Transformational Change in a World Comfortable with the Status Quo

Status quo has never been an option for leaders in the world of higher education, particularly for those of us in the community college sector. Living in an environment that demands updates and improvements to the programs and services community colleges provide, institutional leaders must contemplate the most effective ways to engage in needed transformations. Yet, why is it that community colleges struggle with change and transformation of nearly any type? These undertakings are, by their very nature and design often complex and dynamic, including initiatives such as: diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies; success and completion initiatives (e.g., Guided Pathways); innovative means to use data to support student success; and expanded uses of technology to increase productivity and effectiveness. If we are so committed to implementing the change that we say is mission critical, what can we do as leaders to better prepare our colleges for the transformational change that is needed to support our future? It is incumbent for leaders to develop a mechanism within our structure that softens the blow of change and prepares team members to be ready to undertake new initiatives with relative comfort. If we don’t prepare the college community for implementing great ideas, we will continue to flounder, and our college communities will be apt to smother important opportunities.

Authors such as Dr. John Kotter, Dr. Jeffrey L. Buller, and Dr. Alex Johnson have considered models that provide guidance on how educational leaders might prepare institutions for transformation. Each of the scholars studied suggested models to enhance the chances of success. However, in our work on transformational leadership, the question we must consider is whether there is a one-size-fits-all option.

In Leading Change (2012) Kotter presents eight steps that can be used to transform an organization. His model includes steps such as: establishing a sense of urgency; developing a guiding coalition; communicating the vision; and empowering employees to implement change. Kotter is very clear that for change processes to work, a leader must be sure that necessary training and opportunites are provided to those who get on board with change. Kotter’s model includes the critical concept of stages to change, but the process seems overly linear, and as a result, could be ineffective in an environment such as higher education which values communication at every opportunity. 

In Change Leadership in Higher Education: A Practical Guide to Academic Transformation (2015), Buller explores his process of Ten Analytical Lenses. He suggests that the imperative question one must ask prior to undertaking change is what drives change in the first place. Buller highlights the necessity of creating a culture of innovation within our institutions and is less focused on the data “we can’t control” and more focused on the development of an environment that fosters innovation and improvement, valuing strengths and talent found within our organizations. As Buller says, “Meaningful change is about the culture of the organization, and the culture is all about the people.”

In Capturing Change: Creating Systems of Transformation Through Continuous Improvement (2021), Johnson discusses the development of a system of transformation: using our tried-and-true steps of vision, strategy, and benchmarking; assuring human and financial resources are in place; and embracing incremental successes and development of a culture that embraces rather than avoids change. He speaks to the critical nature of clear and regular communication and the mandatory need for professional development to ensure our talent pool is ready to implement transformation as the organization evolves. 

So, what have we learned? 

First, developing a culture that embraces innovation and change is imperative for leaders in today’s higher education environment. If the culture of the institution is not ready to embrace innovation, college communities will instead smother needed transformative innovations in diversity and inclusion, completion and student success initiatives, or new programs and services in support of workforce and economic development. Instead, institutional inertia will stymie these initiatives.

Next, when introducing innovation, leaders must become consciously focused on communication and leadership across every level and stage of innovation. We can no longer simply expect our college teams to embrace an initiative because we see it as the next new wave program. Communication is the mission critical step to any innovation. Bring the college community into the discussion as early as possible, be a good listener as concerns are raised, and keep everyone in the loop as development occurs. 

Provide necessary professional and leadership development for all of those in need to be sure the team is ready and comfortable with implementing change. Also, it is critical that the appropriate resources are available to support the change. If adequate resources are not set aside and available, an important cornerstone of success is missing. 

Finally, develop a process customized to your institution to address transformation. There is no single cookie cutter approach to transformation on a college campus. Designing and utilizing a process that works for your institution, a process that your team is comfortable in using, will ease the transformation and anxiety that comes along with managing change.  

Dr. Terry Calaway is president/CEO emeritus, Johnson County Community College (Kan.), chair, Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) Advisory Board, and professor of practice, College of Education, Kansas State University. Dr. Karen Miller serves as provost and executive vice president, Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio). Dr. Larry Rideaux Jr. is president of Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods (Mo.).

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.