Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: Turn and Face the Challenges of Change Management in Higher Ed

Karen Rothstein, PhD
eLumen Vice President of Strategy and Research

April is Community College month, and I kicked off my celebrations by attending two very different conferences: The RP Conference and The HLC Conference. Though region, focus, and attendees were quite different, one theme reverberated…change. AACC’s Community College Daily recently had a short and powerful article on what happens when institutions, whether academic or business, ignore change. The opening line says it all, “Colleges do not fail because of competition, environmental changes or even declining or changing student demographics. Colleges fail when leadership ignores warning signs and becomes paralyzed by tradition or ignorance” (Sygielski, 2019).

Having now had many hats in education…instructor, dean, researcher, and now VP in the private sector…I find myself asking all the time, “Why is change so hard?” Sure, change can be scary but also exhilarating; it’s a potent moment of opportunity and growth. Though for many it is also a gaping chasm of possible mistakes and regret: “What if I’m doing it wrong?” “Will I get fired?” “What if the way it was is better than the way it will be?”

So, here’s the thing. It’s rarely as great as you remember it…those glory days. Like an 80s glamor shot, we often smudge the lens in our strolls down memory lane. While a picture taken with your pink Le Clic camera may capture a moment of unbridled happiness, one data point does not a trend make. Lucky for us, we have decades of educational data that show the good old days weren’t always good (equity gaps anyone?) and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.

As we have heard again and again, there are aspects of higher education that need to change. Closing opportunity gaps. Increasing completion rates. Streamlining the student experience. Most would agree that these changes will help students, but rarely are faculty, classified professionals, and administrators given the training necessary to implement change. I know for some of you a deep understanding of change management may seem like a “duh” moment. But I can tell you from my own experience, and what I hear from colleagues in the educational system, there is a struggle with how to implement change…any change. If this is you, please read on for a quick summary of Kotter’s (2019) eight steps of change management through an education lens. If you already are a pro at change management, awesome…and please share the love with your colleagues!

Kotter 8-Step Change Model

Create a Sense of Urgency and Build a Guiding Coalition

For many institutions, especially community colleges, creating a sense of urgency has been taken care of by events like legislation or funding formula changes. Urgency…check. And if you hold an “informational” meeting, you’ll find your coalition of the willing as well as those who were voluntold relatively easily. So far so good.

Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives

Well, the institution vision is already there in the form of an Educational or Strategic Master Plan. The initiatives are often also in place due to legislative urgency. But here’s where things start to get tricky. People may not agree with the initiatives. They don’t feel heard. They don’t understand why things are changing. They feel that the changes are a direct attack on the hard work they do every day. This is where constant, consistent communication is key. And it must be bi-directional, active, and widespread: newsletters, updates at any and all meetings, brown-bag lunches, and professional development seminars. Any time a group of employees meet, make updates about change a priority. In addition, a transparent process to collect feedback, process it, and send a response out to the college is also crucial. It’s fine to have opportunities for individuals to speak, but if nothing happens or there is no acknowledgement of their voices, the process is hollow and insincere. You’ll know you’ve done it right when someone in a meeting says she didn’t know about something and several people say, “Oh…it was in the email. I’ll forward it to you.”

Enlist a Volunteer Army and Enable Action by Removing Barriers

Your well-oiled communication machine is humming. It’s time to grow the choir. Institutions often stumble at enlisting the volunteer army and removing barriers. The assumption may be that you have told everyone what you are doing in multiple formats, so let’s hop to it. This is what we need to do so let’s just get it done. Nope, there is still work to do to create compelling reasons for individuals to volunteer as well as acknowledgement of barriers. Ensuring that all members of the college community can participate actively in the change is one step. This may mean offering professional development activities multiple times so faculty who are teaching or classified professionals who are scheduled to work can have the opportunity to attend. Have the choir bring a colleague to an event to help grow your base. If a college sees certain constituent groups are not attending events, do a formative assessment to gather data on why and make changes accordingly.

Generate Short-Term Wins

This is another area where institutions can flounder. There is often such a focus on the long-term goal that people are frustrated by the slow pace. In that frustration, people fail to acknowledge the daily good work and the incremental steps large-scale change requires. So, widely distribute and celebrate the wins…increases in fall to spring persistence, calling 500 students and having them avoid being dropped for non-payment, the beautiful new landscaping in the quad; the amazing handout the History department developed outlining their program road map. It’s easy to point out all the ways something is not going the way you planned…but it’s also just as easy, and infinitely more inspiring, to highlight all the ways things are going right. Create a culture of celebration!

Sustain Acceleration

So you have this great momentum going, the boulder is starting to roll…how do you keep it going? This is where deep, thoughtful, meaningful evaluation is so important. Evaluating the efficacy of changes you’ve made, reflecting on the data, and then continuing to fine tune or apply your success to a different area. Always with an eye on how progress can be implemented institution-wide. This is where assessment and program planning are key tools. Collect data from formative assessments and modify as you go along. Move from retroactive assessment to in-time “remediation” for the institution’s interventions and programs. Colleges want to offer timely assistance to students when they hit a bump in the road, with the right tools, you can do the same thing for your institution.

Institute Change

And once you have the data from assessment and documentation from program reviews and curricular changes, the college is ready to grow the change. What worked? What didn’t? What can we make bigger? What do we let go? This is the good stuff…the opportunity to see the progress you’ve made, honor the work that’s been done, and focus on the excitement of the future. Change goes from a place of fear to a place of celebration.

So that’s it…my Cliff’s Notes for change management. As a former English teacher, I find that analogy a smidge distasteful, but if the yellow-covered pamphlet fits…

Sygielski, J.J. (2019, April 4). Failure is a choice we make. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from

Kotter International (2019). 8-Step Process. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from

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