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Strategies for Successful Change: Lessons from the American Council on Education and W. K. Kellogg Foundation Project on Transformational Change

by Barbara Hill
Barbara Hill is a senior fellow in the Center for Leadership Development and International Initiatives of the American Council on Education.

In 1994, the American Council on Education (ACE) and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) formed a partnership to help colleges and universities succeed with comprehensive or transformational change-a deep and pervasive type of intentional change that affects the institution as a whole rather than its discrete parts. In considering the nine case studies that follow, it is useful to draw on the findings of this project, which offer a number of strategies that have contributed to successful change.

ACE and WKKF selected 26 institutions of all types to participate in a project to help them identify, clarify, and address their own agendas for change. The project targeted institutions that sought to undertake a comprehensive change agenda rather than to solve discrete problems through isolated solutions and strategies. It also aimed to engage the institutions in an examination of their current approaches to leadership and decision making and to encourage them to experiment with new forms of both. A list of project institutions and the topic each selected appears below.

Project on Leadership and Institutional Transformation Participating Institutions by Change Theme
Faculty Roles and Rewards

Kent State University (Reconceptualizing Faculty Roles and Rewards)
Knox College (Reconfiguring Faculty Roles and Rewards)
Portland State University (Developing Faculty for the Urban University of the 21st Century)
Stephen F. Austin University (Revitalizing Faculty, Staff, and Administration)

Creating a Learning-Centered Institution

The City College of New York (Maximizing Student Success)
Maricopa County Community College District (Achieving the Desired Learning Paradigm)
Michigan State University (Enhancing the Intensity of the Academic Environment) Valencia Community College (Becoming a Learning-Centered College)

The First-Year Experience

Seton Hall University (Transforming the Learning Environment)
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (Improving the Collegiate Experience for First-Year Students)
Wellesley College (Improving Intellectual Life at the College)

Reforming/Reconceptualizing the Curriculum

Northeastern University (Academic Common Experience)
State University of New York at Geneseo (Reforming the Undergraduate Curriculum)
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras (Reconceptualizing the Baccalaureate Degree)
Mills College (Strengthening the Two Faces of its Institutional Identity)

Developing Community

Centenary College of Louisiana (Developing Campus Community for Quality Teaching and Scholarship)
University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (Building Community: An Institutional Approach to Academic Excellence)
University of Arizona (Department Heads: Catalysts for Building Academic Community)
El Paso Community College District (Managing Change in a System of Shared Governance)

Institutional Culture

Olivet College (Creating a Climate of Social Responsibility)
University of Massachusetts Boston (Improving Through Assessment)
Bowie State University (Creating a Transcending Institution)
College of DuPage (Creating an Environment of Change)

Enhancing Teaching and Learning Through Technology

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology)
University of Hartford (Planning and Managing Technology as Part of Teaching and Learning)
Ball State University (Defining, Refining and Implementing the Teacher-Scholar Model in a Technology Environment)

The project focused both on substantive change themes and on change processes. Examples of the former included improving teaching and learning, redefining faculty roles and rewards, and determining new curricular priorities. Change processes included such issues as the role of leadership throughout an institution, dilemmas caused by underlying values and assumptions, and the need to create a climate of trust and civility.

The project was based on the following assumptions and values:

  • Shared leadership is essential to institutional change.
  • Teamwork and coalition building are central to the change process.
  • Comprehensive and enduring change starts with conversation.
  • All participants in the change process are learners.
  • Faculty and administrators must form new alliances to succeed at change.
  • Those who have been left out of the process because of their position in the institution, or their race, ethnicity, or gender must be included.

The findings from the ACE/WKKF project broaden and deepen common understanding about how intentional change occurs. They do not refute typically held views that vision, leadership, and commitment are central, but refine them by adding nuance and detail.


The insights offered here come from three sources. First, project consultants conducted biannual campus visits and held monthly phone calls with campus leaders. Second, representatives from the 26 institutions reflected on their experiences-their successes and frustrations-in a series of reports and at four project meetings. Finally, many institutional leaders gave presentations at national meetings and wrote articles and reports about their experiences with change.

Over their engagement with the project, institutions that were consistently purposeful and reflective about change developed new behaviors and strategies that could be used again and again. Colleges and universities that learned from their experiences found new ways to respond to the challenges of their environments and developed new capacities with which to face the future successfully. Two fundamental insights emerged from their experiences.

First, change leaders were guided by the recognition that change is not an event, with a beginning, middle, and comfortable end point. Rather it is an ongoing, evolutionary process, where one change triggers another, often in unexpected places. This interrelationship of the components leads to an endless cycle of reassessment and renewal. No wonder change leaders often worry about the dangers of burnout for the key players and the anxiety that occurs when people realize that real change means there is no point when everyone can declare a victory and go back to normal life. As one provost put it, “Now that we have been through this incredibly difficult period of restructuring and program realignment, how do I tell the faculty that the next big change is already upon us?”

The second understanding, related to the first, is that comprehensive or transformational change requires holistic and integrated thinking about the institution. Rethinking undergraduate education is not just about changing course content or course offerings. It requires new approaches to student services, faculty development, assessment, and links to the community. While no institution can address everything at once, the awareness that change triggers more change is an essential conceptual tool for leaders.

The combined experience of the 26 participating institutions points to a number of strategies that contributed to success as they sought to make major changes on their campuses. The first series of insights into the successes concerns actions that institutions take, that is, factors they can control to bring about success. The second series relates to context, or the uncontrollable characteristics of the external or campus environments that facilitate or impede change. These insights show that while intent and strategy are essential, not all factors associated with the change process can be controlled. Institutional history, as well as external forces and events, may thwart a well-designed and well-executed change initiative.

Intentional Strategies

The following is a chronology of actions for implementing successful change exemplified in the experiences of the institutions participating in the ACE/WKKF project.

Leaders make a clear and compelling case to key stakeholders about why things must be done differently. Institutional leaders who succeed with change initiatives clearly articulate why it is necessary and why current approaches no longer work. These leaders realize that key constituents must recognize the necessity for action before they willingly participate. The proposed change must address something considered important-such as the experiences of students or the faculty’s professional lives-a better future rather than simply a different one.

Institutions struggled when leaders failed to garner interest in and support for change. In these cases, the agenda was usually identified by a small coterie of administrative leaders, typically with insufficient faculty input. The change initiative seemed detached from the concerns of the campus-a solution in search of a problem, or change for the sake of change. Change agendas did not generate enthusiasm if they were not meaningful to those affected by them or those expected to carry them out.

Change leaders craft an agenda that both makes sense and focuses on improvement without assigning blame. To be successful, a change agenda must make sense to those on campus and, at the same time, challenge values and practices that are no longer working. Successful change agendas are also framed so that they do not assign blame. Change often threatens those who interpret the need for change as an indictment of their current or past knowledge, competence, or performance-a judgment that strikes them personally and deeply. Leaders of institutions that made progress crafted their agendas for change in terms of a better future and an improved institution without making people feel attacked or diminished.

Several institutional leaders began crafting change agendas by articulating the pressing issues as a series of questions without prematurely selling “solutions.” This approach fostered the campus community’s desire to be involved in constructing responses and devising solutions. The questioning process led to a collectively crafted vision of the future that excited all participants. Thus, a curriculum change began with the question, “What should a graduate of this institution know and be able to do?” The process of forging agreement on the solutions both harnessed creativity and developed widespread ownership for the resulting change agendas.

Change leaders who framed concerns as a set of solutions to be implemented often had difficulty gaining support from faculty for the change initiative. On most campuses, individuals tend not to see the same problems, let alone the same solutions. Without a process to discuss the problems in depth and tap into the creativity and intelligence of the community in generating solutions, change initiatives rarely get off the ground.

Change leaders develop connections among different activities and individuals across campus that create synergy and provide momentum for the initiative. Comprehensive change, which is both broad in scope and deep in impact, consists of a series of discrete, related changes that, when joined together, lead to large-scale change. A key to successful change for many participating institutions was finding and creating linkages among various activities occurring on their campuses.

Connections and linkages within each institution help create and sustain the energy required for a long-term investment in change. On many campuses, multiple change initiatives provided an important range of opportunities with which numerous individuals could become involved. Additional energy was created because multiple projects facilitated new connections among individuals from different parts of the institutions. These new connections, in turn, led to fresh conversations that generated original ideas and strengthened shared purposes.

At the same time, successful institutions look outside themselves-through connections to other institutions, funding agencies, and national efforts-to provide the impetus to undertake a change initiative, enhance its legitimacy, and generate momentum to continue the efforts. Understanding how issues at a particular institution are tied to those of higher education in general-regionally, nationally, and internationally-helps leaders overcome the insularity that impedes movement.

Senior administrators support and are involved in institutional efforts. Successful change requires active participation by those with authority over budgets, personnel, and institutional priorities. Otherwise, change efforts do not receive the needed resources and generate nothing more than frustration. The support of the president or provost, both in word and in deed, is critical.

Successful change leaders recognize windows of opportunity created by everyday events and capitalize on serendipity, taking action or making decisions to move the change agenda forward. They facilitate progress on their change agenda by constantly focusing the attention of the institution on it-by regularly attending key meetings, setting agendas, allocating resources, and constantly sending messages that the change initiative is important. By paying attention to opportunities to effect change over the course of a typical week, leaders find small levers for change, which accumulate for a large impact over time.

The participating institutions that made progress had active, involved leaders who took visible risks to reinforce the importance of the change initiative. They made both financial and human resources available. They removed institutional barriers and provided opportunities and structures through which the campus community could constructively cope with its fears and frustrations.

Collaborative leadership identifies and empowers talent across campus and at a variety of levels. The energy required to make progress on intentional change is not limited to senior administrative leaders, but rather taps into the capacities of many different individuals; leadership by the faculty and mid-level administrators is critical. Individuals throughout the campus who have stature, skills, talent, and credibility can help lead the change initiative by formulating and implementing a shared agenda for change. They can shape collective opinion, use their expertise to address a variety of institutional issues, and give credibility to the process and the products they helped to create.

Participating institutions used a variety of approaches to identify leadership talent throughout their institutions. Some used traditional means, such as relying on key institutional administrators, identifying leaders of important faculty committees, or selecting successful department chairs. In other institutions, key opinion shapers were asked to identify other campus leaders whom they admired. Those individuals, in turn, were asked to identify additional leaders, creating a large pool of potential collaborators. Another group of institutions invited everyone interested to participate and, over time, identified leaders from among the group of energetic volunteers.

Leaders develop supporting structures, create incentives, and provide resources for change efforts. Successful institutional leaders realize that a change initiative depends on a variety of structures, processes, and resources to facilitate and support it. Institutions can use a range of incentives to motivate key individuals to commit time and energy to the change process, including summer salaries, computer upgrades, conference travel money, and public recognition.

Institutions that made progress on incorporating technology into teaching practices provided easily accessible computer training for faculty members; they created processes to simplify the acquisition of hardware, software, and technical advice; and they offered curriculum development workshops. By removing barriers and creating supporting structures, these campus leaders facilitated the adoption of new technologies. These opportunities also were flexible so that faculty could adopt new techniques in ways that met specific needs. Successful leaders did not force a “cookie-cutter” approach.

Leaders focus campus attention on the change issue. To be successful with change initiatives, change leaders must resist getting engulfed by the turbulence that occurs in every institutional system and must keep the campus focused on the issues at hand. Through the cumulative effect of a variety of tactics, some of which have been described earlier, they minimize distractions that quickly consume energy, demand attention, and thus derail the change efforts. They refer to the change agenda using consistent language and symbols in public presentations and make it part of everyday conversations. They use e-mail and the Web to communicate broadly about deliberations and results of project meetings and activities. Successful leaders also develop incentives for various individuals throughout the organization to incorporate the change agenda into their work. They endorse projects on campus related to the larger issue. They hold campus symposia, create faculty development activities, and sponsor nationally prominent speakers to focus campus attention.

Successful institutions do not rely on a single approach or make the change initiative solely the responsibility of one group. Rather, they recognize that the initiative is substantive enough to create multiple opportunities for various groups to work as partners. In addition, they do not allow new issues to steal attention.

Institutional change leaders work within a culture, while challenging its comfort zone, to change the culture. To make progress on a change initiative, an institution develops ways to operate paradoxically: changing its culture in ways congruent with its culture. Doing this may seem implausible, but institutions succeed at this difficult task when they understand how their culture works so they can intentionally create effective strategies. The change process must be compatible with an institution’s own cultural norms and standards or it appears illegitimate and inappropriate, and, in the end, is ineffective.

Successful institutional leaders use methods viewed as legitimate for identifying individuals to be members of change teams because they cannot impose a method inconsistent with campus patterns of participation and decision making. They recognize that violating the traditions and structures of campus-wide decision making dooms change efforts to failure.

Leaders plan for change over the long term. Achieving comprehensive, intentional change is a long process, and successful change leaders develop strategies that capture and hold attention over many semesters and through distractions. For many institutions, this means spending time laying the groundwork for change. For example, some leaders looked at change in terms of a four-year cycle, which is how long it takes a new cohort of students to “live” through the changes completely and to have all students under a common, and new, system.

By recognizing that planning for long-term change requires different assumptions and strategies than short-term change, campus leaders also weigh the effects of particular strategies, rejecting those with only short-term returns that can potentially derail the change efforts later. They choose not to fight some battles or to modify their time frames. They realize a short-term mind-set may do more harm than good, and thus they prepare for and understand the consequences of long-term change.

Environmental and Contextual Factors

An institution’s potential success or failure with a change initiative does not depend solely on the strategies it uses. Its historical and external contexts are critical as well. Below are three factors that significantly affect institutional change efforts.

Institutions have a climate of goodwill. The work of change in the academy is collective, and the bedrock of collective action is goodwill and trust. This climate exists when individuals believe that others are acting in good faith, that they themselves are heard, that information is not being hidden, that they are free to draw their own conclusions rather than be told what to think, and that individuals can be trusted to do what is best for the institution. Institutions with goodwill are places where a critical mass of faculty believes that administrators are not interested only in the bottom line or in advancing their own careers, but are concerned with teaching, learning, and research. While mistrust is frequently attributed to relationships between faculty and administrators, it also characterizes some relationships among faculty and among administrators. A climate of goodwill is created over time; it is the by-product of effective relationships and productive conflict resolution.

Participating institutions that made progress with change had sufficient goodwill to overcome the mistrust that characterizes many campuses. At these institutions, administrators generally believed that faculty were concerned about institutional well-being beyond their discipline’s boundaries. Institutions that told success stories about a climate of goodwill spoke of abundant communication, the free flow of information, and genuine participation. Some participating institutions that did not have a history of goodwill spent much time and energy working to create a climate of trust.

Institutions have favorable external environments. Environmental stress affects an institution’s ability to succeed with change. On a continuum with three broad categories-low stress, medium stress, and high stress-institutions in the middle have the most favorable environment in which to create intentional change because a moderate amount of stress creates an impetus for change without being disabling. Institutions in low- and high-stress environments also can make progress, but more slowly or with more difficulty.

Institutions in low-stress environments must develop strategies to generate energy for change. For example, leaders in these institutions must work to make a compelling case for why the status quo is not acceptable. At the other end of the continuum, institutional leaders in high-stress environments must find ways to deflect externally generated static to make progress on their change agendas. In these institutions-with new problems constantly arising or old ones recurring-leaders have the additional challenge of acting as a buffer against outside stresses so that the institution can concentrate on the desired change.

Leaders stay long enough for the change to take hold. Institutions that make progress benefit from consistent leadership, both from senior administrators and from others throughout the campus. Leaders who stay provide sustained support for the change initiative, reinforce the importance of the change initiative, and are in a position to keep campus attention focused over the long run and to provide a continuous stream of resources. Most important, they provide consistency during the process and play the important role of championing it.

Leadership turnover is often a decisive factor in institutional success or failure. Many participating institutions experienced changes of presidents, provosts, or key faculty at critical points in the change process. Those that continued to make progress in spite of turnover were characterized by leadership at many levels of the institution. When many individuals on campus become the champions of change-a result of purposefully involving new cohorts of potential leaders-wide ownership of the agenda drives efforts forward, beyond the tenure of any single administrator or faculty leader.

Leadership turnover is not something that can be commanded or controlled; leaders leave for numerous reasons. Yet the timing of a leader’s departure is critical. When a change initiative has not had time to develop a wide base of support, the departure of a key leader is likely to stall or sink the process. Some institutions facing a leadership transition can continue their efforts-in some cases, almost without interruption-because they have developed momentum based on widespread leadership: The initiative does not rest with one person or even a small cohort of leaders.


Although these insights comprise neither a twelve-step program to institutional transformation nor a guarantee of success in future change initiatives, their power lies in their associated lessons of intent and reflection. No matter how many “successful strategies” an institution employed or how well the strategies were executed, the success of each initiative was linked with three habits of mind displayed by the change leaders:

  • They were intentional in their actions. Change was an act to be managed, not a happenstance to be endured.
  • They were reflective on their change endeavors.
  • They learned from their actions and adjusted their plans. Their change agendas were dynamic, not static, suggesting that the strategies and behaviors that were learned could be used again and again, giving them new ways to respond to the challenges of their environments.

The early results of the ACE/WKKF Project on Leadership and Institutional Transformation demonstrate that institutions of higher education can change successfully in pervasive ways. The experiences of the 26 institutions indicate that change is both complex and surprising-positively and negatively-and, at the same time, that the intentional pursuit of the successful strategies outlined here can lead to meaningful, thriving, and comprehensive change.

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