Change Management in Academics: Change Agents and Credit Hours

Over the last twenty years, I have been involved in various change management efforts involving faculty members. Change management is hard and difficult in any organization; bigger the organization, more complex the change, and greater the challenge. Each organization has its own culture which makes change management distinctively challenging. In universities,  it becomes especially challenging to sell change among the faculty members who are used to displaying in front of students their intellectual prowess, who are often not at loss for words, and who are actually fond of involving students and others in intellectual debates and who are fond of giving arguments in favor of their positions.

As dean of private institutions of higher education since 2001, and before that deputy director at IBA, I often had the privilege of translating new ideas into policy statements and issuing them formally for implementation. However, for quite some time I have understood the limitations of such policies. I have learned that such policy pronouncements issued as memos and conveyed through faculty meetings are often accepted without protest, but are often ignored at the time of execution in the classrooms. The faculty members know that they are king of their classrooms, and it is not possible for administrators to police hundreds of class sessions being conducted often at different campuses every day, or to verify the contents of the question papers or validate the veracity of grading of thousands of answer scripts.
Any change initiative involving faculty members is a tedious process that goes beyond formal policy pronouncements. The faculty members must internalize the change in their personality before it becomes effective.   It typically takes from two to four years to assimilate and incorporate in the culture depending upon the immensity of change.
  • You don’t have to be at the top to bring change. Change can be initiated at any level and can be made to permeate up and down the hierarchy. But for this to happen the nobility of your vision should be selfless and great.
  • Change leader requires a lot of patience, and a supreme faith in the goodness of people and their ability to change. I am often reminded of St. Randy Pausch’s  quote in the Last Lecture, where he says that people often eventually turn around, if you give them enough time. [Some people now often refer to him as St ;)]. 
  • Change leader must have mastery of the literature and major viewpoints on the subject.  The leader should be prepared for dealing flexibly with all the various critiques and willing to try one alternative after another until he succeeds.  
  • The change leader must post some small wins quickly and at regular intervals. 
  • The success of the change leader depends upon his ability to identify and stimulate “change agents” , which is a technical term in change management literature. Change agents can be found in higher management, your colleagues and even your subordinates. They are the ones who are early adopters of change and would become your change promoters. 
  • How the direction of change is going to fulfill the longer term goals and vision of the organization and its sponsors should be clearly articulated and continuously evaluated and disseminated. 
  • Change requires space and time. Several initiatives leading to change need to be started simultaneously. (Don’t put all eggs in one basket). Some may yield results quicker than others. Latch on to them. Obtain some space for yourself by convincing others that you are just experimenting with some, and then show good results in a few. 
  • Be prepared for any adverse side-effects. Every new inititiative creates an imbalance that needs to be managed. Do proper planning, and document all the assumptions and probable outcomes. The documentation clarifies your strategy and protects you from the reaction by change resistance. This is the proactive approach.
  • There is always change resistance. Often the  people who are going to gain the most from the change will turn out to be the most vociferous and vicious change opposers [Hammer’s Handbook of Reengineering the Corporation]. 
  • How to deal with change opposers tests your belief in goodness of people. Given enough time you can win over most of the people. But often you do not have enough time. As Jim Collins says in his book Good to Great, you not only  need to have the right people on the bus, but also need to get the wrong people off the bus. Exit from the organization should always be graceful and decent. 
  • In higher education,  change can not be consolidated unless it is linked with credit hours.

Role of Change Agents

No institutional change can happen unless you have a critical mass of “change agents” (technical term). As I mentioned elsewhere, these “change agents” can be found in your subordinates, peers and even superiors. These are the people who are willing to change because they can see that change will provide them with professional growth and prominence in their current job or even in market elsewhere. These are the people to be first identified, stimulated, convinced, and encouraged. Then each of them would start posting “small-wins” (technical term) wherever they are. This brings support to your and their initiatives and slowly and gradually you build up the momentum for change. Soon one of these agents would find himself in a position of responsibility because of the new ideas and initiatives that he has been promoting. All organizations sooner or later desperately require such people. In times of crisis when such a change agent gets a position of responsibility then that becomes a catalytic moment.
An interesting observation regarding change management in faculty is that an initiative that does not become part of the culture soon loses its intensity once the initial fervent drive gets over. In cases where the teachers do go through the motion, the spirit of the initiative is often gone. This needs institutionalization of change through key processes that are the life line of that organization. In the case of universities, there is one such measure that is known as credit hours which is the lifeline of most of the academic and even administration processes running in the university.

Role of Credit Hours

Change in academics must be tied to the credit hours. Credit hour is a magic term in the education sector. It is typically the financial unit on the basis of which revenues are computed, costing is done, responsibilities are assigned, costs are allocated from one business unit to another, course loads of teachers are assigned, exemptions are given, and resources are allocated. An activity not tied to credit hour soon withers away once the initial exuberant launch is over. 

For example, see my post on how Project Based Learning was institutionalized by incorporating PBL in several credit courses.  
Experiential learning in business education was institutionalized through final year projects exhibition at PAF KIET.. Interestingly when they were first launched in 2003-04, faculty often protested that final year projects are only applicable for engineering and computer science programs. We would not be able to exhibit them because they are not disposable. However as the projects exhibition became a mechanism for grading credit courses after each semester,  they became a tradition.  The latest exhibition in 2016 was I think 21st in the series. 

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9 responses to “Change Management in Academics: Change Agents and Credit Hours”

  1. Salam Dr Sahab.
    Well Sir, being in faculty for over 9 years now, I believe this needs a face to face doscussion.

    However, one point to add is the organizational behaviour that greatly differs from private organizations to govt. institutions and from govt. to semi-govt. bodies.

    Moreover, the assignment of useless tasks from your head who tends to follow the rotten educational trends and who is not the change agent at all, is one of the great and prominent hurdles for those who are not "Deans."

  2. Dear Sir, I am surprised to see point 6 in this list 🙂

  3. Why?
    You must be evaluating your direction all the time and putting it in context of longer term benefits so that the superiors do not get jolted by sudden change and to sustain the motivation of those reporting to you.

  4. Please come over. Let's strategize the difficulties

  5. Of course different strategy is required for different environments.
    "Managing the boss" is an art and also a book. Google it.

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