If you’re a dean or provost, managing change is a big part of your job. And it’s likely to become an increasingly important skill.
“Change is not going to be a once-in-a-while thing. It’s going to be the order of the day moving forward,” said Benjamin Akande, dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology at Webster University.
“The only person who likes change is a wet baby,” Akande said. But change is not a bad thing. “It’s an opportunity to reevaluate,” he said.
Akande and other members of Dean & Provost’s Advisory Board participated in a conference call to share their tips on managing in changing times.
“Right now, everybody is going through their version of change,” said Cynthia Worthen, vice president for academic affairs at Argosy University.
And whether the changes you are facing are positive or negative, your faculty and staff members need your leadership.
“The bottom line of leading a unit through change is to take the time to talk to everyone and listen to their concerns,” said Herman Berliner, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Hofstra University.
For example, Hofstra opened a medical school that is now in its fourth year. Many faculty members were concerned that the new school would siphon resources from other divisions. It was created through a partnership with a local health system that includes hospitals and other health care facilities, so funding sources from elsewhere in the university were not needed.
From the beginning, Hofstra’s president took time to explain how the partnership would function. “It took multiple meetings for people to start to understand how it would work and not be a threat to them,” Berliner said.
And when the University of Florida faced budget cuts two years in a row, how communication was handled made a big difference in faculty and staff stress levels, said Lucinda Lavelli, dean of the College of Fine Arts. The first year, administrators were asked to keep everything secret. The next year, they were told to be transparent. Everyone affected was encouraged to speak their minds about solutions. And the individuals at risk of being laid off were consulted in the decision-making process.
When some of those individuals were eventually laid off, Lavelli met with them in person and gave them a letter of appreciation for their work.
Open communication made the process easier to manage, Lavelli said. For a strategy like that to work, administrators should keep the following points in mind:
- Make sure stakeholders understand that although they are welcome to speak their minds, they might not get what they want.
- Provide leadership training to directors so that they have strategies for managing anxious faculty members. The directors should help the faculty stay focused on their work and not on the possibility of losing their jobs, Lavelli said.
Hearing the viewpoints of faculty can be enlightening, Lavelli added. Sometimes you’re dealing with extreme positions, and there’s nothing you can do to accommodate them, she said.
Worthen also had to lay off some part-time faculty members recently. Fortunately, she was able to offer them adjunct positions. And because they had been involved in discussions about the situation, they understood the decision that was made. Having to lay them off would not have gone nearly as well if Worthen had not developed relationships with them in advance and communicated as the decision-making process went on, she said.
When leaders are transparent, faculty and staff members don’t have to “fill in the blanks,” Akande said. When individuals know what’s coming, they can prepare for it, he added. And leaders need to articulate the desired outcomes of the change, he said.
“Leadership is not a solo act,” Akande said. Leaders need to listen to their constituents and give them a voice in the process, he added.
Reassure faculty of their worth
Technological advances have many faculty members worried that they are becoming irrelevant, Lavelli said. New strategies such as the flipped classroom worry them.
At UF, peer-to-peer teaching strategies help them explore new options in a nonthreatening way, Lavelli said. And administrators reassure faculty members that they don’t have to try every new idea. They stress that the new technologies are tools, not replacements for the professors, she added.
At Hofstra, faculty members can attend technology boot camps and have opportunities to learn from IT professionals. “Some will probably remain uncomfortable, but more are understanding the new technologies are a benefit,” Berliner said.
Provide time for change
Academic administrators need to create an environment where change can take place in an orderly fashion, Berliner said. “It shouldn’t be under the gun if at all possible,” he added.
That’s true for technological changes as well as other types of change. For example, if you ask a faculty member to teach a class in a hybrid or online format but give him only two months to prepare, that’s not enough time, Berliner said.
And providing as much information as possible about factors that could lead to change is an important part of creating a positive environment for change.
For example, in the area where Hofstra is located, declines in the number of K–12 students have led to fewer Hofstra students pursuing education degrees. Faculty in that division who will be considered for tenure are increasingly nervous. “If you see enrollment is going to be a factor, you have to let them know exactly what the trends are so they can plan ahead,” Berliner said. Faculty shouldn’t be learning about trends that could impact tenure decisions at the end of the tenure process, he said.
Berliner and Hofstra’s president visit every department on a regular basis. When enrollment trends could have a significant impact on the department, those are part of the discussion.
At Argosy, program deans are a critical part of the enrollment plan. Worthen meets with them at regularly scheduled times. They discuss enrollment goals for the year. She updates them each enrollment period on their program’s enrollment in relation to the goals, and they discuss what they can do differently if a program is not on track. “That keeps them knowledgeable and committed to change,” Worthen said.
And if she has to give them bad news, they are prepared for it, Worthen said.
Many faculty members don’t understand all that happens at a university, Berliner said. Their work is very important, but the institution also needs student affairs, counseling, scholarships and so on. The more they recognize the institution’s complexity, the easier they are to work with when a problem arises, he said.
Shared governance and the faculty senate provide an effective mechanism for teaching faculty members about the broader picture, Lavelli said. It’s important to do that before a crisis arises. If you start the process when there’s a problem that needs to be solved, you won’t have the faculty members’ trust, she added.
Take care of yourself
“As leaders of our organizations, we have to be strong for the organization when changes are taking place,” Akande said. That means that leaders need to be in good shape physically and mentally.
Berliner swims laps every evening. Besides keeping him in good physical condition, swimming gives him a time to think through what happened during the day.
For strong emotional health, it’s important not to take criticism too personally, Berliner said. “Those people who personalize the most have the highest stress levels,” he said.
While it’s not easy to resist taking criticism personally, it becomes easier as your leadership experience grows, Akande said. Focusing on what you love about your job and your institution helps, he added.
The bottom line…
To lead your unit through change, Dean & Provost’s Advisory Board members recommended the following strategies:
- Communicate all information you know and are allowed to share.
- Share reasons for changes and the expected positive outcomes.
- Educate faculty and other constituents about how the institution operates, demographic trends, and other relevant topics before a crisis arises.
- Develop trust with faculty.
- Offer training that helps faculty and division chairs try new ideas and strategies.
- Give faculty and others time to prepare for change.
- Take care of yourself physically and mentally.