initiative comes along to take precedence over the initial change they were funding or the next leader was unaware of the initiative altogether.   

Kezar suggests that turnover is expected in academia, but that higher education needs leaders who are both visionaries and implementers, but who are also willing to sustain existing efforts. She suggests that being able to continue on with existing efforts will breed deep-rooted change. She points to the fact that deep change typically takes 10 to 15 years, but that turnover in leadership in higher learning tends to occur every five to seven years. This clearly demonstrates the need.

Aside from the continuation of policy in regard to academia, Kezar presents a few other ideas. She offers up the idea that stakeholders on campus must collectively agree upon a smaller number of initiatives or priorities that reflect the mission of the institution. This includes initiatives from the President to the individual student groups.

These initiatives and priorities need to better align with the community and regional needs. Both the immediate and regional communities are where the support for the campus will come from and this element is vital for the long term success of the institution. With this, shared interests of internal stakeholders become more synergistic and the institution begins to operate more cohesively. When this occurs, true and deep change is achievable because everyone is working together towards a common goal over the long term.

These goals can be met if the leaders initiate the change and adhere to the agreed-upon principles. Trustees must ensure that the replacement leaders are on board with the current plan. These leaders must be able to continue to reduce the number of initiatives currently underway. This can be done via consolidation of similar movements and initiatives or by creating a list of initiatives and attacking one thing at a time as a group, rather than attempting to change multiple things at once. The visionary maverick must be one that perfects current change initiatives instead of creating new ones.

Kezar’s article brings relevance to the discussion in many ways and exposes many problems that appear to be feared topics of discussion in academia. Still, she provides possible solutions that seem logical and fairly easy to initiate. She points out places to begin the search for both answers and problematic areas to be addressed.

The effects and long term damage to the many problems that Kezar points out are self-evident. However, the root or the cause has obviously eluded many for quite some time as these problems not only persist, but they appear to have metastasized over time. One can only imagine that Kezar’s article will allow others in the field to take a second look at the cause and effect scenarios playing out on their campuses in regard to change initiatives in the coming years.

Ultimately, Kezar’s article was fairly well written, clear, concise, well researched, and supported by basic logic, cause and effect, and Occam’s Razor… and I have to say that I concur with much of what was provided. The suggested changes and approaches would not only expedite effective change, but would demonstrate effective leadership, purposeful movement, and may even reduce turnover in some instances because the suggested changes would equate to stability and direction, both of which could result in a certain level of loyalty.  

There is always going to be a need for more research on this topic. Technology, world events, information changes, community changes, and so many other unknown factors will always alter the needs of the institution. Figuring out ways to transition in the face of these changes while still holding true to the recommendations herein will always be a challenge, but they are still achievable. We will continue to face these problems moving forward, but by bringing them out into the open and putting them on the table for discussion, we will be able to continue to work towards possible solutions. If we do not, we are doomed to repeat the problems.

On a final note, let me also suggest that while this article pointed the finger at education specifically, we should note that similar problems plague many different organizations. Taking these perspectives into consideration might help leaders illuminate some of those issues. Doing so might improve processes accordingly.

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Kezar, A. (January 01, 2009). CHANGE IN HIGHER EDUCATION: NOT ENOUGH, OR TOO MUCH? Change in higher education is impeded less by too little interest in innovation than by too many disconnected change initiatives. Change, 41, 6, 18.