To bring about positive change at our institutions of higher education, we must revisit older paradigms and look beyond the typical and isomorphic behaviors of the past.
If you ask people how they feel about change, many will say that change can be difficult, especially when it is rapid and unexpected. If change is difficult for many, then why do it? Why change?
We change inevitably as we age, and we change intentionally when we alter the conditions of our mental and physical environments. Positive change is a balance of tradition and innovation; society has shown it can adapt to new trends while standing on the shoulders of tradition. For instance, successful efforts to develop and distribute effective COVID-19 vaccines rested on decades of accumulated knowledge about infectious diseases and also on new tools such as geographic information systems.
Higher education institutions are also bound to change. They cannot be ivory towers detached from the passage of time and evolving priorities. If colleges and universities cared only about tradition, they would be isolated monasteries. If they cared only about change, they would have no direction and could not sustain challenges or accommodate intellectual, educational, and social evolution.
Rather, academic institutions serve as bastions of traditional knowledge and as creators of new knowledge that is continually refined. This combination makes higher education—especially in the United States—attractive to students around the world. U.S. higher education has led the way in delivering the right dose of theory, practice, tradition, and innovation, making it the envy of other countries.Footnote1
We know that we cannot stay still; nothing ever does. As the philosopher Heraclitus taught us, Panta rei ("Everything flows"). The last two-plus years have been an extreme example. Colleges and universities—and many of their members—have been under significant stress due to the fast pace of change, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the difficulty of not knowing the path of the virus and how to fight its spread. In many cases, we were together but separate—physically isolated due to social distancing or emotionally isolated while speaking to colleagues via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Still, we came together as a community, we adjusted, we stayed put, or we went into the trenches and helped in any way we could. Change was inevitable.
Higher education institutions reopened as soon as feasible to provide students with the learning experiences they needed. This was done by carefully balancing our academic missions with the safety of our community members. We made many sacrifices—financially, physically, and emotionally—but we continued to move forward to guarantee educational access for all learners. During this experience, many institutional leaders had to rethink their revenue models and the value proposition of their on-site learning experience, experimenting with new forms of delivery (e.g., the now famous HyFlex teaching modality) and with new programs, new technologies, and new ways to provide students with a full campus experience.
The university for which I have the privilege to work, Seton Hall, is no exception. We found ourselves in a pivotal moment at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were in the midst of creating a new strategic plan championed by a new president, onboarding a new cabinet, and managing the uncertainties of enrollments. We faced the question of whether to deal with the pandemic first (creating a reopening plan, assembling a stellar health and communication task force, iteratively remodeling the budget for unexpected expenses) or to continue with the strategic planning effort. Through dozens of meetings, we solicited input from various stakeholders. With their support, we leaned into our mission and went back to working on the strategic plan and the goals and activities that will define the university in the years ahead.
In addition, we began implementing these goals with clear and bold actions. After all, Seton Hall's motto is Hazard Zet Forward ("Despite the Hazards, Move Forward"). We could not—and many of our peer and aspirant academic institutions also could not— experience a decision-making halt or analysis paralysis. The strategic plan, Harvest Our Treasures, carved a shared direction for our university, calling for making technology-based investments in advising and student success through the installation of new software (for degree planning and for grant and catalog management), building a more diverse university, and carefully allocating resources through sound prioritization mechanisms.
Based on the input from stakeholders, we also advanced an academic change plan: Seeds of Innovation. This plan will enable Seton Hall to be nimble and responsive to challenges in the higher education sector, such as preparing for the enrollment cliff, reducing administrative expenses, diversifying the program portfolio, reopening international outreach, expanding undergraduate research initiatives, and supporting scholarly work. The plan calls for reinvestments in technology both in terms of upgrading the infrastructure of new combined units and in terms of investing in campus-wide initiatives (e.g., Adobe Creative Cloud). For example, the new College of Human Development, Culture, and Media (forthcoming in July 2023) will bring together two distinct units in education and communication studies, challenging the faculty to research and teach with an eye to the future of computer-mediated education and communication. The opportunities are limitless.
Of course, we cannot do and support everything. Moving forward means making difficult decisions on reinvestments. If we were to invest in everything, we would be investing in nothing. Amid the chaos created by the pandemic, we must reinvest wisely in our students. Putting money into programs that were struggling, before the pandemic, to sustainably enroll students or achieve national distinction, with no expectation of improvement despite substantial financial support, would be unwise. Prioritization is difficult to embrace but necessary nevertheless.
To bring about positive change at our institutions, we must revisit older paradigms and look beyond the typical and isomorphic behaviors that have characterized colleges and universities in the past. Building local sandboxes for academic and technological experimentation helps spur innovation unique to our respective academic communities. We face three questions today:
- Question #1: How do we incubate more ideas sustainably?
- Question #2: How do we test new ideas flexibly?
- Question #3: How do we know when to push, when to pull, and when to stay still?
How do we incubate more ideas sustainably? We must be serious about priorities.
I love my house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge. It was built in 1898, and hidden in every corner are the treasures of generations of immigrants who inhabited it before me: from the wealthy doctor who announced the engagement of his only daughter here, to the Italian families who used every available space to host others who were immigrating in the first half of the 20th century, to the Lebanese parents who raised their four children in the house, and finally to me and my family members who have spent the last ten years here (including three children, a set of grandparents visiting from Rome quite often, and now two cats and one dog). We love our house, and we are continuously sinking our savings into repairs for it. Emotionally, this makes sense. But the fundamental rule of real estate remains "location, location, location." I would like to say that there is much more than the location of the house that determines its ultimate value to its future buyer: look at the history, look at the charm! But my realtor insists: our work on the house, no matter how much more we put in, will not change its resale value.
I don't want to hear this, in the same way that those of us in higher education don't want to hear guidance counselors reporting that students seem to be converging on only a few majors. It is very difficult to admit that our passionate investments of time, talent, and treasure may not be enough to achieve all the goals we have set forth. Often, we are so personally invested in programs that we cannot evaluate them dispassionately, ask difficult questions, and make complicated decisions about priorities by applying the same objective standards we use when evaluating research. And yet this is exactly what needs to occur to ensure mid- and long-term success.
Our success requires investing in new ideas and technologies, disinvesting from others, rethinking structure while preserving tradition, establishing ambitious goals, and holding ourselves accountable to do what needs to be done. After all, we hold our students accountable for their learning and give them a differential grade when the learning outcomes are not met. Why should we not do the same for our programs?
We must return to focusing on the possibilities inherent in teaching our students to think and to apply. We need to be open to experimenting with new ideas and be ready to adjust if they are not working. And we need to do so while embedding centuries of tradition into our new programs—through electives, general educational requirements, second majors, minors, certificates, and other stackable credentials.
How do we test new ideas flexibly? We must be serious about interdisciplinarity.
There is no better time than now to reinvest in academics, students, and faculty. But these reinvestments need to prioritize building the 21st-century qualities of collaboration, resiliency, leadership, and action. Because the world will grow increasingly interconnected, we need multiple lenses to identify solutions to complex problems. To that end, interdisciplinarity is an incredible tool.
In institutions that have long been recognized because of the strength of their specializations, the reward mechanisms are based on allegiance to a discipline. But rewards can change, and opportunities for collaborations across colleges and schools can be built. Seton Hall's change plan, Seeds of Innovation, launched start-up initiatives (through interdisciplinary Academies) to promote dialogue and collaboration. Today, faculty members are working on financial technologies, mental health and telehealth practices, green chemistry, the future of work, and many other ideas.
We are at the beginning of this journey. But we cannot stop moving forward; we cannot afford to stand still when everyone else is advancing. Traditions that we have built will stand the test of time only if we can provide answers to current and future questions. And these questions will not be served by thinking about a single program, single school, or single research project.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us all that today's challenges are complex, global, and recurring. We must envision bigger systems and atypical collaborations, and we must consider new and unlikely ideas. We must teach global thinking, design common frameworks, strive to achieve the common good, and nurture local and international communities. Those who remain focused on protecting the status quo—and, in the process, stifle innovation in the name of tradition—run the risk of finding out there's not much left to protect. Ultimately, the communication and collaboration technologies that we need to move forward are already available.
How do we know when to push, when to pull, and when to stay still? We must be serious about our choice to keep moving.
Buddhists talk about "impermanence": nothing lasts or stays the same. Only when we embrace this principle will we accept that the pandemic accelerated distributed and collaborative learning on a global scale, enabling us to review our current teaching and revenue models. If anyone can have access to the best educational resources from anywhere and at any time, how do we rethink the physical boundaries of the classroom, and how do we find enhanced and innovative uses of the same spaces? Can higher education institutions become incubators of knowledge and entrepreneurial opportunities for local communities? What will differentiate the colleges and universities of the future? What role will location, or co-location, play? We must discover new ways to connect people and spaces (digital, physical, and hybrid) and reinterpret these connections anew, leveraging the abundant data we have about systems use and learning outcomes.
Using the wealth of data collected from the institutional learning management system (LMS), leaders can better understand when to "push" new materials to keep students engaged, as well as what content is most utilized and what content is not used at all. Additionally, LMS analytics can guide institutional stakeholders in making decisions about using a "pull system" to avoid information overload on the part of students. In this case, materials can be made available on demand so that users would need to actively retrieve the information they want to consume.Footnote2 Too much data could lead to analysis paralysis, and too little could result in repeating the same errors. And while we may feel challenged by the cognitive overhead of deriving actionable insights from cross-referenced data from many sources (e.g., swipe card utilization, student information systems, ERP systems, library use), the alternative—staying still—is not a viable and sustainable option, especially in the evolving and competitive higher education landscape. We must keep moving.
Change is the inevitable way forward.
- Arthur M. Cohen and Carrie B. Kisker, The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2010). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Angela Edmunds and Anne Morris, "The Problem of Information Overload in Business Organisations: A Review of the Literature," International Journal of Information Management 20, issue 1 (February 2000). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
Katia Passerini is Provost and Executive Vice President at Seton Hall University.
© 2022 Katia Passerini. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.