Departmental Change: Sustaining Impacts

Joel Corbo, University of Colorado Boulder; Courtney Ngai, Colorado State University; Gina Quan, San José State University; Sarah Wise, University of Colorado Boulder

published Apr 30, 2021 8:40am

The Departmental Action Team (DAT) Project supports departments as they make changes to their undergraduate programs. In previous posts, we described the principles that underlie the DAT Project, the initial stages of DAT formation, and how DATs accomplish change initiatives with the support of facilitators. In about 70% of cases, departments that host DATs continue to catalyze change after external DAT facilitation ends, and sometimes even after the DAT itself ends. In this final post, we explore several ways DATs catalyze sustained impacts.

Facilitating for sustained impacts

Facilitators often challenge the DAT to consider the long-term perspective needed for sustainability, which is easy to forget when a DAT is focused on its immediate activities. For example, when DATs are sorting through a variety of project ideas, facilitators may point out the advantages of focusing on ones that have the potential to become permanently integrated into the working processes of the department. Facilitators may also help DATs anticipate needed membership change (e.g., when student members are nearing graduation) and think through how to help new members develop a sense of belonging and project ownership. In teaching DATs about change theory and effective principles for departmental communication, facilitators can spur DATs to gather stakeholder input that can engender sustained support for their initiatives.

DATs make lasting structural changes

The DAT model has spurred a wide variety of change in many disciplines (Table 1), almost all of which have changed the fabric of the department in a sustained way. In many cases, departmental faculty bodies have voted in favor of recommendations made by DATs to change departmental structures. For example, one DAT lobbied to change the job titles and descriptions of two instructors to ensure the department had ongoing course coordinators supporting active learning. Another DAT developed an assessment to measure growth in disciplinary skills, along with a plan to ensure the faculty will implement the assessment annually and bring the data to the department to review.

DisciplinesCurricular ChangesCultural Changes
Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences
Communication Studies
Computer Science
Electrical, Computer, & Energy Engineering
Forestry & Rangeland Services
Geological Sciences
Human Development & Family Studies
Information Sciences
Integrative Physiology
Political Science
Religious Studies
  • Establishing a new major
  • Developing a skills assessment and implementation plan
  • Redefining instructor positions to ensure course coordination
  • Developing learning outcomes and a program assessment plan
  • Organizing departmental conversations to support desired evidence-based instructional practices
  • Restructuring the major to provide a more cohesive experience
  • Creating structures to support student employability (e.g., career fair)
  • Organizing learning opportunities about diversity and inclusion
  • Providing welcoming experiences for students from marginalized groups
  • Collecting and sharing data about departmental climate
  • Engaging undergraduates in departmental community
  • Improving student study spaces
  • Improving communication between students, staff, and faculty
  • Increasing access to "honors" introductory course for students from marginalized groups
  • Developing and implementing a peer mentoring program

Table 1. Curricular and cultural change impacts of DATs formed at the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University. Departments and changes are not aligned for confidentiality. Departments in bold are those in which the DAT or a related group continued catalyzing change after external facilitation ended.

DAT members can bring change agency and facilitation skills into new spaces

In interviews, DAT members often say they have learned how to translate their skills and approaches to making change to new contexts. One member said, "That's a big takeaway I took from it: in working with other faculty in our department we have to be very careful to not push our own views or our own agenda on them...we also have to work with them to try to implement change." One chair of a DAT department introduced their faculty to the DAT Norms of Collaboration (Acrobat (PDF) 871kB Apr7 21), which helped support more productive meetings. As an extension of their DAT work, a DAT graduate student successfully proposed a method for all their department's committees and student clubs to develop their own group norms.

DATs can transition to internal facilitation

Many DATs continued to catalyze change long after the external facilitation from the DAT Project ended, sometimes by forming a permanent departmental committee and sometimes by explicitly identifying members to act as internal facilitators. In recent years, the DAT Project has worked to identify and mentor internal facilitators before exiting. This provides opportunities for facilitators to explain what happens "behind the scenes" and help internal facilitators determine what facilitation support their group most needs—as well as what may not be feasible to continue. Some DATs have split facilitation roles up between two or three internal facilitators, and some rotate facilitation roles among their members over time. Co-creating agendas with new internal facilitators has been a fruitful scaffolding activity.

Ongoing support for internal facilitation

In the past year the DAT Project started a virtual Facilitation Network to provide community support and training for internal facilitators on our campuses. We form small, stable groups in which facilitators can safely discuss relevant readings and challenges they face. DAT staff also describe how internal facilitators can use specific resources from the DAT Digital Toolkit to guide groups.

If you are interested in learning more about the DAT model of catalyzing departmental change, please see our book (Facilitating Change in Higher Education: The Departmental Action Team Model) and the free facilitation resources hosted on our website. You can also view past webinars we have given elsewhere as well as those hosted by ASCN. We would love to know what you found helpful and what other resources ASCN can provide to help you create change. If you have a question or are interested in following the DAT project, you can contact the DAT team or comment below!

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