Four Thoughts on Purposeful Change in Higher Education: Lessons from Moldy Raspberries

I had to throw out an entire pint of fresh raspberries this morning. I was bummed. I love fresh raspberries. But we’d waited too long. We didn’t eat them quickly enough. They responded as raspberries do; they got grey and moldy. I tried to pick out a handful of good ones to no avail. They were inedible.
Those raspberries made me think of you. I love you. And I would be horribly disappointed if you waited too long to make change to the extent that you don’t survive this year of horrific disruption. To that end, I’m going to compel you to think carefully and imagine voraciously about what you’ll need to do to stay fresh. (I realize the metaphor doesn’t quite hold in that the raspberries are helpless in this story and you are not. Still the raspberries did make me think of you.)
You’re going to find my advice uncomfortable. I’m calling into question whatever it is you are doing. I’m not suggesting that what you are doing is wrong or must be changed; but what if it was or did? My suggestions are intentionally tough only to open your mind to new possibilities.
Whether you are responsible for delivering curriculum design or the next registration event; hiring faculty or testing IT mechanics; recruiting a student or building a budget, these recommendations will challenge your satisfactions and beliefs — on purpose. Yet I hope you  here find kind prodding to stimulate your appreciation for the importance of change to keep you alive.
  1. Use this moment. Rarely is there a “good time” to re-invent. Even when we see snares in our product or service, our systems or processes, it’s difficult to find that moment that seems suited for significant change. Disasters tend to offer those moments primarily because they often create times of desperation; and desperation can be a driver for change. Though we’d never wish the factors of 2020 on any one or any institution, it’s tough to argue that this particular time and these circumstances may serve as a prime catalyst for rethinking. You may feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of current calamities. Instead of focusing on bailing water, give thought to building another boat. Use your difficulties to advantage. While you are crisis mode, channel your creativity to imagine—and champion—better solutions.
  2. Let everything go. No sacred cows. We in higher ed  are wedded to the ways we do things; mostly because we’re intelligent and feel superior (just keeping it real here). Despite our being bright, we have some of the goofiest ways of getting things done. We trip over ourselves to collaborate or at least give the appearance of collaboration. We love to find agreement and relish unanimity despite our expressing the value of diversity. We have constant needs for funding but are reticent to be market-responsive. Our notions of “right” and “good” often are confused with “easier” and “preferred” which leads to holding on to practices that are often outdated at best and irrelevant at worst. It’s time for higher ed to release its grip on self-defeating strategies and tactics.
  3. Recreate rule-lessly. Assume what you are doing now is impossible. I give you permission to reconsider shared governance and tenure policies. I know, I know. But for this effort assume those are negotiable. I’m not making any commentary about the efficacy of either of those long-standing pillars; I’m simply giving you permission to ignore them as limitations in your imaginings. When you imagine without parameters the silliness of some of the rules comes to light. As you picture a post-post-COVID world, imagine from the ground up. Like zero-based budgeting, make no assumptions that you can carry anything over into the new world. My newest colleague Sera Radovich suggested that perhaps we need a new crop of organic raspberries rather than the pesticide-ridden berries of the past. She makes a great point; our potential for new growth can be choked by our comfort with the same-old, same-old … fertilizer.
  4. Look outside in. Not inside out. Not what works for you. What works for them? My friend David Baker reminds me that I can’t read the label on my “jar” because I look at it from the inside. I read myself backward from the rest of the world. We tend toward introspection in higher ed communities. Honestly, that may be more about self-preservation, moreso than self-examination. Still, we like to figure ourselves out; otherwise, why would we have so many committees? But looking at ourselves from the inside doesn’t provide an accurate picture. When we see ourselves—our institution, I mean—only from the inside looking out, we’re missing the point. Until we see ourselves as others see us, we have no idea how attractive we truly are. At RHB we refer to three perspectives necessary to advancing toward coherence. One of those questions is “What do others believe is true about us?” We have to know the truth about how we’re perceived in order to align our market position and vision for the future with reality.
Early in COVID crisis, my RHB colleagues and I posted a collaborative perspective on the pandemic. For my portion, I wrote what still holds true:
“While the COVID-19 crisis has facilitated a state of grieving for what has been lost, most administrators we’ve spoken with have worked through those stages of grief to move on to inventing scenarios for what might be next. The residual and lasting sorrow offers tremendous impetus to create new opportunities. The sorrow you feel can release you from stale thinking and can serve to open your mind for completely new ideas. Don’t dismiss the sorrow. Instead lasso it for good. Use your sorrow to assess what you need to cling to; what are the values that have informed the market position you have chosen? What are the characteristics and mores that tell the world who you are as an institution? What can’t you live without and what greater ways can you invent to further cement your market position?”
In my raspberry metaphor, while you represent the raspberries; I represent your audiences and customers. The raspberries went south because I didn’t eat them quickly. I let them go bad. There’s a parallel in that without your being proactive to attract those who would partake of your sweet goodness, you could be left on the shelf to grow grey fuzz. Let’s not let that happen. Let’s not assume that you’re currently and sufficiently delicious to ever fear you’ll be left un-eaten. Instead, be loud and proud in a way that a pint of raspberries cannot. Be your authentic delicious self, but be relevant, attractive and noticeable. If you don’t consider how to achieve that, your expiration date may be sooner than you realize.
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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.