4 tips to successfully navigate institutional change

An understanding of the current higher education landscape is a prerequisite for effective change management.
David Clark
David Clarkhttps://www.bdo.com/
David Clark is the managing director at BDO, an accounting firm with consulting experience for nonprofit colleges and universities.

In the ever-changing landscape of higher education, colleges and universities must adapt to stay relevant and competitive. Shifting demographics, technological advancements and economic pressures are reshaping institutions, and challenges from regulatory updates to evolving student needs make the need for agility more pronounced than ever before. Managing change can be a daunting task, especially when it involves multiple stakeholders and complex processes.

Successful evolution will look different for every institution, but there are key considerations and principles that higher ed leaders should keep in mind as they plan and prepare for change.

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Assessing the current landscape

An understanding of the current higher education landscape is a prerequisite for effective change management. This involves conducting a comprehensive analysis of both internal and external factors. Internally, leaders should review their institution’s financial health, academic programs and administrative operations. Externally, they should consider demographic trends, competitive positioning and regulatory changes that impact their institution.

Examining external and internal factors can help university leaders outline the biggest issues and risks facing their institution. When leaders understand the challenges before them, they can begin to create a strategy for reform.

Establishing a clear strategy and goals

Leaders must also articulate clear and strategic goals for their institution. These goals should align with the institution’s mission and address the evolving needs of students, faculty and donors. Moreover the development of these goals should incorporate representatives from key stakeholder groups, such as faculty committees, student associations and alumni organizations who can provide valuable input. Involving key stakeholders in this process fosters a sense of ownership and buy-in. Stakeholders are less likely to be satisfied if the plan is developed and implemented without their input.

Beyond achieving greater buy-in and support, negotiating with key stakeholder representatives may unlock new solutions that individual leaders might not have considered. Even difficult solutions, like reducing facility salaries or cutting programs in order to escape a budget deficit, are more likely to get a vote of confidence when key constituents are actively engaged and thoroughly negotiated to see that sometimes hard decisions must be made for the goal of long-term survival and sustainability.

Communicating with impact

Ensuring that all employees and stakeholders understand the value proposition of new initiatives is critical to effective change management. Poor communication can lead to confusion, resistance and, ultimately, failure to successfully implement change. For example, telling chemistry professors to quickly itemize their classroom materials without further context could spark fear that chemistry resources may be reduced. Instead, the university could explain that they are searching for a more competitively priced vendor and would like to open a dialogue to better understand which resources the chemistry department needs.

Leaders should establish a communication plan early in the process to avoid such misunderstandings. This plan could include regular updates, town hall meetings and other opportunities for dialogue and feedback. Communication should be as timely, clear and consistent as possible.

Developing an appropriate approach to socializing goals and associated plans is critical for boosting adoption.

Incorporating risk management considerations

Finally, successful change management must involve individuals who can provide an independent perspective on potential risks and how to mitigate them. These professionals may include internal audit and compliance staff or external advisors. Bringing in voices with knowledge of how revised strategies or changes impact institutional risks and controls can help institutions avoid costly mistakes. Furthermore, independent professionals could help identify additional areas in need of attention or monitor the effect of changes and related progress against stated plans and goals.

In today’s dynamic higher education environment, an institution is never truly a finished product. Change is an inevitable, ongoing process. Leaders should embrace a culture of continuous improvement, regularly reviewing and refining their strategies and internal controls to adapt to new challenges and opportunities.

University leaders must proactively manage change to ensure the long-term success and sustainability of their institutions. By carefully assessing the current landscape, setting strategic goals, and staying committed to continuous improvement, colleges and universities can set themselves up to thrive.


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