Organizational Change in Higher Education – a summary review of the scholarship

Adrianna J. Kezar, an associate professor at University of Maryland and an ERIC higher education editor, summarized a raft of recent scholarship on organizational change in Understanding and Facilitating Organizational Change in the 21st Century: Recent Research and Conceptualizations. The title is a mouthful, and while accurate, an even more precise description would emphasize that the focus is less on on understanding organizational change and more on the study of organizational change. It is a burgeoning site of inquiry and productivity within the academy. As Kezar notes, a session on institutional change is a staple a higher education conferences. And while conventional wisdom has generated much ink, a common vocabulary on change scholarship in higher education is still contested. What, exactly, is organizational change?

Into this academic thicket Kezar has attempted to clear the brush and establish defined terrain. Her style, however, is not to use a machete but instead a thorough review of the literature. Beginning with theories of change, she draws on well-known scholarship to note six general types of change process: evolutionary, teleological, life cycle, dialectical, social cognition, and cultural. There are the very broad, high-level categories that have emerged through multiple disciplines. Primary assumptions are attached each. Evolutionary change posits that change is the result of external stimuli, situational variables and the environment. Teleological change rests on the belief that organizations are purposeful (and often rational). Life-cycle change grew out of child development theories and focus on recurring stages across organizations experiencing change. In other words, change is natural. Dialectic change, or political change, emphasizes conflict. Theorists of social cognition change models focus on ways that individuals and organizations learn. As for cultural change, it is seen as slow, natural and a natural response to changes within the environment. Most change studies drawn on more than one of these broad approaches.

Higher education stands a particular field within change management with its own special features. It is distinct, with particular organizational structures, mission, status, values and ways of doing business. These have to be incorporated deply in order to apply general change theory to academia. It is grounded and carefully crafted.

Kezar reviewed hundreds of books, articles and studies on change in higher education through the lens of these six catetories. She summarized, categorized and synthesized. The high-level finding: higher education organizational change is best explained through political, social cognition and cultural models. Political models are most effective at capturing the give and take of academic decision-making, which is often deliberative, consensual and the result of endless meetings and discussion. Social cognition models are best at capturing the ways in which mental maps and interacitons shape academia, and cultural models rightly explain the power of symbolism and tradition.

Finally, skipping to the conclusion of what the overall scholarship tells us about how to facilitate and promote change in higer education, the strategies are reassuringly familiar:  promote organizational self-discovery, realize that change is slow, shaped by culture and political, that it requires adaptability and needs to be nurtured, is often disorderly and affected by shared governance and collective decision-making, is connected to core values, matters in terms of individual and institutional identities, and depends upon some degree of trust so that risk can be facilitated. Most importantly, there is no one strategy for change, among institutions or within one institution. Strategies have to be crafted for particular circumstances.

It can be somewhat challenging to travel this distance and land at where common sense, experience and wisdom tell us we should be. The journey, however, is worth the work. It gives a structure to what we do and will prove, without a doubt, to be very useful. Particularly when one suggests a model for change and is challenged – above all, we need evidence in higher education.


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