What Is Academic Transformation Anyway (and Can You Really Lead It)?

min read
Revolution Evolution

A few months ago, I was asked to join the advisory group for the EDUCAUSE Leading Academic Transformation Community of Practice. Working with this interesting, intelligent, thoughtful group of people has been a great ride so far, and I’m excited to see how the work we’re doing will benefit the community.

As we’ve been sifting through ideas, I keep coming back to one key question: just what do we mean by academic transformation, and how to you lead it?

Astute observers will notice that I have called into question the entirety of the Leading Academic Transformation (LAT) concept, and that is, in fact, the point here. By going back to the beginning and exploring the basic definitions and assumptions upon which we’ve based our work, I hope to help construct a strong foundation upon which to build.

What is Academic Transformation?

I suspect that when most people talk about ‘academic transformation’, they are thinking of tectonic shifts in the academic landscape — the kinds of things that people will talk about for decades to come. The reality is that while everyone is looking for the French (or American) Revolution of academics, mostly what you’re going to find are actions that are much smaller, albeit perhaps more meaningful in the long run. Think evolution rather than revolution, or transition rather than disruption. Looking at the Transforming Higher Ed column in EDUCAUSE Review, I believe you’ll see exactly that — a number of really worthwhile initiatives that are transforming higher education through more incremental steps.

If you read enough articles or case studies on academic transformation, it’s very easy to get a sense that institutions simply select a process, think about it, and then transform it perfectly on their first try. That is almost certainly not the case. Transformation is messy, it doesn’t always work, and at the end you may end up disoriented and confused. Look at the Monarch Butterfly. Its transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is not easy:

Even once it’s out of the chrysalis, it struggles to find its footing and sense of balance.

Consider this: here is an insect that has transformation actually baked into its DNA, and even it struggles at the inflection point. If your institution doesn’t have transformation baked into its institutional DNA (i.e. culture), can you realistically expect to do any better? You’re more likely to have an experience like Ralph Hinkley from the popular 1980’s TV Show The Greatest American Hero. Missed that series? Well, average-guy Ralph is given a super suit by aliens but loses the instruction manual, making his transformation to a superhero more than a bit challenging:

The transformations we celebrate and discuss are often broad and complete, but most are far from either. Remember this when your institution hesitates to embark on a journey of transformation: nobody gets it right the first time, it’s almost never easy, and you might be a little disoriented and confused at the end.

How Do You Lead Academic Transformation?

Academic transformation is more of an concept than an organization, so leaders need to focus on the culture of their institution and how to foster safe spaces for experimentation rather than trying to figure out how to lead academic transformation in any kind of traditional, concrete sense. The campus environment is only one piece of the puzzle, though. While leaders on campuses should aim to foster an environment where academic transformation can happen, transformation won’t magically occur just because of the environment. Action is also required.

The Role of the LAT Community of Practice

At the initial LAT online community meeting, the advisory group shared the goal of the LAT group as “[building] the profession’s capacity to inspire and influence academic transformation...” (emphasis added). This goal statement dovetails with the idea that institutions need to provide the right kind of space for academic transformation. Along with this is the notion of necessary action. With these elements in mind, the LAT community is organically taking shape through onsite and online opportunities for practitioners, who can find cohorts with similar challenges and work together to solve problems pertinent to their institutions. The first such experiment in this vein will happen at the ELI 2017 Annual Meeting in the form of a pre-conference. The intent is to identify some common challenges and work as a group on one or more of them using a design thinking framework for a short, focused period of time and see what we have at the end. (Stay tuned for more information on this effort as we get closer to the conference.)

Footnote: The Many Catch Phrases of Transformation

Evolution, revolution, transition, disruption — many of the words used to describe academic transformation have become loaded with implication and connotation that can make conversations about transformation of any kind difficult, and we probably need to retire at least a few of them, starting with disruption. The Tattooed Professor has a great piece on the problems talking about disruption, “I Come to Bury Disruption, Not to Praise It.”

“If the status quo needs disruption — the “nuclear option” of reform — that’s an implicit declaration that those involved in said status quo are the problem. “So what can they offer in terms of solutions? Aren’t they too wedded to the present to embrace the bold, disruptive reforms needed for the future?” the reformers ask. And this is, I think, why we see so few actual teachers involved in policy making or decisions at the administrative level. They’re not even at the table.”

Or, for a more light-hearted take on the above, see this Twitter thread detailing my plans to disrupt research with stackable micro-focus groups. Words have power: they inspire intention, action and reflection. It’s important we remember that.

Kyle Johnson is Dean of Information Technology and Support at Chaminade University in Honululu, Hawaii.