This post is a summary of a rather lengthy article from the Inside Higher Education weblog on Why Colleges Are So Hard To Change, even when everyone knows it's needed and clamors for it. Here are their reasons behind institutional inertia, summarized:

  1. Doing nothing is always easier and less risky.
  2. Universities are competitive. They're rarely rewarded for collaboration, so they typically don't do it. Individuals are competitive; tend to be more loyal to their subunit (department, lab, research group) than to the university as a whole.
  3. Tradition. (Alumni especially.) Budget allocations, faculty unions, and faculty hiring procedures also support the status quo.
  4. Assessment and accountability are viewed as horrible bothers, not potentially helpful feedback.
  5. External $upport for higher education has dropped in the last decade, so we have less resources to take risks with.
  6. Higher education leaders aren't trained on how to change their institutions, and may not see the value in doing so. Typically, administrators are taught how to preserve the "grand old status quo."
  7. The "bubble" effect - we don't interface with the outside world that we're supposed to serve and prepare our students for.

Unfortunately, at most institutions, any attempt to implement a major academic innovation has been perceived by a majority of faculty as a temporary discomfort that will simply vanish if they stay the course and do nothing. Reinforcing this behavior pattern is the fact that there are rarely any serious consequences for behaving in this manner.

How do we change this? Here's what they say.

  1. Political leaders and agencies need to take action, not just in words but in deeds (resource allocation).
  2. Universities in general need to drag out their dirty laundry and ask for external feedback... and then listen to it.
  3. University leaders, both formal and informal, need to be trained as to how to facilitate transformation and change in their schools.
  4. Industry leaders should be invited to participate in the university change and formation process. They're hiring our graduates, after all.
  5. The general public needs to become better informed about these issues, and speak up on what they think is important.
  6. Faculty and staff should be rewarded within and outside of their disciplines and schools for taking risks and trying new things, even if they don't "succeed." They should also be hired with an eye towards how they can grow the university in the future, not necessarily how well they fit into the "tradition of the now."
  7. Accreditation agencies should support and facilitate changes within the institutions they certify.
  8. Institutional research offices should be placed in every university. (At Olin, we have the Office of Innovation and Research, which I'd really like to hear more from... who wants to talk to Sherra?)
  9. The institution's mission needs to be clear, bold, and known by every member of the school's community. (How many of us know the Olin mission statement?)
  10. K-12 education must be supported by universities. We need to help these kids get ready to come to us.
  11. Finally, my favorite: Teaching and learning must be a primary goal of every institution and be supported at every level and in every unit in both words and action.


It should also be noted that technology can also be a major force for significant institutional change. In many instances it can have an impact far beyond what its advocates envisioned, impacting the mission, priorities and the very culture of the college or university. (emphasis mine)

I'll probably write more on this topic later, but I'd like to hear what other people think about these issues. Are these criteria true? Are we doing them at Olin?