Higher Education Change Management

Table of Contents

The Change Leader's Change Management Services for Higher Education Institutions

Why is Change Management Important for Higher Education Institutions?

Change management is the ability to implement new initiatives or adapt to a changing external environment – a critical skill that higher education institutions must excel at to remain viable.

Unfortunately, many leaders struggle to successfully implement change – they attempt the top-down approach or something similar that results in resistance to change. This is the primary reason that 80% of all higher ed change initiatives fail to realize the expectations leadership had for them at the get-go.

Change takes concerted, sustained efforts to ensure it is successful, regardless of whether it is individual change, small group / departmental change, or institution-wide change. Unless these efforts have a sense of urgency around a shared vision for the needed change, they are doomed to fail.

A great example is the COVID shutdown. Faculty, understanding the urgency, converted their courses to online in record time – some in less than a week!

A sense of urgency; that trumps resistance to change.


Now that the pandemic is waning (at least a little), will resistance to change rear its ugly head?

Which goes to three of the most critical foundational pieces around change.

  • People don’t change for change sake – they must believe in the change. This is why change must be connected to a higher purpose for people to invest themselves.

  • People choose to change (or not to change) based on their mental models and the trust they have in their leadership. They want a say in decisions that will affect them before the decision is made.

  • There must be structural changes put in place to ensure the needed change endures, because, as Peter Drucker once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”


This is why the Change Leader begins the change management process with its stakeholder input and attunement process to ensure we have a shared vision for where we’re going. And then we put in place the structural pieces necessary to ensure change endures.

People support what they help create. And sometimes, they need reinforcement to continue to support that creation.


See our change management webinars:

Overcoming Resistance to Change in Higher Education → 

Change Management for Higher Education: Tips for Successfully Implementing Change →

Benefits of Good Change Management Practices

Good change management practices enable a higher education institution to:

Implement enterprise-wide initiatives without significant resistance to change

Create a partnership with stakeholders (especially faculty) that honors shared governance principles

Create a culture of results and continuous improvement that permeates the institution

Build a shared vision of results and accountability that permeates the institution

Maintain the financial health of the institution and adherence to its mission

Create a culture of “can-do” instead one of obstruction and resistance to change

Create a shared vision across the institution that has input and agreement to the mission and values

Remain in good standing with its accreditor and stay eligible to receive Title IV funds

Signs Your Change Management Practices Needs Improvement

Many higher education institutions fail to use good change management processes, and because of this, their initiatives never reach their full potential. Most of these practices seem routine, but too often universities don’t understand how difficult it can be to change.

Some of the ways we know that your change management processes aren’t working:


There is a lack of urgency around the change initiative resulting in resistance


Leadership is telling people what to do vs. telling them why they should be doing it


Leadership must convince stakeholders (yet again) about the need for change


Key stakeholders (and faculty) do not trust leadership enough to implement needed changes


There is a distinct lack of metrics and accountability around the initiative


The latest project and/or strategic plan tasks are not completed on time or at all


There is no executive sponsor for the changes and the change team cannot get the resources it needs to be successful


Board members are not engaged in supporting the new changes in the institution, either verbally or with actions


Leaders are pushing people to get too much done in to short a time and people are overloaded and/or burned out

Best Practices for Higher Education Change Management

There are a number of higher education change management best practices that institutions should follow to ensure they are helping their institutions be successful. 

Change Management Best Practices for Higher Education Institutions Include:

Creating a shared vision for and urgency around the change initiative

Consulting key stakeholder groups during the planning phase of the project vs. after the decision to implement is made​

Ensuring there is an executive sponsor who removes roadblocks and ensures the change team has the resources it needs

Building a change management team with the skills to implement the necessary changes and is accountable for its success

Creating a separate implementation plan that includes resources and people

Creating the change structures to oversee the change and ensure its success

Ensuring the vision for the new initiative aligns with the institution’s strategic vision

Taking the unique institutional culture into account in all steps of the change process

Building trust among administration and key stakeholder groups through transparency  and consultation

Anchoring the new changes and culture in the institution

Communicating the vision for the change initiative clearly and repeatedly

Honoring shared governance principles with faculty and not making decisions that affect them without prior consultation

Creating deliverables for the project and ensuring people have skin in the game and are accountable for results

Building a culture of winning by celebrating wins and recognizing individual and team performances

Our Client Benefits and Successes

The Change Leader’s proprietary processes and methods have helped multiple universities and colleges implement enterprise-wide change, including culture change – the most difficult type of change to implement.

Unlike traditional business consultants that force one-size-fits-all strategies onto their clients, we know education, we take the time to understand your unique needs, and we partner with you to jointly tailor solutions that enable you to achieve a shared vision and mitigate resistance to change that prevents your achieving your goals.

Some of the ways we’ve helped colleges and universities successfully implement change include:

    • Built a new “can-do” culture with employees and faculty that got an institution off probation with its accreditor 
    • Created new board structures that oversee the institution and created better lines of communication
    • Developed change management plans that enabled institutions to implemented needed changes
    • Implemented change management structures that ensure oversight of the implementation plan
    • Created accountability structures to ensure adequate attention was brought to bear on the initiatives
    • Developed implementation plans to ensure that the institution’s strategic plan was NOT left on the top shelf gathering dust
    • Developed a new faculty and staff evaluation process including forms that created shared responsibilities and accountability

Change Management Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Most frequent questions about change management consulting for higher education

What is higher education change management?

Higher education change management is the ability to implement new initiatives or adapt to a changing external environment that takes into account the shared governance model of higher education.


Is higher education change management different than traditional enterprise change management?


Higher education change management is more consultative than that of its corporate counterpart given how colleges and universities embrace shared governance. The mantra, “people support what they help create” is very representative of higher education change management.


What is the change management process for higher education institutions?

The change management process is a structured 5-step process designed to make changes in an institution’s goals, processes, core values, or technologies. The general steps are:

  1. Prepare the institution for change. This includes creating a sense of urgency around the change, building a guiding coalition / project team that has executive leadership / sponsorship, and putting the change structures in place for guiding the change. Getting stakeholder buy-in for the change is critical to prevent resistance to change.
  2. Create a plan for the change. This includes creating both an implementation plan, as well as metrics and accountabilities for the change effort. Getting stakeholder input and buy-in for this step is critical to prevent resistance.
  3. Implement the change. This is where execution comes into play – following the implementation plan, anticipating roadblocks and mitigating them, and repeated communicating of what is being done and why. This also includes taking away the old processes so that people are not overloaded with doing the previous process and the current process when the timing is right.
  4. Anchoring the change into the institution. This is critical to make sure that the change sticks. This can be done through changes to processes, personnel evaluations, and reward systems, and structural changes to ensure there is no reversion to the previous status quo.
  5. Reviewing the change process. Doing a “hot wash” on the change process, results, and next steps is critical for ensuring the change was completed properly and will continue to be implemented.


What are the 3 types of change in Higher Ed Change Management?

The 3 types of change are: incremental, transformational, and revolutionary.

  1. Incremental change is change that builds on the previous state of an organization – think evolution. For example, a new board policy that changes how new board members are recruited, or beginning a new program or curriculum, are examples of incremental change.
  2. Transformational change is change that can append the status quo in major ways – ways that are difficult to reverse and go back to the former status quo.  For example, an institution changing its mission and/or values (such as Sweet Briar College), or a board decides to change its recruiting process to ensure half of its membership are minorities and/or women, are examples of transformational change.
  3. Revolutionary change is a complete overhaul, renovation, and reconstruction of an institution or industry. This type of change is fundamental, dramatic, and often irreversible. For example, IBM in the early 2000s changed from being a product company to that of professional services focused on technology. Carnegie Mellon in the 1980s transformed itself from a local university to one of the top technology universities in the world. Or online education and how has revolutionized how higher education is delivered to students.

How do I recognize resistance to change?

There are many indicators that your initiative is facing resistance to change.

    • Employees or faculty are unwilling to step up to the plate and accept new assignments.
    • Employees or faculty are taking more vacation or sick leave than they previously did
    • There is a lack of communications among stakeholder groups and leadership, and/or people are deliberately withholding information
    • When a new initiative is unveiled, there are a significant number of complaints that people were not involved in the decision process
    • Faculty Senate refuses to make a decision or go along with the new initiatives
    • There is a threat of a “vote of no confidence” from the faculty around a specific initiative or person


Is having an executive sponsor for a change project important?

Yes. An executive sponsor can ensure the project and project team have the resources they need, and can remove obstacles to provide successful implementation.

How do you create urgency around a change initiative?

Creating urgency around a change initiative can be challenging.

On one hand, if leadership has build trust with faculty and staff through being transparent and open, creating a sense of urgency can be as simple as a town Hall meeting explaining what’s going on and why a change is necessary.
On the other hand, if there is a lack of trust in administration, their motives and their actions, trying to create a sense of urgency can be very difficult.
Of course, if there is a COVID-type of event, you have all the urgency you need.

Discover more with our articles and podcasts about change management for higher education

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