Change in universities, especially those well established and funded through public resources, is a challenge. Yet, as the nature of students change—and they have changed dramatically, it is incumbent that universities become more flexible, responsive to different types of learners, aware of changing employment environments and the needs of commerce and industry, and comfortable with diverse people and their idiosyncrasies.
The call for change in public higher education grows over time. Elected officials are increasingly interested in quantifiable results. State coffers are lean and calls for institutional accountability ring loudly. Likewise, students and families, usually on a borrowed dime, want demonstrable outcomes. As loan burdens increase, so will requests for employment predictability. Universities must find ways to be agile. Fused, these forces are important and undeniable. Demands that universities become more responsive in meeting the aspirations of students and families, elected officials and the general public are legitimate.
Agility should increase. Five conditions lead to agility.
Stability – Agility rhymes with stability, according to McKinsey, and there are certain aspects of a university education that should not change appreciably—critical thinking for problem-solving, literacy, numeracy, and understanding of civilization and its major trends over the eons. Equally important, but not a new phenomenon, is the capacity to use intellectual resources, traditionally libraries, with a recent and radical shift to information/digital technology. All are necessary components of any university education. These are bedrock.
Old Ed New Ed – A careful and deliberate understanding of what requires face-to-face teaching and learning and what can be taught via extended learning or distance education is critical. Such appreciation will universally modify curriculum demands, teaching strategies and expected outcomes. Subjects previously thought to require face-to-face instruction will be segmented according to the needs of faculty and students. A significant portion of complex subjects, even thoracic surgery or piano, for example, can be taught online. Currently, almost every full-time residential student takes courses, or portions of courses, online. Scheduling and accessibility are driven by an evermore intricate balancing of requirements for work, study and family life. Moreover, a pervasive and growing need for educational experiences beyond high school drives the equation. This is true whether a student needs a “boot camp” style learning environment to gain skill certification or more traditional and extended study for undergraduate or graduate degrees. The blending of old and new approaches requires dexterity.
Current Technology – In order for universities to be supple and agile, a common basis for delivering courses online is vital. Such delivery technology should be centralized so that updates and currency occur once for all. In many cases, this will mean both faculty and students must be responsive to changing teaching and learning strategies. Movable type changed the nature of the verbal tradition making books the nucleus of learning. Textbooks are relics, yet they are pervasive on most university campuses. Agile universities will find ways to utilize powerful information technology to benefit students and faculty at lower cost and greater flexibility. Administrators, leaders, faculty and assessors of efficacy must adapt.
Entrepreneurism – Agile universities will develop an appreciation for disruption and/or failure. New approaches to learning must be tested, and the results of those tests may require changes, dramatic or incremental, that flow from experimentation. Organizations and individuals must be willing to try new ideas where outcomes are not guaranteed. Such an approach to organizational culture requires a willingness to fail. This is a challenging prospect in public higher education organizations where demands for consistency and predictability often outweigh demands for adaptation to changing students, changing employment needs, and a changing political environment.
Flexible Leaders – University leadership must simultaneously operate in a top-down and bottom-up environment. Often, innovation in delivering content will come from faculty members engaged directly with students. In any organization decision making of consequence should happen “where the action is.” Innovation that occurs from the bottom up mandates organizational agility. University leaders frequently find comfort in status quo ecosystems that spurn change.
As demands are brought about by increasing costs, changing employment conditions, market forces, faculty roles in flux, student demographics and increasingly strident regulatory functions, universities are left with an ever increasing need for agility.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.