Metaphors and Institutional Understanding

Change is a constant if an academic unit is going to stay active and engaged in the professional world, both within and outside of academia. Change does not come easy to higher education, however, as its benefits are rarely clear while its costs are all too apparent. As a dean, I do much of my work on the edge – at the limits of where a department or program is operating and at the periphery, usually mediated through multiple channels, of the churning ocean that is the world beyond the academic quad.

Living in the shifting, liminal environment, much of my responsibility is translation. And for those academic units to whom the outside worlds is to be shunned or avoided, my translations must be carefully constructed. Incentives and disincentives can change behavior, but long term meaningful change rests on a firm foundation of understanding.

Increasingly I have found that metaphors are essential. When talking with a department, a committee, a task force, I use metaphors to shape comprehension and frame discussion. Metaphors clothe the outside world, its threats and opportunities, its essential disruptions to the unhurried order of the academicy disruption, and allow them to enter into the academic realm. Metaphors are disguises, or perhaps the dress code, that give us the means to make relevance and change palatable.

General education reform is always a contentious issue. It involves identity, academic turf, cultural capital and, in some cases, traditional capital. To facilitate movement within a stalled general education task force, I recently developed an elaborate metaphor to disaggregate the challenges the group was facing. Describing general education reform as the major renovation of a house, I noted that without a different place to live – and our students must stay with us – renovation should start at the foundation and proceed in an orderly way to minimize confusion and disruption.

The group had established consensus on many of the more foundational components of their proposed general education plan but had stalled evaluating potential second and their year interdisciplinary courses. In construction terms, they knew what they wanted to do with the foundation and much of the ground floor. I argued for sharing that plan soon widely to build a broad understanding – and for the team not to be too concerned about the plan for the second bedroom on the second floor.

While discussing curricular and programmatic changes for a business department, I found myself drawing a map of a tree to explain prioritization. Likeking accounting and information technology as the strands that make up the trunk, I stressed the value of thick and healthy trunk before clustering resources in a branch. While students might not be excited about the trunk – and would initially be drawn to the more specialized programs in the limbs of the tree – those specialized programs depend upon the core functions of accounting and information technology, both in terms of pedagogy and intellectual content. Don’t think about sports management and green businesses yet, I argued, until there is clear understanding and prioritization of the foundational skills and values to support them.

House renovation and tree diagrams may be less than ideal metaphors for explaining general education rerform and business program development. Despite nodding heads and affirmative comments from meeting participants, I will not be able to tell if the metaphors were effective until I hear back from the faculty. That said, I think that they provided useful ways of reframing potentially paralyzing conversations and processes, giving faculty a different path toward change.

Useful metaphors for resolving parking issues, unfortunately, are beyond me.


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