By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute 

EPI spent a couple of days last week at SUNYCon, the State University of New York’s annual policy conference in New York City. This year’s SUNYCon, the short name of SUNY’s Annual “Critical Issues in Higher Education” Conference, focused on change management in higher education.

At SUNYCon, with Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of SUNY; Watson Scott Swail, President, EPI, and Kimberly Landis, Vice President, EPI. 

Using a somewhat fresh approach, SUNY brought in experts from outside higher education, including Xerox, McKinsey and Company, and other often health care-related groups to shed new light on organizational change. The typical organizations were also here, including Lumina and Carnegie, but most of the attendees were from the 64 SUNY campuses across the state.

Dan Heath was the opening keynoter and author of recent books that include Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, and Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Heath had some good advice for the change management process at institutions of higher education, including these two gems:

  • Behavior is contagious. Heath showed old candid camera (ok, that dates many of us) film of a person going into an elevator and basically following what others are doing in the elevator (e.g., taking off hats; turning in a certain direction). The basic message? That people follow what others are do, and when change behavior is utilized, others will follow it if they think that is the norm.
  • If you want change, failure is part of the deal. Heath gave a great example of what happens when a child first walks. They fall down. Do you give up on them and say, “well, you’re done. You’ll never walk.” Change takes time and there will be failures along the way. Expect them. Anticipate them.

A separate panel later discussed the complex issue of how to deal with large-scale change in organizations, with two caveats being:

  • Break it down. Break down large pieces into smaller pieces and have smaller success along the way. People have a difficult time contemplating large changes, but can handle small ones along the way.
  • Ensure that key stakeholders are involved and engaged in the process.

Jeff Edmondson of Strive Together, a Cincinnati-based non-profit, talked about the importance of changing every day. He said that it isn’t enough to show up to a quarterly or monthly meeting. Change required changes every day. He also suggested focusing on the most vulnerable students at institutions and in their outreach, as that’s where the greatest need is and where the largest changes can happen. And finally, he focused on the importance of harnessing data to identify the bright spots and scale up.

Change in education at any level is difficult. I think harder than any other organizations because there are many filters and levels to deal with. For public education, there are federal, state, and local regulations to work though, as well as institutional leadership, which tends to change rapidly and often. Layer on that the other layer of mission creep plus the focus on revenue generation before education mission, and the confluence of these factors makes change much more challenging in higher education.

Congratulations to Jason Lane, Nancy Zimpher, and the many others at SUNY for putting forward an appealing and, yes, critical conversation on the issues of reworking our educational systems.

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