Fear of Change

In a recent book from Harvard Education Press, former faculty member, dean, provost and president Brian Rosenberg summed up his thinking clearly in the title: “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”: Resistance to Change in Higher Education.” Rosenberg says universities must change, citing four “simple” reasons:

  1. “The cost of providing the services at a traditional college or university is very high and has risen for decades more rapidly than inflation or the cost of living index.
  2. At all but a handful of institutions with enormous endowments, revenue from students funds the majority of that cost.
  3. There are not enough students who are both willing and able to pay the full cost of higher education.
  4. There are not enough students, period.”

These are harsh realities, and the changes required to address these shifting circumstances create fear in all associated with universities: students and families, faculty and staff, administrators and leaders. While all manner of the extended public served recognize that change is absolutely essential, they are nonetheless fearful of the unknowns associated with the impactful adjustments.

On September 24, 2023, West Texas A&M University Buffaloes played a football game against the UT Permian Basin Falcons that was decided in the closing seconds. Our coach had a difficult decision to make: play it safe and go for the normal one-point after attempt, or make a two-point effort with which the game would have been won rather than tied.

Fearlessness does not mean abandoning the notion of risk and the potential of failure. It means having rational courage and a willingness to take a chance rather than make a “safe bet.” I admire Coach Josh Lynn. He assessed the risk, put fear in his back pocket (or possibly kicked that relentless fear to the sideline), and did his best. This is leadership in action. He said after the game, “When you’re working for a new program, or a new staff, or a new identity, if you don’t go in there and try to play for the win, what precedent are we setting for our football players, our program, and our school?” An astute observation by a man who understands risk-taking and its costs and benefits. Even if you’re not a sports fan, the September 25 interview is worth a look. It is leadership on fire.

People fear change for innumerable reasons. Uncertainty, coupled with a lack of information and unknown outcomes, tends to cause trepidation. In addition, a lack of control contributes to fear about the future. It is human nature to want to control things and keep the familiar, familiar. There are economic and practical concerns as change, especially in workplaces, creates fear regarding job loss, reduction of income or other pragmatics of providing food and shelter for self and others. I believe one of the greatest challenges regarding change is the fear of failure. When circumstances change in a workplace setting, new skills are sometimes required. Adaptation to new situations can lead to consternation.

These forces that lead to fear of change exist in any organization, and universities, by their very nature, have characteristics that make change especially difficult and create cultures that are risk-averse. Brian Rosenberg comments on this attitude with seemingly harsh clarity in the title of his new book.

Universities, like many large and established institutions, might exhibit resistance to change, but it’s important to note that this resistance is not universal or inherent. The willingness to change can vary widely from one institution to another and even among different groups and individuals within the same university. Many universities have long histories and traditions deeply ingrained in their culture. These traditions can sometimes create resistance to change; they are part of the institution’s identity and heritage. Universities often have complex bureaucratic structures that can slow the implementation of new ideas or policies. This bureaucratic red tape can be a roadblock to mission-driven excellence. Financial constraints can hinder universities from embracing change. Faculty members in universities often enjoy academic freedom and job security through tenure, which should provide a willingness to test ideas, but at other times, leads to embracing the status quo. This can lead to a culture where some faculty, students, staff and leaders are resistant to change, as they may feel that their job security is based on maintaining the status quo. Reluctance may evolve as fear of the unknown sets in, and experimenting with new approaches could harm their reputation. The attitudes toward change can also vary among generations and individuals. Younger faculty and students may fear change less than older faculty members or administrators, who may be more conservative in their approach.

Most importantly, change always involves risk. Managed risk is the essence of any successful enterprise, from an individual family to a massive corporation. Risk should create consternation and thoughtful fear for all, in any human group. It is a sign of good health. However, fear cannot calcify the organization into rote behavior, and universities, like many organizations, are risk-averse. Leaders create risk-aversion, or lead through it.

At WT, we work diligently to thoughtfully approach new ideas and recognize the power of embraced risk while managing fear. This formula breeds success. Coach Josh Lynn gets it.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.