Departmental Change: Starting an Initiative

Joel Corbo, University of Colorado Boulder; Courtney Ngai, Colorado State University; Gina Quan, San José State University; Sarah Wise, University of Colorado Boulder
published Feb 9, 2021 2:11pm

The Departmental Action Team (DAT) Project supports departments as they make changes to their undergraduate programs through implementing DATs. This blog post is the second part of a four-part series on DATs, and describes the groundwork laid before a DAT officially forms in a department. Our first blog post describes our use of project principles. If you are interested in learning more, we are leading a free webinar (Tuesday, March 30, 12pm EST) about facilitating change using the DAT model. Register for the webinar.

DATs are teams of faculty, staff, and students in a single department working to enact curricular and/or cultural changes. DATs are guided by external facilitators who support the team in leading effective change and growing as change agents. Given the complexity of both the DAT model and departmental ecosystems, it is important that organizers assess whether a DAT is the appropriate change effort for their department. Four groups of stakeholders (potential DAT members, department members, department leadership, and facilitators) should be considered in this assessment, using ongoing, transparent communication with each group. This process often takes several meetings, but sets expectations of stakeholders around the effort and time required for a successful departmental change. Our book (Ngai et al., 2020) and free digital toolkit contain resources for cultivating departmental readiness and assessing whether a department is ready to form a DAT.

DAT formation is not a prescriptive set of steps to follow. Rather, we consider preparation complete once a set of outcomes has been met for each stakeholder. This table describes the stakeholder outcomes and the components of each outcome:

Stakeholder OutcomeComponents of the Outcome
Several department members are ready to become DAT membersSeveral department members have an understanding of DATs

Several department members recognize a need for change that is aligned with the DAT model

Several department members have a desire to develop as change agents

The departmental leadership is ready for a DATLeadership has an understanding of DATs

Leadership recognizes a need for change that is aligned with the DAT model

The department is ready to have a DATThe department has the potential to align their activities with the DAT Project's Core Principles (see our previous blog post)

The department has capacity and structures to support a DAT

Facilitators are ready to run a DATFacilitators understand the department's needs and context

Facilitators have the capacity to support a DAT in the department

Facilitators have legitimacy in the eyes of potential DAT members and department leadership

When is the right time to form a DAT in a department?

DATs differ from other change efforts in that they are aimed at building broad-scale changes that impact departmental structures and culture. A department is ready to form a DAT only when the above stakeholder outcomes are met, including sufficient interest in and understanding of the DAT model. A DAT is not always the most appropriate mechanism for departmental change. For example, a department in the middle of other changes, such as transitioning chairs or adjusting to a campus mandate, may not have the time or resources to commit to a DAT at that time. As another example, a department that is not committed to broadly improving education may be better suited to first engage in course-level change efforts. Ongoing conversations with DAT facilitators are critical in helping department members assess whether it's the right time to form a DAT.

Do facilitators have the capacity to run a successful DAT?

The success of a DAT relies on the capacities of skilled internal or external facilitators. Facilitators develop knowledge about the department's needs and context through in-depth conversations with a diversity of department members. Understanding this context is critical for the facilitators to help the DAT successfully achieve its goals. Facilitators must also build legitimacy in the eyes of potential DAT members and department leadership, so that their support is received positively by the team. This legitimacy is conferred through a variety of processes, not the least of which is building trusting, respectful relationships with department members. Facilitators must also have skills, knowledge, and resources to successfully guide a DAT. Facilitators contribute to a number of tasks including guiding conversations, managing logistics, providing customized support, attending to team dynamics, and cultivating external support. Our book (Ngai et al., 2020) provides detail about how facilitators can gain skills and legitimacy.

How should a DAT be assembled?

Once there is sufficient interest and understanding of DATs, DAT member recruitment can begin. DAT members should be knowledgeable about the DAT model, invested in the types of changes DATs aim to create, and interested in developing as change agents. To represent major stakeholder groups, the DAT must include students, staff, and faculty, and would ideally reflect the demographic diversity of the department (e.g., across gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, etc.). This diversity is crucial for ensuring that the DAT's work impacts members of the department equitably. In practice, most DATs begin by accepting all volunteers; many increase their diversity over time. Once the team is assembled, the DAT can then work toward its change efforts. Our next blog post focuses on what happens once a DAT is formed, with takeaways that are applicable to a wide array of change initiatives beyond DATs.

Ultimately, investing in an assessment process with stakeholders before officially forming a DAT sets the DAT up for success. If you are interested in learning more about how we do this, please see our book (Ngai et al., 2020), free resources hosted on our website, and our previous blog post. Stay tuned for additional posts about supporting departmental change efforts using the DAT model and be sure to register for our webinar (Tuesday, March 30, 12pm EST)!


Ngai, C., Corbo, J. C., Falkenberg, K., Geanious, C., Pawlak, A., Pilgrim, M. E., Quan, G. M., Reinholz, D. L., Smith, C., & Wise, S. B. (2020). Facilitating Change in Higher Education: The Departmental Action Team Model. Glitter Cannon Press.

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