The National Academy for Academic Leadership
Leadership that Transforms Learning

Changing Higher Education: Realistic Goal or Wishful Thinking?
Robert M. Diamond
This is an expanded version of an essay, "Why Colleges Are So Hard to Change" originally published in Inside Higher Ed, 9/08/06. This version appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2006 issue of Trusteeship. Additional references and resources have been added

In September, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education after numerous meetings, open hearings and draft statements, published its final report calling for a number of major reforms in higher education.. In the report, institutions will be asked, among other recommendations, to become more accountable, to reduce their costs, to become more accessible to students from the broad of spectrum of society and to be more proactive in responding to international competition. It should be noted that some of the most severe criticisms of higher education dealing with the quality of teaching, learning and academic programs included in earlier drafts did not make it through the negotiation and revision process

This report is the latest in a number of studies, task force reports, books and articles calling for significant change in how colleges and universities do business. Higher education has, unfortunately, had a long history of calls for significant change and of efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of what we do. In the last  decade alone we have had reports, studies, and recommendations from the Education Commission of the States, the National Endowment from the Humanities, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the American Council on Education, the National Center for Postsecondary Education, and more recently the National Academies of Science and of Engineering which concluded not only that major reform is needed in higher education but that the time for implementing these changes is running out if the United States is to retain its international leadership role in both higher education and innovation.

And yet, despite all the data, all the recommendations, and the many efforts to improve higher education that have been undertaken, little has changed for the better. In fact conditions may have even become worse. State and federal funding allocations have diminished or have been unable to keep up with need, the American Association for Higher Education, a major force for innovation in higher education for decades, has folded, more and more faculty are on part-time or short-term contracts, nearly 50% of students entering two-and four years institutions never earn their degrees and higher education is no longer viewed by the majority of political leaders as a state or national priority. In addition, need-based scholarships are being replaced by merit awards as academic leaders attempt to improve the national rankings of their institutions by improving the test scores of their entering students significantly decreasing accessibility to students from lower and middle income families . Over the same period, major initiatives designed to improve institutional quality, such as the accreditation movement for improving accountability thru learning outcomes, numerous assessment initiatives, and the efforts to relate the faculty reward system more directly to teaching and learning and to institutional priorities have had only modest impact. With this less than positive track record can we realistically expect this latest report to have any greater impact than those that preceded it?

Why institutions resist change

Significant change will never occur in any institution until the forces for change are greater in combination than the forces preserving the status quo. And in colleges and universities, the forces for resisting change are extremely powerful:

Can institutions really change? Certainly. A number of colleges and universities have, under a unique combination of leadership and external pressures, undergone significant transformations. However, with few exceptions, where major innovation did occur, the institution faced the prospect either of taking direct action or of losing accreditation or of being forced to close. Innovation, in almost all of these instances, was a matter of survival. Unfortunately, at most institutions, any attempt to implement a major academic innovation has been perceived by a majority of faculty as a temporary discomfort that will simply vanish if they stay the course and do nothing. Reinforcing this behavior pattern is the fact that there are rarely any serious consequences for behaving in this manner.

What it takes to change an institution          

It is a combination of external and internal forces that are required before a majority of individuals on any campus will be willing to address many of the issues being raised in these reports. Leaders must keep in mind as they plan new initiatives that in many instances it will be individuals outside of the institution who will play a major role in developing the personal priorities of their faculty, administrators and staff , in establishing the priorities of their institution and in determining whether or not a climate of innovation can be fostered. All the elements needed to encourage significant and lasting change are not, unfortunately, under the control of the institution itself and those who lead it.

For fundamental and lasting change in individual institutions to occur:

It should also be noted that technology can also be a major force for significant institutional change. In many instances it can have an impact far beyond what its advocates envisioned, impacting the mission, priorities and the very culture of the college or university.

The power of the right questions asked at the right time

A supportive, talented, and active Board of Trustees is a common characteristic of quality institutions. The key is the quality of the questions they ask, the support that they give to the president, and the knowledge they bring to the table. Often overlooked in this equation is the power of asking the right questions at the right time. These may be about budget and if the way decisions are made supports cooperation or facilitates competition, about how well the development office supports the stated priorities of the institution, about the quality of the academic program itself or about the data that the institution makes public about its students and its performance.  This may occur during regular meetings or when trustees are serving on committees or during individuals meetings with administrators, faculty or staff. The key is that the question is asked of the right person at the right time. A probing question when coming from a Trustee can be a most powerful force for change.

Under these conditions significant institutional change is not only possible, but it is also probable. The knowledge on how to go about implementing major innovation exists. The examples and models are out there, in other institutions, in the public schools and in business and industry. While major academic innovation is never an easy process, change must become an integral part of the operating philosophy of every college and university in the country. For only then can American higher education meet the numerous challenges that it faces here at home and from competition elsewhere.

The key question is, are those in key leadership roles both, within and outside of the academy,  willing to take up the challenge, make the commitment and work together to bring  about major and lasting academic reform?

Only time will tell. For the future of the country, and each of our students, one can certainly hope so.

Recommended resources

The Field Guide to Academic Leadership. 2002. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Designed specifically for administrators and trustees who are looking for a quick up-date on  most key topics. Here you will find specific information on such subjects as assessment, the research on teaching and learning, budgeting, institutional culture, faculty rewards, the research on teaching and learning, mission statements and student advisement and support. One section focuses on the specific leadership issues by position and includes a chapter for trustees.

Inside Higher Ed. If you want a quick day to day update on what’s going on in higher education this is the place to start. Pay particular attention to the essay included daily. Most of these are excellent. Best of all, it’s free. To sign up go to (

The National Academy for Academic Leadership. This website includes extensive sections on change, leadership, faculty rewards and scholarship, teaching and learning,

assessment, technology, course and curriculum design and professional development. In addition to a number of essays each section includes an annotated list of recommended readings and websites (

Recommended case studies

The two case studies described below are from institutions of different size, in different countries, have differing goals and follow somewhat different procedure. However, both were successful, carefully planned, lasting in their impact and actively involved, from the beginning, both faculty and administrators in their design and implementation.




Robert M. Diamond is President of the National Academy for Academic Leadership and Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University. He is editor of the Field Guide to Academic Leadership and author of Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula and Aligning Faculty Rewards with Institutional Mission and numerous books, articles and studies on tenure and promotion and on improving higher education.