Levels of Change in Higher Education
By Lisa Jasinski, Special Projects Coordinator in Academic Affairs at Trinity University
Recently I was asked to examine a challenge from my professional practice in greater depth. I found inspiration in an unlikely place. This December, I took some time off from my job as an academic administrator at a private liberal arts college and traveled to Mexico City. There, I visited two thousand-year-old, pre-Aztec pyramids at the archeological site Teotihuacán (see a picture from my trip below).
Using this and other images from my travels, I’ll consider some common challenges facing academic leaders who lead strategic institutional change.
In my academic discipline of art history, when describing a two-dimensional image—painting, photography, cinema—it’s not uncommon to describe the picture using different visual planes:Foreground, Middle ground, and Background. Even though the image is flat, planes help us perceive depth and describe precisely the location of objects relative to others.
Foreground: This is the part of the image that appears closest to the viewer. In this case, the green, lumbering cactus.
Background: This is the part of the image that appears furthest away. Off in the distance, you can see one of the ancient pyramids, and even further off, mountains and clouds.
Middle ground: Not surprisingly, the middle ground—in this case, dry grasses, a fence, and some trees—is sandwiched between the two.
So what does this have to do with higher ed?
My institution is implementing a strategic plan. And while this project has challenged me in many ways, the greatest challenge has been fundamental—it doesn’t come naturally for me (or my colleagues) to think about abstract conceptual visions.
In higher education, we pride ourselves on being creative, and even a bit scrappy, in the face of ubiquitous scarcity, limited resources, understaffed offices, impossible deadlines, and the glacial pace of change. In this general context, this fall, I’ve been working with strategic planning task forces, groups of faculty and staff charged with proposing concrete implementation plans to achieve the institution’s strategic objectives in the next two to eight years.
That brings me to the final image from my trip.
My work—and my world—more often looks like this. Instead of the nicely balanced initial image, here the foreground swells to dominate the frame. And the cactus metaphor feels apt. Just look at it—how visually interesting and complex the needles are. For me, the details are never boring.
It’s not only that this particular cactus in this particular image is visually interesting, but that the science of optics helps explain why all viewers focus on the cactus. Images in the foreground always appear bigger. They dominate the frame and appear larger than anything else. Even when we know intuitively that the distant mountain is objectively bigger than the cactus, our eyes and brain tell us otherwise.
Moreover, this dominant foreground cactus represents the preferred mode of thinking in higher ed.
Foreground: The foreground represents the quick, cheap, easy changes—those things we can accomplish using existing resources or modest increases. Foreground thinking enables us to streamline cumbersome processes, improve efficiency, and eliminate redundancies. When we work in the foreground, we improve a training workshop or solve a nagging problem.
My brain loves the foreground. It comes naturally for me to visualize improvements that are concrete, logistical, and doable. My university colleagues serving on the strategic planning task force liked thinking this way too. With little prompting, they rattled off dozens of foreground suggestions, the so-called “bubblegum and band-aids” approaches that lead to tangible improvements. Most of these suggestions cost less than $1,000 to implement. Foreground suggestions promise to improve the daily workflow, enrich the lives of our colleagues, and, presumably, enhance the learning and experiences of our students.
But I know that it’s only part of the picture . . .
Middle ground: Beyond what can be done quickly and cheaply, there’s a second layer to strategic change. Middle ground recommendations might include adding new positions, scaling up a pilot program, or adopting new ways to collect and analyze institutional data. Most carry a $25,000 to $200,000 price tag and take between three and five years to complete. Compared to the abundant foreground recommendations, my colleagues proposed fewer strategies of this magnitude.
Background: Our task force conversations seldom strayed this far. Background recommendations are big and hard. They entail significant resources (a half million dollars or more) and are often tantamount to culture change. Background recommendations involve significant internal reorganization or getting all hands on deck to launch a signature program (perhaps even sunset another). Even after repeated attempts to steer the conversation in visionary directions, the task forces proposed few implementation suggestions that were this grand or complex.
My initial instinct was to help my colleagues get beyond foreground thinking. As the administrator charged with facilitating these discussions, I saw my role as helping the group get unstuck when we got tangled up in the comfortable, compelling, familiar, and satisfying foreground proposals. I found myself asking questions like: What would you do after implementing these initial changes? What would you do with $100,000? $500,000? How does this improve student learning?
But even as I posed these questions, I wondered if shifting the focus to big, radical change would do more harm than good. During my years in the Teagle Scholar program, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism for the value of Vision (with a capital V).
American culture often tells us that great leaders have vision. And while those who pray at the altar of Steve Jobs may disagree, I don’t believe this to be true. I value other traits in my leaders—authenticity, listening skills, transparency, accountability, the willingness to change one’s mind, the power to distinguish between real issues and noise, and most importantly, the gift to bring out the best in others. Are background recommendations or vision really the panacea we seek?
So much of what higher ed middle managers do day in and day out is work through the nitty-gritty details. How hard should we push our colleagues to think about the “one day” blue-sky future when we can do so much to improve the efficacy of our work and the lives of our students with gradual, thoughtful, and modest improvements?
I don’t mean to suggest that there is no value in having a commonly shared plan of where a university is heading; rather, I believe that it’s more important to keep all three planes—the foreground, middleground, and background—in clear focus. We all benefit from a periodic nudge to think about how our individual efforts contribute to the larger whole. But, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t thinking and acting strategically when we attend to the foreground details. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to do what I can to bring about the kinds of changes that, concretely and tangibly, improve the lives of students.