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Making Change in Urban Serving Universities

Change is in the air at America’s universities. Everyone is talking about institutional change, about transforming higher education to better meet our missions and serve our students and communities. In order for this transformation to occur, leaders agree, we need effective “change-agents.”

But what is a change-agent anyway?

Put simply, change-agents intentionally try to change the way that others and systems behave in order to achieve particular goals that the change-agents perceive will make the world a better place.  Change-agents take a stand on what “good” is and try to make it happen.  They make their best effort to solve the problem, take responsibility for their solution, and go to work to implement it (Robertson, 2017, p. 5).


After 40 years of professional work as a change-agent, I set out to reflect on my experience to see if it had produced any learning that might be useful to other change-agents.  The result was the newly published Making Change, Lessons Learned: A Primer for Change-Agents, by Douglas L. Robertson (Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 2017).

What helps a change-agent to be successful?

I found seven clusters of learning in my experience that I think contribute to answering this question.  Each learning cluster is explored in a separate chapter that integrates ideas and experience, theory and practice.  The seven learning clusters are previewed below.

Change objectives for organizations are often articulated as development.  But what does that mean specifically?  I define development and provide examples.  The discussion provides a template for the change-agent’s objective setting and comes both from my experience as a change-agent as well as work in my first published book, Self-Directed Growth (Muncie, IN: Accelerated Development/Taylor & Francis, 1988).

Change-agents want to create change.  But what is the transition process that has to be facilitated for individuals and for the organization, and how do those two processes–individual change and group change–interrelate?  What are the characteristics of the different orders of change–simple change and transformative change?  I provide answers and examples for those questions.

Organizations are clearly complex systems.  What is systems thinking and why is it important?  What is chaos theory and why is it a useful metaphor for facilitating change in organizations?  I found answers to these questions in my experience as a change-agent.

Vision is a term that is used so often, but what is good vision?  Good vision not only provides a specific, measurable, challenging yet obtainable goal, but also, a clear framework for how to achieve that goal.  I contrast good vision with managing by the continual chase of bright shiny objects (“cutting edge” and “disruptive” innovations with short half-lives that profoundly interfere with achieving meaningful change in organizational performance).

Motivation is about creating energy and direction.  How do you motivate yourself and others in extended systemic change projects with guaranteed ups and downs?  I found answers in the combination of my experience and the theory.

Change projects have arcs–beginnings, middles, and yes, endings.  Each new thing ends something old only to become old itself and be ended by something new, which may not be an improvement.  Long-term, large-scale, systemic change projects are particularly vulnerable to leadership succession.  I provide some examples from my experience that illustrate that the change-agent must be aware of and prepared for the arc of change projects.

Finally, to survive as a change-agent and to be happy in that work over time, the change-agent needs balance.  But what does that mean?  My answer to that question builds on my experience as a change-agent as well as work in a previous book of mine, Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching (Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 2003).


Where do we go from here?

The seven learning clusters that I found in my experience are contextualized by panoramic autobiographical sketches that begin with the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War Movements, proceed through the Lifelong Learning Movement and General Education Reform, and culminate with the Urban University Movement, specifically with the student success work at Florida International University (FIU), an USU/APLU institution.  That student success work at FIU, which involved complex, interrelated, university-wide interventions, was branded the Graduation Success Initiative (GSI). In its four years of existence (2011-2015), the GSI helped to produce a 16 point increase in six year graduation rates (from FIU’s historical low to its historical high), and in November, 2013, the GSI won the USU/APLU’s MVP (Most Visible Progress) Award.  Readers who are interested in exploring ways to improve as a change-agent that are embedded in higher education contexts and specifically in concrete student success work will find much material of interest in this book.

Douglas L. Robertson (Ph.D., Maxwell School, Syracuse University, 1978) is Professor of Higher Education at Florida International University, an engaged, metropolitan research university in Miami (enrollment: 56,000). From 2008 to 2016, Dr. Robertson served as Dean of Undergraduate Education and led the Graduation Success Initiative for its four years of existence (2011-2015).  Dr. Robertson has been involved in significant innovations in American higher education for 40 years, and has over 31 years of administrative experience (12 years private, 19 years public) at institutions in Oregon, Nevada, Kentucky, and Florida. He has worked closely with senior staff in both the Kentucky and Florida state systems of higher education and has served on numerous state system working groups in both states. He has authored, co-authored, or co-edited eight books and over 160 scholarly publications and presentations.  For 10 years, he has been the Editor of NEA’s Thriving in Academe (print readership: 150,000; plus online downloads). Dr. Robertson has provided over 150 consultations to a broad range of educational, health care, human service, governmental, and business organizations.


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