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Higher Education Overview

Traditional Values and Structures Face New and Changing Challenges

Higher education may be the most difficult institution in our society in which to create intentional change. Campus cultures tend to be strong and unwieldy, with many steeped in a century of tradition. College administrators are constantly challenged by students, faculty, host communities, public and private governing boards, unions, legislatures, courts and others to respond to a myriad of issues.

To all this is added the fact that universities exist in a constantly changing environment, impacted by changing funding sources and priorities, changing curriculum needs, complex research priorities, and other conditions that require continual and immediate responses.

Here are some ways that various institutions of higher learning have successfully met these challenges:

In Washington, DC, George Washington University's School of Business and Public Management created a new vision for its undergraduate program that subsequently was endorsed by all necessary groups and committees on campus. Stakeholders present were: business and liberal arts faculty, parents, alumni, students, staff, administration, and business, non-profit and government employers. The Undergraduate Associate Dean noted after the meeting that the students really now feel they are a part of making things happen at the school.

In Storrs, Connecticut, The University of Connecticut's Division of Student Affairs held a future search that produced seven organizing principles for future planning: building campus community, eliminating administrative barriers, supporting diversity, improving technology, promoting excellence, integrating in- and out-of-classroom student learning, and enhancing "town-gown" relationships. Following the future search, outcomes were "worked" at a division-wide retreat of nearly all of the division's 500 employees and in a joint student affairs/academic affairs conference.

Some of the Challenges Facing Higher Education:

  • Including many diverse and often conflicting voices in design and decision making,

  • Engaging traditional "ivory towers" without causing huge internal and external disruption,

  • Developing curriculum in a complex culture,

  • Creating broad buy-in for institution-wide change initiatives,

  • Developing complex, bare-bones budgets in a way that meets broad needs and attracts wide support,

  • Having to "get things done" in a complex and traditional culture.

The ability of any individual leader of higher education to effect change is diminished by the decentralization inherent in higher education cultures, a decentralization more pervasive than in any other set of institutional organizations in our society. Boards, top administrators, tenured faculty, silo-like colleges and departments, faculty and staff unions, alumni, and students and their parents all carry considerable weight and leverage.

And while the pragmatic issues of change are overwhelming, there is also an increasing sense of disconnectedness, of lost spirit and purpose that pervades the campus environment today. As the market-driven model finds deep roots, passionate critics are beginning to ask: Why are we here? What is our purpose in serving society? And what is society asking from us in helping to shape an ever-changing world?

How Future Search can help Higher Education

Future search is an innovative, creative process that has helped institutions of higher learning carve out meaning and overcome challenges. A high-participation approach, future search engages people to act together on issues of importance to them no matter how these people differ on opinion, role, status, gender, culture or ethnic background. It gives voice to every stakeholder when dealing with complex issues. Not surprisingly, this approach cuts down on resistance to change, and unleashes energy of those involved, broadening the circle of involvement.

More than 60 higher education institutions, ranging from flagship institutions to small private liberal arts institutions to vocational technical schools, have utilized the future search conference with dramatic results.

Future search creates a framework in which powerful conversations can occur among people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to talk together. In fact, future search is based on the belief that the more diverse the group, the more successful the gathering will be. For example, at a higher education future search, you might find yourself sitting in a circle with a junior and/or senior faculty member, a student, an auxiliary services administrator, a student affairs professional, a local employer, and a leader of the community.

Future search has been used to help higher education institutions address:

  • Institution-wide strategic planning and visioning processes

  • Building stronger relationships with surrounding communities / organizations

  • Building a "world-class" academic program

  • The future of an academic college

  • Institutional service to the community

  • Retention of students

  • Planning for administrative technology systems and infrastructure







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