Four Thoughts on Purposeful Change in Higher Education: Lessons from Moldy Raspberries
- 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.
- 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and “good” often are confused with “easier” and “preferred” which leads to holding on to practices that are often outdated at best and irrelevant at worst.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.
- 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.
- 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.