‘Strong Integration’: Adaptive change as a survival strategy in higher education

Strong Integration is about so much more than governance and oversight. It’s ecosystem-wide adaptive change—including leadership structures, academics and curriculum and co-curriculum.
Brian J. Bruess
Brian J. Bruess
Brian J. Bruess recently became the first person to serve as president of both the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, change is often viewed with caution. Traditions run deep, and the roadmaps to success are well-trodden but slow to adapt. But at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (CSB and SJU), we’ve embarked on a journey that challenges the norm. Our approach isn’t just about restructuring—it’s about reimagining the future of higher education itself.

I accepted the role of the first-ever joint president of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in central Minnesota because it felt bigger than the job description. The rich histories of these two schools combined with the high stakes of higher education made it feel like a calling—a vocation—to join them as they took a bold step for their future.

To thrive amid the many challenges facing colleges and universities, we must be open to reimagining what higher education looks like in the 21st century. I’m proud to say that the uncertainty looming over higher education is fueling something powerful at CSB and SJU.

It’s called “Strong Integration.” We’ve been quietly rolling it out for several years, and it’s time to share more broadly about how this approach is helping us manage the disruptions and headwinds we are facing in higher education.

With a joint curriculum offered on two campuses located six miles apart, CSB and SJU historically operated under separate governance boards. But after years of thorough planning, we now operate under a Strong Integration structure: boards with common members, a single president, one provost, a chief operating officer and more integrated administrative leadership.

But Strong Integration is about so much more than governance and oversight. It’s ecosystem-wide adaptive change—including leadership structures, academics and curriculum and co-curriculum, all with the purpose of enhancing student experience. The goal is to transform how we influence learning and live out our purpose of preparing students to lead lives of significance.


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Higher education usually changes slowly. I know from experience. But Strong Integration challenges us to do just the opposite. It’s about nimbleness, responsiveness and being open to new ideas with smaller planning horizons. We fail fast and we try again. Adaptive change is driven by relationships, listening, sharing, transparency and inviting people in. This approach is different than what I’m used to in higher education, but I know it’s needed—and I’m energized by it.

By making these changes now, Strong Integration ensures our position of strength and keeps us poised to navigate the intense disruptions facing higher education. Strong Integration is still new and it’s always evolving. We’re motivated to continue to develop it for the benefit of our students.

I am proud that CSB and SJU are among the first schools in the country to take this bold action amid such turbulent times. We want to be a resource to other schools who are considering similar decisions. Our playbook is fresh and can speak to how we dealt with some setbacks along the way, but we know we’re headed in the right direction. I hope other higher education leaders will join us in adopting a fresh mindset to ensure that higher education—and in turn, our society—can thrive.

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