Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Challenge to Deep Change: A Brief Cultural History of Higher Education

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Challenge to Deep Change: A Brief Cultural History of Higher Education

Article excerpt

Given the extraordinary demands on higher education to adopt strategies that deliver better results with fewer resources and the common resistance of our institutions to strategic change, leaders and planners would do well to actively engage in processes of cultural change.


Colleges and universities are famously resistant to change. This state of affairs is not always a bad thing, but it certainly poses real challenges to leaders and planners who seek to shape the collective effort of the institution and its many constituents toward new and better outcomes that are increasingly defined from outside the academy.

Higher education is being asked to achieve more with less, to serve a broader and more challenged student population with fewer resources, and to achieve dramatically improved outcomes: higher completion rates, more competent graduates in areas of high demand such as the STEM disciplines, reductions in cost and student debt, more diversity in the professions, and greater impact on the intergenerational pattern of poverty. These are not trivial outcomes to achieve and will require significant changes in the institutions themselves.

There are many reasons for the conserving nature of these institutions, including the fact that colleges have always been something of a loose confederation of faculty, staff, and students organized around purposes that are not always aligned. We call them "refractory" because of the confluence of competing values and priorities that creates a sort of dynamic tension (sometimes a balance of terror) that works against rapid and strategic change. Other reasons include the underlying business models that drive institutional behavior, accreditation policies and traditions that confine institutional practice and innovation, politicization of institutional missions by trustees and others, and leadership that comes almost exclusively from within the academy with little training for challenges such as large-scale organizational change.

Nevertheless, change is in the air and much in conversation from the national capital to the major foundation boardrooms to ordinary trustee meetings in towns no one has heard of. Planners are being asked to facilitate the development of strategies that will "move the needle" on all of these outcomes. Center stage, at the moment, is Clayton Christensen's notion of "disruptive innovation" in higher education (Christensen et al. 2011). Massive online open courses (MOOCs), open source content, badges and other competency-based credentials, and models such as the Khan Academy, Coursera, EdX, and Western Governors University are raising the possibility that the outcomes we seek as a society might be attainable best or only from outside the academy, with massive consequences for traditional institutions and their viability in the coming quarter century.


These conversations are worth engaging in with eyes wide open to the possibility, at least, that the traditional college experience, already reduced to less than 20 percent of the American undergraduate population, may be as marginalized as the video stores we used to see on every corner not so very long ago, although the predominant outcome of these innovations to date has been to expand the market, not to displace the traditional institutions. There is, however, an undercurrent in these discussions that needs to be examined. Increasingly, the dialog is associating "disruptive change" with the notion of "meaningful" or "large-scale change," as though other approaches to innovation were only able to produce incremental, and therefore insignificant, change. This is certainly not the direct meaning of Christensen's work, in which "sustaining innovation" also has its place in organizational evolution and development. Further, given both the incalculably huge investment our society already has in institutions of higher education and the scale at which these institutions operate, it seems irresponsible to dismiss the possibility of significant, even quantum, improvements in outcomes without thoroughly proving their unattainability. …

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