Learning from Change Leaders: Reflections from the 2023 Transforming Institutions Conference

Madhura Kulkarni
Northern Kentucky University
Casey Wright
Western Michigan University

Casey Wright, Western Michigan University

Madhura Kulkarni, Northern Kentucky University

published Aug 7, 2023 11:16am

The Change Leaders working group led a workshop and hosted a breakfast conversation to bring together emergent and established change leaders at the 2023 Transforming Institutions Conference in Minneapolis, June 12-13, 2023. At the workshop, we met change leaders who are hard at work on their campuses in roles as faculty members, post-docs, educational technology staff, center for teaching and learning staff, STEM center staff, and university administrators.

Established and emergent leaders face numerous systemic challenges in leading change 

Change leaders at the workshop noted they faced challenges in leading change due to cultural problems within the university, the complexity of running change projects, and university structural obstacles. Signs of these cultural challenges were resistant faculty, working across disciplines, and university leadership that did not know about the pressing need for change or did not recognize the moral imperative of increasing equity. The complexity of running change projects related to data, administration, and collaboration within and among institutions was also a concern expressed by attendees.  Among the university structural obstacles leaders faced were challenges with existing budget models for change, how to make changes sustainable once external funding ends, leadership changes, and lack of support from university leaders about how we approach teaching foundational courses. Change leaders were very cognizant that these structural challenges don't exist in a vacuum; they exist within contexts of often harmful state education policies and shrinking university budgets. These cultural concerns and structural challenges are brought to bear within change projects where change leaders noted a pressing need for better data collection, organization, and analysis within change projects, collecting data for decision-making as well as having the proper project management and administrative support to facilitate the day to day operations of the projects to move from good ideas to implementation. 

Workshop attendees identified key resources to support their community

Change leaders at the workshop called for a set of resources and support that they would find valuable based on the challenges they faced in leading change. These resources include developing a community of practice for change leaders and a space to aggregate resources for change leaders. Consensus-building activities could be coupled with interpersonal support for change leaders. Leaders called for building consensus about the definitions and missions of change leaders by inviting and sharing case studies of change leaders from the community. Additionally, workshop attendees identified value in connecting with change leaders with different experience levels to develop mentoring relationships and increased communication across the community through a shared asynchronous communication channel such as Slack and monthly Zoom meetings. Workshop attendees noted that these group-facing support resources could be coupled with a public-facing set of resources, such as a tiered set of workshops to build core competencies for change leadership. This workshop series could provide a set of foundational skills to build advanced skills, such as communicating the message of the change project to upper administration or across disciplinary audiences in university departments (Figure 1). Workshop attendees also called for including graduate students and early career change agents as change leaders.

The Change Leaders Working Group serves as a community of practice for change agents

The Change Leaders working group serves as a home and resource for change leaders, both emergent and established. We are seeking to provide a network home for change agents. We have spent the past several years aggregating a set of resources that support some of the needs listed by workshop attendees. These resources include a critical resource collection for Change Leaders, which is an annotated collection of toolkits and reports on frameworks and for change agents. The collection also has resources for administrators and professional societies to lead change. We also led two short courses, which are multi-session meetings on change leader topics. The first short course was The Politics of Leading Change, and the second was Collaboration for Change: Engaging stakeholders and working together on common goals. The Change Leaders working group regularly holds webinars to support change agents in learning about national change efforts such as PULSE Network (e.g. The PULSE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Rubric: A Resource for Departmental Self-Assessment and Empowering STEM departments to enact change through the PULSE Ambassadors Program) and the Departmental Action Team Project (e.g. Departmental Action Leadership Institutes (DALIs): A scalable model for supporting departmental change efforts). The working group leaders, Madhura Kulkarni, Gita Bangera, and Jonathan Cox, are excited to add to and expand these resources in response to the emerging needs of change leaders this year. We are especially grateful to those who participated in our breakfast and workshop and gave feedback on our stakeholders' needs.

The Change Leaders working group is seeking to expand our community of practice. We realize that change leadership is often messy and challenging to work through. Therefore, we plan to engage in a series of discussions to develop a space for change agents to share their experiences implementing change with theory to further develop our community of practice. We will hold these sessions on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 4 pm ET/1 pm PT. Our first two meetings have been scheduled and will feature the following:

  • September 26: Gita Bangera, Change Leaders WG co-leader, will share a story of her experience of the reality of change leadership in practice and how "she celebrates the squiggle"
  • October 24: Melissa Eblen-Zayas (Carleton College) and Laura Muller (The Jackson Laboratory) will lead a discussion on avoiding confusion related to change theories in practice.


Suggested Citation:  

Wright, C. E., & Kulkarni, M. (August 7, 2023). Learning from Change Leaders: Reflections from the 2023 Transforming Institutions Conference. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://ascnhighered.org/ASCN/posts/277672.html

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