Change and history

In the last week, I’ve heard change in higher education referred to in the following ways:

  • herding cats
  • navigating an ocean liner
  • linking independent systems

None of these descriptions strike me as nimble, agile, or quick.  I think those of us who have been leaders in higher education for any length of time would agree that change tends to be a complex and deliberate process. Major change rarely happens quickly.

When leading change, part of assessing the current state is understanding the historical context in which the change is occurring.  In An Essay on the Nature of Change in American Higher Education Arthur Levine described how our society is changing a from “a national, analog, industrial economy” to “a global, digital, information economy.”  He compared this to the historical change from an agrarian to an industrial economy. During that change, some institutions were able to remake themselves, new types of institutions emerged, and some old ways of learning dropped away.  A similar process is happening now.

Levin stated that change in higher education happens gradually, as new methods are tried and either modified, adopted, or failed. The process takes time, but what emerges is “the higher education system necessary to serve the evolved society.”

I believe that MnSCU can plan an important role in meeting Minnesota’s emerging social needs. Efforts such as Charting the Future will help us identify what that role will look like.  It will require that we remake some of our systems, create new ones, and let go of things that no longer serve our needs. What lessons can we learn from the history of higher education and of your institution to help us in this process?

Dee Anne Bonebright


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