Excerpts from a conversation between Tim Gilmour and Colleen Carmean.
Colleen: Hi, Tim! So, it seems we’re both reading Brian Rosenberg’s book, Whatever It Is, I'm Against It. I’m not surprised, as it looks to be one of the most reviewed higher education books in memory—and in my opinion, it’s both an engaging read and makes great fodder for our ongoing conversations regarding the need for change in higher education. As a known rabble-rouser, I enjoyed it. Tim, what do you think from a president’s perspective?
Tim: A president’s perspective? Okay, here are the points I would make from Rosenberg’s side of the aisle:
This is the first book by a person who has served and succeeded as a president that I believe comprehensively and candidly describes the factors that make transformative change nearly impossible in higher education.
The cataloging of these factors is important, but his description of the mindset he had with regard to these factors is also valuable. It is of a person seeing major limitations on their capacity to make a positive difference for their institution.
He makes a great case in the first chapter of the book for the need for transformation in higher education. And he does this without spending much time on regenerative AI.
Colleen: Hah! A welcome change from all the AI "Chicken Little" posts these last few months.
Tim: Further, the book’s overall sense is that it is futile to attempt to change or transform higher education despite the obvious need to do so. Interestingly, in the final chapter, entitled “The Path to Change,” he talks about two institutions—the African Leadership University (ethical and entrepreneurial leadership) and Sterling College (environmental stewardship). Both have a distinctive, highly focused curriculum and place a premium on student initiative and experiential learning and thus can operate much more economically than most US institutions today.
Frustrating for me is that although Rosenberg attempts to offer some hope that higher education can transform in the final paragraphs of his book, he offers no ideas on HOW to overcome the resistance to change in higher education.
But Colleen, as a long-time faculty member and experienced academic administrator, I’m interested in your reaction to the book and how it differs from mine.
Colleen: So, does it surprise you that I loved the book? He describes this “frog in hot water moment,” no? And I think it’s caught higher education’s attention because Rosenberg is engaging and well-informed from inside the bubbling pot. But Tim, is there anything new here besides a pandemic that’s pushed us to the edge?
Clayton Christensen pointed out we were in crisis, what, 12 years ago? He said it was urgent to fix outdated curricula, rising costs, faculty issues (don’t get me started), retention, and poor graduation rates. We ignored him, the students, parents, governing boards, and the public trust, and I think we’ll ignore Rosenberg now.
The thing is, I agree with Christensen. Change happens, and to survive, we must respond with transformation, whether we like it or not. Apple changed the world of computers, music, and cell phones. Those industries didn’t want to change, but they had no choice. Higher Education might try to drag its feet, but in the end, we’ll have to change or collapse. And if we do transform, we’ll come out better, stronger, and more responsive to our students and a changing world.
Tim: Colleen, I completely agree with you! And I believe Brian Roseberg does, too! As I noted earlier, he makes a great case for transformation in higher education and what needs to be changed. The unfortunate thing is that he doesn’t take a run at the question of HOW to make those changes.
Our book, Transforming for Turbulent Times, does fill this void and complements Rosenberg’s book nicely. It defines a new paradigm institutional leaders can use to lead and navigate transformations. It describes the mindset, an organizational approach, and the planning tools needed to fulfill this role. This sort of leadership also requires the ability to engage the institutional community deeply and widely, listening more than telling. It also entails the adoption of a new governance approach–collaborative leadership. Under this approach, members of the community come together to understand the challenges the institution faces, develop strategies to address those challenges and work together to implement them. Such a collaborative approach will be absolutely necessary for successful institutional transformation in the years ahead.
Colleen: Tim, I think you’re on the right track here. And even with the dire picture Brian Rosenberg paints, I’m really encouraged by our conversation. He’s done a thoughtful job of identifying the challenges institutions face and a few of the changes that he believes need to happen. The collaborative transformation approach and tools that Strategic Initiatives has developed can offer real hope for institutions that want to navigate successfully through today’s disruptions.
Tim: I think we’re on the right track too. And while our approach will require considerable soul-searching and much hard work by everyone, I believe it is the right path forward for higher education. Now, the key question is—will our colleges and universities take up this challenge?