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Transformational Change: The New Face of Higher Education
This is the first in a five-part article series that will examine the transformation of higher education. Although the geographic locus is the United States, transformation is impacting higher education globally as well. The focus of these articles is on the work of department chairs as the individuals most involved in responding to the transformations.
The Characteristics of Transformational Change
Change is a constant phenomenon whether we speak of geology, the life of a plant, or the course of a human life. However, regardless of the category, neither the pace nor the direction is a constant. Change often takes place in tiny increments that we recognize only after a span of time, which varies by what we are examining: geology, flora and fauna, or human existence. Change that takes place slowly appears continuous and unbroken. Transformational change, on the other hand, appears to be abrupt and alters the fundamentals of a system. Although the result of transformational change is the creation of a new structural system, it does not wipe out the past. System categories are still needed, and some details of the earlier structures will continue to be discernible. However, the principles will change. During the transformational process it is likely that tensions will develop between old and new realities. Simultaneously, there are opportunities for creativity.
The pace of change in American higher education since the end of World War II has been both extensive and rapid, to such a point that we can now see that we are no longer involved in a speeded-up linear process, but rather in an adventure that is redefining a system that has endured for a good one thousand years. These systemic changes are affecting our definitions of who is to be educated, who are the educators, the procedures of education, our definitions for the categories of knowledge, and our concepts of time and space. The key implementers of this transformational change are department chairs. It should be no surprise that as change agents chairs are facing new responsibilities that require new skills. While chairs may not define policy, their participation is vital in the construction and implementation of new policies.
Our Medieval Heritage
When looking at contemporary higher education we see a continuation of some elements of medieval practice. A medieval instructor would readily recognize the purpose of a modern lecture hall. To be sure, the seating is now in comfortable chairs. The lighting is excellent. The gadgetry would be unfamiliar, but the teaching process-expert on the podium, students arrayed below-would cause the medieval scholar no astonishment. Like our medieval progenitors, we still bundle knowledge into discrete packages, though these are no longer limited to the trivium and quadrivium. Instead, we have indulged in an expanding series of disciplinary categories.
We still tend to pursue knowledge as a series of steps from elementary to advanced, reflected today in our practice of course numbering starting with 100 and advancing to 400, corresponding to our four-year categorization of students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
The Elements of Transformational Change
Two propulsive forces underlie the process of transformation: massification and technology. While massification has been creeping up on us at a transitional pace, technology is sweeping us into the whirlpool of transformation. In combination, these elements have propelled us into a whirlwind of change.
The process of massification has been developing from earliest ancient history, spanning the creation of an alphabet and the very gradual expansion over millennia of numerate and literate citizens. However, it is not until the conclusion of World War II that one can speak meaningfully of massification. In the United States the process was launched by the GI Bill, which gave our returning veterans the right to educational benefits on Uncle Sam's tab. Several changes resulted. The number of college enrollees exploded, leading to the reorganization of some of our public institutions as well as the emergence of the community colleges now present in all of our states. The influx of returning veterans shattered our assumption that there was a rigid age or time sequence for the pursuit of higher education.
Massification is also forcing us to address the issue of content in ways that never plagued us heretofore. For example, as we set goals to expand our college-educated citizenry we are challenged to determine what the content of that education should be. We face the dilemma of enterprises that tell us that they cannot find "qualified" applicants, meaning that they cannot find applicants with the technical skills their enterprises require. Simultaneously, we have business leaders claiming that they need broadly educated employees, suggesting that a liberal education is important. These cross currents are plaguing us with questions of appropriate content that in years past were never raised.
The technology evolution has served to tear apart a millennial system of educational organization. Time no longer has meaning. Space is irrelevant. Our long-honored system of packaging and sequencing knowledge has lost its sanctity. Our pedagogical methods are rapidly evolving, resulting in a needed redefinition of the methodology of pedagogy and the role of "professors."
The Chair's Evolving Role
The transformational changes taking place in higher education are affecting all parts of our society, from students and their families to faculty, political bodies, and college and university administrators. However, the point at which the transformations precipitated by massification and technology must be translated into practice is at the level of departments and faculty. Hence, the person with the greatest leadership responsibility for implementing effective responses to transformational changes is none other than the department chair.
As little as a generation ago the chair's focus was on the interests of the department and of its individual faculty members. The range of vision demanded was precise and limited. While the chair is still expected to care for the interests of the department and its individual members, the need for two new skills is effectively requiring a redesign of the chair role.
The first demands a grasp of the extent of change occurring in higher education both in the United States and globally. Acquiring such understanding suggests the need for expanding chairs' regular reading to follow the major movements and debates now under way. Two easily accessible resources are the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, both of which provide daily webmail summaries. The Chronicle requires a subscription, but it is an expense that can be legitimately ascribed to the department or university budget. Inside Higher Ed's web connection is without charge. Undoubtedly some of the issues that are covered in these publications are already affecting any chair's specific institution. Other issues are important to know about in order to have a grasp of the currents moving in higher education.
The second is a shift in leadership focus toward seeing the work of the department as a group endeavor. In other words, the task of leadership needs to be heavily focused on creating an effective group. Individual talents and interests remain important, but those talents and interests must be combined to create a group with shared goals and an understanding of what each individual contributes to achieving the goals of the department as a whole.
This can constitute a considerable strain in view of the extent to which our training emphasizes individual achievement. Higher education has cultivated a culture of autonomy, independence, and individual achievement. While it would be absurd to seek to erase these characteristics, they are no longer sufficient for fostering an effective department. It is imperative today that departments work as effective groups. Individuals must see their work in relation to the work of their colleagues. It is important that, as decisions are made, the impact of individual moves on the work of the total body is examined. Soloists are an asset to symphony orchestras as inspirational visitors to whom the orchestra adjusts for the duration of the visit. Departmental soloists are permanent residents and are apt to be prima donnas who may actively harm the ability of the department to coalesce and respond effectively to the current transformation of higher education.
Higher education is in the midst of a process of transformational change. For the department chair, leadership today must include breadth of vision and the skill to bring the single individuals who make up a department into a group that can think collaboratively about the questions facing their discipline, department, and institution. Chair leadership now depends heavily on the ability to create collaborative habits of thought and dialogue among a group of individuals, none of whom may have had experience in effective teamwork. Skill in this area will derive in large part from the chair's ability to structure the department's dialogue to be conscious of the connections among its members and the links between the department's work and the institution's goals. Ultimately, the habits of dialogue must also include consciousness of the transformational
currents in higher education as an enterprise. Subsequent articles will examine these issues as they pertain to faculty, students, pedagogy, and other key topics being remodeled in the transformational process.
Irene W. D. Hecht is retired director of the American Council on Education's Department Leadership Programs, and, as president of Higher Education Associates, continues consulting on issues pertaining to the work of department chairs. Email: email@example.com