Implementing Improvement and Change in Higher Education
As you read the scenarios that introduced this chapter, immediate solutions may have come to mind. Using an online routing system with electronic signatures would save both time and trees. Stipulating that externally funded research requests require a priority response from the Office of Design and Construction would ensure timely responses to those construction requests. Thank you notes will flow to donors in a timely fashion when an expectation is established requiring all gifts be acknowledged within 72 hours of receipt. Most organizational leaders who have a stake in the process, however, rarely have the opportunity to step back and view a complete process, discovering its inherent problems, delays, and activities that add no value. They feel the need to ensure that the process, despite its deficiencies, continues to operate, because the “crash” of a process would be ten times more disastrous than simply continuing a process that all acknowledge is deficient. Even when there is time to examine a university process, there is often no common, overarching framework that guides how a process should be studied, diagnosed, and changed. Instead, individuals rely on what they think will be best and fail to recognize that a change in one part of a process may have unintended consequences for the upstream and downstream steps and activities.
Most universities report adopting continuous improvement practices,6 whether the improvement reflects a small, localized, and incremental change to how it works or whether it embraces institution-wide transformational change in response to a current or imminent crisis. However well-intentioned these efforts, many (if not most) have fallen short and, in some cases, have been deleterious to the university. The university makes improvements, but often these improvements are limited to the immediate problem at hand. The university often does not monitor improvements to confirm their success over time; the improvements may work in the short run but fail over time as the university regresses back to the old way of doing things (or because of unforeseen negative consequences caused by the improvement). Given the limited periodic reviews of oversight agencies and the average tenure of university leaders and board members, this might satisfice. Working toward a small gain may improve both the process and its outcome, even if the immediate gain is small relative to the investment of resources required to make these improvements. Nevertheless, institutions will rarely have a sense of the true gains possible but never reached. While institutions of higher education put forth their best efforts to change in order to be more responsive, efficient, and effective, current efforts may no longer be enough in light of the external challenges disrupting higher education now and in the future.7
■ In the United States, financial support for higher education has eroded and shows no sign of returning to previous levels of support. The downward trend in state support for public higher education was exacerbated by the Great Recession, and legislators and governors feel compelled to redirect limited resources to the immediate needs of K-12 education, prisons, and public health care over the long-term investment in greater access to the postsecondary education required by employers building their workforce for the new economy. Other countries face similar challenges in public support for higher education as they seek
to provide greater expanded access to postsecondary education while wrestling with limited resources and competing demands.
■ While tuition costs have risen both to offset the pullback in public support and the rising expenses deemed essential to provide a high quality education, students, parents, and legislators are pushing back. Families of prospective students are becoming increasingly price sensitive, and admission offices face increasing pressures to enhance institutional aid packages to meet their enrollment targets. Tuition discounting (i.e., institutional financial aid awards that reduce the actual tuition students pay to well below the publicized sticker price) is creating significant challenges for small, private liberal arts colleges with small endowments to cover these reductions in revenue necessary to attract a freshman class.
■ University graduates in the United States and many countries face an increasing student loan burden; the prospect of high loan payments deters many from attending, and the reality of loan payments after graduation results in many leaving lower-paid professions (e.g., teaching) where their real passions and academic preparation reside, postponing starting a family or purchasing a home, and delaying their plans to launch a new business.
■ Internal and external pressures to contain costs are increasing. Those outside higher education perceive it as expensive and inefficient. Tuition freezes and caps on increases, and mandated initiatives and reporting to document cost reductions, are imposed by legislators in what most charitably might be called a challenge to higher education to fix itself. News coverage of the university leader’s (e.g., President, vice-chancellor) compensation rarely conclude that their salaries are reflective of the comparability between their jobs and those of CEOs in the private sector. At the same time, faculty members are confronted about their perceived high salaries and limited time in the classroom.
■ Higher education is a labor-intensive process with faculty and staff deserving equitable compensation for the education, skills, and experiences they bring to their institutions. Some argue that limited productivity gains in the service sector over time contribute to the notably higher inflationary costs of higher education, where universities compete to recruit and retain tenure-track faculty.8 The growth in less expensive nontenure track and part-time faculty contributes to the teaching mission and helps to maintain a low student-to-faculty ratio, with primary responsibility for the curriculum and scholarship falling on a shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty. University administration
is often seen as a bloated bureaucracy that adds little value to higher education, but critics fail to realize that some of the growth is driven by compliance with mandated requirements by government and accrediting bodies and the expanding needs of students (e.g., counseling services) to support their success.
■ Greater public accountability of higher education is demanded. Students and parents want assurances that their tuition is being used toward their personal education rather than subsidizing other students, the research activities of faculty, or student athletics. Legislators are linking additional expectations (e.g., improvements in efficiency, text book affordability, transferability of college credits) to higher education appropriations. There is greater scrutiny of voluntary accrediting bodies and greater demand for transparency on such issues as graduation rates, job placement, and average student debt. Underemployment following graduation may lead parents and graduates to wonder whether the college degree was worth the time and expense. Some argue that taxpayer support for public higher education is a poor investment with minimal payoff.9
■ Technology offers unprecedented competition and changes in the design and delivery of higher education. Massively Open Online Courses, online degree and competency-based education programs, active learning classrooms, computer adaptive delivery and testing of course materials, and alternatives to traditional degrees (e.g., badges and credentials), and the future potential of big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, may dramatically change educational offerings, their delivery, and the student experience - and the concomitant role of university faculty and staff.10
■ Demographic trends may result in “rightsizing” the number of universities due to reduced demand. The projected number of US high school graduates is expected to remain flat through 2023, with a steep decline (“demographic cliff”) in the number of high school graduates - especially in those areas of the United States that are oversaturated with colleges and universities. Declines in the number of international students and increased competition (e.g., expansion of online programs and universities) may also have long-term impacts on maintaining enrollments to support university operations. In 2014-2018, 129 US private nonprofit universities closed.11
These and other challenges to the future of higher education confront senior administrators and their governing boards as they seek to preserve the distinct missions of their institutions. Discussions take place on every campus regarding the balance of tuition increases and financial aid awards to ensure student access. The university’s leadership makes strategic choices about the size and composition of the student body it hopes to recruit and serve, as well as the size, composition, and compensation of faculty who will teach them. These choices impact the resources needed for the nonacademic staff and physical plant. The increasing costs of support for academic services and student support programs may necessitate the reduction or elimination of some of these efforts despite their potential impact on student success. Overall, the future of higher education faces significant challenges in its efforts to promote student access, retention, persistence, and success.
University responses to these challenges and others are as diverse as the types and missions of these institutions. Some institutions hope these challenges are transitory, believing that strong public and financial support for higher education will return over time. Given the historical cyclical nature of public support for higher education, this might seem reasonable or risky, because it assumes that future conditions are not very different from those in the past. The President may recommend short-term decisions to shore up the institution until the golden days return. Some institutions might react to challenges by implementing plans of action that offer a reasonable response for the near future. For example, a university may offer an early retirement program that quickly vacates a number of senior faculty lines to reduce personnel costs. An across-the-board cut or sweeping of reserves helps resolve short-term deficits while punishing those whose programs are in demand and/or have managed their resources well. On the other hand, a university may continue to operate on a “cost plus” basis, increasing tuition as necessary to meet the costs of a good education and hope that it does not price itself out of its market (less a concern in western Europe where tuition and fees for domestic students may be set by the government - as long as appropriate levels of government support continue). Programs and initiatives might be introduced (e.g., hiring freezes, energy savings, limits on travel) which end when funding levels increase. This reactive approach is probably the most common, seeking to strike a balance between short- and long-term interests of the institution.
Other institutions proactively address the challenges they face through strong leadership and a formally developed strategic plan reflecting perhaps a change in mission, a new focus for academic programs, a change in emphasis on research, and recruiting students in anticipation of national trends. The leaders of these institutions might introduce university-wide initiatives and programs to change their cultures and operations in an effort to maintain and enhance their quality and effectiveness. These universities consider university-wide input and participation in their responses to these challenges, support the new directions with training and other resources required for success, and motivate faculty and staff participation with statements and actions by campus leaders as well as the institution’s reward system. The American Council on Education’s Project on Leadership and Institutional Transformation studied 26 institutions as they implemented a wide variety of change initiatives in response to “disruptors” to longstanding traditions and beliefs (e.g., funding, competition, declining public confidence). There were significant challenges in implementing both the university-wide initiatives and creating the necessary preconditions to help the initiatives take root and grow. But the project recognized that intentional university-wide change efforts are needed to transform higher education in this new century so that it can achieve its aspirations while holding on to its important values.12
However, even these progressive universities found mixed success with institution-wide initiatives to maintain their quality and effectiveness. Over the years, they embraced “top-down” programs originally introduced in the private sector including management by objectives, total quality management, responsibility-centered budgeting, six sigma, and process reengineering. Their leaders read and shared ideas from management guru books: Good Leaders Ask Great Questions; Change by Design; Improving Business Processes; The Road to Reinvention-, Change Leadership in Higher Education-, and more.13 They drew other initiatives from excellent books tailored specifically for higher education: From Abelard to Apple-, Reengineering the University, American Higher Education in Crisis-, and Building Organizational Capacity to name a few.14 Many improvement initiatives over the past several decades seeking to change institutions fundamentally failed, however, for one or more reasons including:
■ The failure to make a clear and compelling case regarding the need for change
■ Offering solutions without a clear understanding of the underlying problems
■ Lack of continued and significant support from the institutions’ leaders
■ Neglecting to address internal institutional conflicts that overshadowed the change agenda
■ Extremely volatile external environments that distracted the institutions from their change agenda and
■ Inadequate resources to ensure successful implementation of the changes needed.15
To address current, imminent, and future challenges, universities need a comprehensive and integrated approach to intentional institution-wide change based on proven effectiveness. This book presents one approach that has grown in popularity around the world for its proven success in addressing the challenges facing higher education. Lean Higher Education (LHE) is the application of the “Lean Management System,” with demonstrated success in manufacturing, service, health care, professional, and government sectors, to higher education. LHE is a problem-solving framework and management system to support the execution of an institution’s strategy that can help universities fundamentally rethink how they respond to the needs and expectations of those served by higher education. LHE provides a leadership and operational management system for guiding the institution forward, and LHE principles and practices become part of the culture of the institution where all members of the academic community can play an active role in improving the core activities and processes to make them more efficient and effective. Overall, LHE can serve both as a comprehensive and long-term framework for achieving student, institutional, and societal success in the dynamic environment that colleges and universities face now and in the future.