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Oct 14, 2011

The capacity for change

We had an interesting discussion today at the TEIL meeting. Why is higher education so slow to change? What we realized is that the best side of us is also the worst side. As an industry, we have some of the most educated, most dynamic workforce. Faculty are trained to be critical, thoughtful, inquiring. This very advantage makes many changes on campuses almost impossible. The minute one small group comes up with an idea, a suggestion, with a plan, other groups will immediately start investigating and critiquing. They will inevitably find flaws in it, and demand further revision. Yet once revised, the proposal becomes the subject of scrutiny by other groups, and other flaws are immediately found. Eventually, the proposal either dies, or is changed to be very similar to the status quo. Higher education is a unique system where almost everyone has a veto power. Many players can say no, but almost no one can produce a definite yes. So the odds are against any potential change. This is a matter of probability determined by cultural and organizational conditions, not a result of any special conservatism.

The other extreme is passivity, where people are disengaged, and they let administration, or a group of faculty to do whatever the want. This is not a good option either. Change can happen quickly, but first, some of it is not good (the ideas were not vetted), and there is little buy-in and support from faculty. Changes like these are easy to do superficially, but they fall victim of slow sabotage of those who consented but did not engage.

We eventually started to talk about trust, and how it is an essential condition for change. To a certain uncertain degree, we need to operate on trust, and suspend our critical judgment. For example, if we trust a committee to develop something, and then find their product unconvincing, we should make an attempt to accept, unless this is something completely unacceptable. We simply cannot develop everything by consensus. Consensus is great for fundamental beliefs and strategic priorities, but fairly counter-productive for developing specific things. Writing by committee only works when people become exhausted, and ultimately disengaged (which is the error of the second kind). All campuses I have seen often fluctuate between the two extremes of jaded passivity (usually about big decisions) and of spirited struggle (usually about the littlest things).

In most cases, our thinking should be like this: OK, you guys were asked to do something; and I was amongst those who asked you. I was also asked for input, but sorry, did not have time to provide much. OK, now you produced something that, frankly, is not that great. I would do a much better job, no doubt. But hey, I was not on that committee; I did not hear all the debate and compromises. I am talented, but busy. Well, OK, perhaps my version would be just as vulnerable as yours. Can I live with what you produced? Is this against my core professional and ethical beliefs? - Not really. Is there ill intent behind this? - Probably not, just benign incompetence. So, I can’t do everything myself, so let’s try it. Next time, I‘ll get on that committee and get things right.

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