Graveyard of old habits and opera house of emotions

I’m a big fan of the “Tomorrow’s Professor” blog from Stanford University. Their motto is “Online faculty development 100 times per year” and during term time, 10 minutes of reading a handy tip about how to be better at my job is sadly all the professional development I can manage to fit in. 

Last week’s topic was Change Leadership in Higher Education. The article discussed two hypothetical scenarios in which a University struggling with falling enrollment and funding hires a new President to help it redirect itself. In Scenario 1, the new President promptly assembles a leadership team that develops a strategy together with the governing board. In Scenario 2, the new President spends many months discussing the issues with the members of the University, establishes committees and working groups, engages students, staff and faculty, and nudges everyone along through a collaborative strategy-development process. The resulting strategy is more-or-less the same as in Scenario 1.

Interestingly, I learned that there are technical management theory terms for both approaches: Change Management, with a Change Model (Scenario 1) and Change Leadership, with a Change Journey (Scenario 2).

Now anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes in a faculty meeting will be able to immediately predict the outcome: Scenario 1 — the Change Management option — was a spectacular failure. There were protests from students, alumni and the local community, as well as outright rebellion from staff and faculty. The plan could not be implemented, the President quit to return to her research lab (the professional equivalent of wanting to have more time for family) and the University went broke. Scenario 2 — the Change Leadership approach — on the other hand, was implemented successfully, and when the president stepped down highly respected after her full ten years in office, the University was thriving. 

Now while of course implementing a curriculum revision is not in the same league as turning around a struggling University, many of the issues strike me as remarkably similar. If you’ve been following my blog over the last couple of years, you will know already that we are using the second approach (which thankfully I now learn is the “correct” one!) in our curriculum revision. And so I find that much of the discussion about the difficulties associated with Change Journeys resonates with our experience. It’s encouraging to read that heated arguments and differences of philosophy between those who favour more or less drastic change are entirely normal. And during these dark days of hard work with the content details, I am happy to hear that after the “depression stage of the change process, the acceptance stage is just around the corner”! But by far my favourite part of the article is the hypothetical president’s tactic for managing the difficulties: to “good-naturedly tease that the university is just making a short side trip to the graveyard of old habits or the opera house of emotion.” 

“Graveyard of old habits” and “Opera house of emotion.” Two very handy terms that I intend to adopt for use in future curriculum revision meetings 😉

About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, former director of her department’s study program, and holder of the ETH Golden Owl Award for excellence in teaching. She developed the class of materials known as multiferroics, which combine simultaneous ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity, and when not trying to make a room-temperature superconductor, can be found playing her clarinet, or skiing or climbing in the Alps.
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