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Why is Change So Difficult in Higher Education?

In this blog, we take on the question, why is change so difficult? This question is especially pertinent in these turbulent times where the imperative for change in higher education has never been greater.

We start with a definition. “Change is when the factors and circumstances of a person or organization become different from the previous conditions and procedures. This occurs due to dynamic situations and experiences that prompt new actions or requirements on the individual or organizational level.” How To Adapt To Change in the Workplace (6 Methods) |

As this definition suggests, there are issues relating to change at both the individual and organizational levels. Let’s discuss the dynamics at these two levels in separate sections below.

Individual Change

In Change or Die! Alan Deutschman illustrates most humans’ powerful aversion to change by citing research on heart attack survivors. According to this research, only one-in-nine patients will actually change their lifestyle to reduce their health risks. If resistance to change of this magnitude occurs in life-threatening situations like this, think about how much more difficult change will be in situations that are not perceived to be as dire.

In higher education, there is an extra layer of resistance on the individual level. Faculty willingness to change is muted by the protection tenure provides and their greater commitment to their academic discipline as contrasted to their college or university. Other dynamics that serve to protect the status quo are evident in existing institutional policies, procedures, and practices that will need to be carefully reviewed if substantive change is to be accomplished.

These situations can provide us with insights into how to approach change on an individual basis. A clear internal motivation, a cost-benefit ratio that includes the benefits of change, a detailed plan to stay on track, monitoring progress, and celebrating are important factors for individual change. Maintaining the change is the next step. This is a critical step where individuals work towards long-term change, resisting the tendency to return to old behaviors and practices. Realizing that change is not a linear process but rather a cycle of activities helps individuals stay on track.

Leadership is essential. When leaders provide a context and plan for change that considers the likely individual responses to change, there is a greater potential for successful and sustainable change.

Transformational Leaders Crack the Change Code

So if change in higher education is so hard, how do transformative leaders manage to achieve more than incremental change? And under what conditions? In our next blog on this subject, we will explore the special case of transformational change, which cannot happen in higher education without the presence of three elements. First, transformative changes in society at large must create a clear imperative that higher education must transform or wither. Second, perceptive leaders must be able to understand this imperative and communicate it in ways that can mobilize energies and change perspectives, behaviors, processes, and culture. Third, these transformative leaders must launch multi-year campaigns that address our need to reimagine and reinvent for a transforming future and provide change-averse individuals with ways of moving forward.


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