5 keys to navigating change in higher ed programs

How administrators lead faculty through academic program eliminations (and additions).
By: | Issue: November, 2018
September 21, 2018

Managing change may be part of the job description for any higher ed administrator, but it’s seldom easy.

And nowhere is this more evident than with the core of any college or university: its academic programs.

In fact, the process can be something of a minefield, with faculty feeling threatened and the media poised to report dissension when programs are eliminated.

Goucher College in Maryland, The University of Akron in Ohio, the University of Missouri and Eastern Kentucky University are just some of the institutions in the headlines in 2018 for cutting academic offerings.

Even adding new programs may pose challenges. In consuming resources that might otherwise support existing programs, their development can generate less than enthusiastic reactions from the campus community.


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“Effective change management is vital in any higher ed setting,” says Drumm McNaughton, CEO of The Change Leader, a higher education consulting firm based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

For upper-level managers, especially presidents and academic officers, this means taking the steps necessary to ensure the long-term health of the institution while also minimizing the disruptions that change inevitably brings, he says.


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“It may not be possible to achieve full consensus, but change can be achieved in a collaborative manner that includes appropriate consideration for those affected.”

Navigating change as an academic leader involves five key actions.

1. Following a structured process

When leaders at Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania considered adding bachelor’s degrees after a long history of offering only associate degrees, the timing seemed right to consider eliminating two-year programs with low enrollments, high attrition or other serious limitations.

“This was a huge cultural shift for our faculty, staff, administration and students, and the change process was both exciting and a little scary,” says Erica Barone Pricci, vice president for academic affairs.

Stakeholders were given ownership of various stages of the process. A voluntary faculty committee, for example, recommended which bachelor’s programs to begin first and how to phase in future ones. A cross-departmental group met regularly for about two years to implement the transition and facilitate communication. 

The consensus: Add bachelor’s degrees in business, criminal justice and human services, and phase out two-year programs in education, life science and computer information systems.

The new programs were launched in fall 2017, and since then, programs in accounting, professional studies, and restaurant and food service management have been added.

“The process went incredibly well,” Pricci says. “The conversations became about overall institutional health and academic strength, with the theme of putting our resources where we could make the most difference.” 

2. Avoiding a top-down approach

Changes most often fail when they’re too centrally driven, says Andrew Laws, managing director of Huron Consulting Group’s education business.

“The most successful change initiatives are ones in which leaders, deans, chairs and faculty have the incentives and the data needed to optimize decisions for their institution.”

Faculty will likely be involved in any program review, but they should be included from the outset when significant changes are proposed.

In other words, they should be in the middle of the conversation, says Jayson Boyers, president of Cleary University in Michigan. “Once faculty are involved, you’re not driving them to accept change.”

In the past three years, his institution has dropped programs or majors including accounting and finance, corporate communications, and public relations. New programs adopted in the same time period range from culinary management and hospitality management to criminal justice management.

The moves have been made in full consultation with faculty, says Boyers, who invites this group to participate in town halls every semester. “They’re designed to create an atmosphere to have a safe conversation about the direction the institution is going.”

One result: Concerns are brought to light early in the process and in full view of all involved.

“Be direct about the reason change is needed,” Boyers says. He acknowledges that 100 percent agreement may not be possible, but with full discussion, positive change can occur. “It’s less administration versus faculty,” he says, and more about agreeing how best to move forward.

Ideally, administrators work side by side with faculty to determine program relevance to the community they serve, says Margaret A. Hamilton, president of Lane Community College in Oregon.

Faculty members are best equipped to conduct detailed program reviews.

“They are the experts in the field, and they know what is going on in the community and across the country,” she says. If weaknesses are identified in a given program, it’s important to give faculty time to make improvements, including meeting frequently with industry employers.  

“If after a year of analysis and work, a program is still not in demand and producing graduates, it’s time to discuss what is best for the students,” Hamilton says.

“One can only do that if faculty feel valued, and trust that the college will work with them to transfer into other programs or get the training that’s needed to move into a new teaching assignment.”

It’s often the faculty who see the “change coming” and propose new program development actions to address current and future needs, she adds. 

3. Extending input beyond the faculty

While faculty involvement is paramount, other parties—e.g., industry leaders—should also be consulted before making major programmatic changes.

“Involve your external as well as internal constituents,” says S. Manian Ramkumar, interim dean of the College of Engineering Technology at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “Always look out for the success of the industry you serve.”

In a plan designed to foster growth, RIT is moving three programs into different colleges.

Hospitality and service systems programs are being transitioned from the College of Engineering Technology to the College of Business. The School of Print and Media Sciences is being transferred from the College of Art and Design to the College of Engineering Technology.

Alumni, advisory boards and industry leaders recommended the moves, which were reviewed and approved though the institution’s governance structure.

From Ramkumar’s perspective, the reorganization has been well-received on campus and in the community. He ascribes its success to the broad-based involvement of all concerned.

4. Gathering comprehensive data to share

“Make sure that decisions made are data-driven,” says Larisa Genin, associate dean for faculty, accreditation and undergraduate programs in the School of Economics and Business Administration at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Data to consider includes launch year, number of majors, enrollment trends, class sizes, sections offered, number of faculty, and metrics on retention, graduation and post-graduation.

“All of these data points would allow assessment of the effectiveness of each academic program, and determine those that potentially should be eliminated,” she says.

“Or low-performing ones should be infused with more resources in hopes of hitting desired metrics of success to sustain viability prior to elimination.”   

Such analysis should occur within a broad-based institutional framework. “Ultimately, decisions to eliminate programs should be driven by a strategic plan or be in response to industry trends,” Genin says.

While effective use of data may underpin successful leadership in general, sharing data widely may be particularly important in change management.

In any deliberations regarding program performance, hard data provide a common basis for discussion, says Hamilton of Lane Community College. “Numbers do not lie. Enrollment and completion patterns tell a story of a growth industry or a declining industry.”

5. Exhibiting transparency

Clear, transparent communication is a must as discussions move forward regarding the future of any program. Otherwise, the change won’t “stick,” says Laws of Huron Consulting. “And stakeholders must understand the rationale for changes.”

Lackawanna’s Pricci suggests clearly linking decisions to student needs and overall institutional health. That was a key factor in her institution’s recent program changes.

“At first, everyone had a personal opinion about what they wanted to see happen in terms of what bachelor’s programs to start and which associate degrees to eliminate,” she says.

“But we were insistent that recommendations be based on data, and that data reflect student- and institution-level outcomes.” 

The conversation centered around strengthening academics and enhancing resources rather than scaling back. The administration’s vocal, consistent message centered around resource allocation, not resource elimination, she says. 

Communicating clearly and openly sets the stage for productive work, even when programs are not doing well, says McNaughton of The Change Leader.

“If you’ve got a problem, put it out there. Maybe you’ll find a champion to help solve the problem.” Even if that doesn’t occur, all parties will have the same information going forward. In the process, the potential for reaching consensus will be enhanced.


Mark Rowh, a frequent contributor to UB, is a Virginia-based writer.