2023 Transforming Institutions Conference Takeaways

Casey Wright
Western Michigan University
Casey Wright, Western Michigan University

published Aug 15, 2023 9:37am

The 2023 Transforming Institutions Conference was held June 12-13, 2023, in Minneapolis, MN. With this most recent convening, we are proud to have brought together change researchers and change agents for 12 years. The meeting was made possible by the efforts of a conference planning committee consisting of 10 change agents convened by NSEC (Network of STEM Education Centers) and ASCN (Accelerating Systemic Change Network), supported by 40 reviewers from the systemic change community. Now that the dust has settled, we would like to share some key takeaways, attendee feedback, and future conference plans to continue to build momentum for our community to thrive with change.

We had a highly successful conference with an average overall attendee satisfaction rating of 8.57/10. We welcomed over 200 participants to Minneapolis for a jam-packed set of sessions on systemic change in STEM higher education. Over 80% of conference participant evaluation respondents identified as change agents, and nearly half identified as change researchers. Most conference attendees were STEM faculty, administrators, and center staff. We also welcomed attendees who were graduate students, consultants, department chairs, program directors, librarians, outreach, program evaluators, and program officers. Conference attendees engaged in two plenary sessions, 23 workshops and symposia, 39 presentations, and 40 posters. The conference planning team worked to support accessibility at the conference through efforts such as providing closed captioning for attendees, creating maps of the conference space to help attendees locate restrooms, and designating a quiet room for attendees. In planning the 2025 meeting, we will take the lead from SIGAccess Accessible Conference Guide and designate an accessibility liaison who will be designated to raise concerns about accessibility throughout the planning process.

Jump to: Key Takeaways | Attendee Takeaways | Future Directions

Key Takeaways

We noted several key takeaways from this meeting: (1) Leverage accrediting bodies to support change, (2) address demographic shifts in the student population through thinking about higher education as an ecosystem, (3) support the growth of the community of change agents, and (4) intentionally recenter student voices to support equity and inclusion.

1. Leverage accrediting bodies to support change

Our first speaker, Karen Solomon from the Higher Learning Commission, discussedthe role of accreditation in the changing context of higher education. Accrediting bodies assess the financial viability of colleges and universities and how well they maintain their goals of supporting excellent student outcomes. Through this external peer review process, institutions are held accountable to maintain standards of excellence certified through the accreditation. For systemic change agents, a goal can be to work with accrediting bodies to link and construct related classroom-, program-, department- and institutional-level assessments across the higher education system. This session raised critical questions about the role of accreditors in facilitating systemic change:

  1. What structures are needed to link classroom assessment with program certification? 
  2. How should discipline-specific standards be addressed alongside programmatic and institutional standards? 
  3. How can accreditors help increase alignment in transferring credits between institutions? 
  4. How do accreditors position themselves to make change rather than uphold the status quo when the status quo is increasingly obviously inequitable? 
  5. What role will accrediting bodies play in increasing needs for inclusion under increasing political attacks towards these efforts, such as the SCOTUS decision to strike down race-conscious admissions and state lead attacks on tenure for engaging in equity and inclusion efforts?

2. Address how demographic shifts in the US population will affect the higher education ecosystem  

The keynote, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, from Nathan Grawe highlighted how changing demographics within the broader US context will impact higher education and the pressing need for employing ecosystem thinking within higher education to address the changes. The shrinking population of individuals in the typical age range for undergraduate students is arriving within the U.S. population makeup as the ethnic and racial composition of the US is becoming increasingly diverse. Grawe described these demographic changes as precipitating a downshift in higher education demand and that institutions will need to double down on their efforts to retain students and address the financial stresses on higher education institutions. Grawe noted strategies such as working across institutions to strengthen transfer and retention.

...rethink the degree and certification granting structures to increase opportunities for transfer between institutions.

Grawe's economic perspective was supplemented by a panel discussion, How Higher Education Can Change to Thrive with a Changing Demographic. Panelists included Archie Holmes, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University of Texas System; Mark Mitsui, Retired Community College President; Susan Singer, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, Rollins College; President-elect, St. Olaf College. These panelists brought their perspectives from public university systems, private colleges, and community colleges. The panelists discussed the value of building partnerships with local communities to hold higher education accountable to the community's needs and renewing commitments to serve those marginalized in our communities. Additionally, they noted administrators need to rethink the degree and certification granting structures to increase opportunities for transfer between institutions. Efforts led by faculty and department administrators working with registrar's offices can work to minimize gatekeeping courses within institutions.

3. The need to support the growth of the community of change agents

Within the context of shifting student demographics and restructuring that many institutions are engaging in concerning these efforts, it is vital for change agents to intentionally rest and be strategic in our change efforts to avoid burnout. Part of this strategic work will be to embrace interdisciplinarity and build a community to support emergent change agents.

The conference evaluation revealed the majority of individuals who participated in the conference were mid-career and demographically homogeneous. We identified a need to support the growth of change agents earlier in their careers, such as graduate students, postdocs, early career faculty, and STEM center staff. These groups provide the potential to strengthen the community of change agents. The systemic change community must work to support early career change agents, increase inclusion of change agents from marginalized racial/ethnic, gender, sexuality, and disability backgrounds, and increase inclusion of change agents across institutional and university roles.

Some sessions offered the groundwork to build the community of change agents. For example, "Exploring Implicit Leadership to Promote Change by L.J. McElravy, Rachel Kennison, and Kelly Clark and Lessons from the Change Leadership Toolkit (CLT) by Elizabeth Holcome and Ángel Gonzalez. The former workshop built on the framework from the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) to support graduate students and post-docs in affecting instructional change from their respective positions within their institutions, and the latter project employs the Ecosystem Model of Systemic Change Leadership to support leaders in leading change across the system of higher education.

4. The potential of intentionally recentering student voices within our change dialogue to support equity and inclusion

Presenters and conference attendees pointed to the critical need tolisten to student voices and ensure that change serves students marginalized by institutional structures and practices . Change agents called on the community to work to move toward assets-based approaches in teaching and evaluation.

Some presentations that highlighted centering student voices were Project Voces (Voices for Organizing Change in Educational Systems) by Laird Kramer, Yesim Darici, Rocio Benabentos, Janki Bhimani, Monica Cardella, Adam Castillo, Jaroslava Miksovska, Stephen Secules, and Leanne Wells, which works to bring forward student stories and experiences through storytelling and connecting these to institutional policy change. Likewise, the DeLTA (Departmental and Leadership Teams for Action) presented by Paula Lemons, Hannah Ericson, and Tessa Andrews advocate for incorporating students' voices in informing change to teaching evaluations.

At a time when higher education is facing fundamental demographic shifts, financial stresses, and increased political animosity towards efforts towards equity and inclusion, the community of change agents and change researchers needs to redouble efforts to include student voices in systemic change dialogue. These efforts include supporting equitable and inclusive teaching and learning within our disciplinary environments, even if that means being strategic in the language we use to describe said efforts.

Conference Attendee Takeaways

Attendees reflected on their learning from the conference. They pointed to the value they found in connecting with the community of change agents and the new tools and ways of thinking they learned about to support work within the community.

Connecting with a community of change agents and change researchers

A crucial aspect of the conference was being in community with others interested in systemic change to bring about evidence-based and inclusive practices in STEM higher education.

One attendee noted the significant value in learning they were a part of the community of change agents:

"The fact that there is a large community of people engaged in the same kind of work we are doing and that I should draw upon their expertise and community."

Some attendees pointed to the lasting connections they made at the conference, such as the following attendee:

The community members that I met here will definitely make a part of my network going forward

Another attendee noted the wealth of information and value for creating and sustaining change within this community:

"There are plenty of folks engaging in systemic change and finding success; reach out and find them, talk to them about how they got started and how they keep the momentum."

Learning about new tools and new ways of thinking

Attendees saw value in the theoretical and practical implications of change work and the relationships between them. Some noted the value in the theoretical insights for studying change, such as the following participant:

"I am new to ASCN and systemic change theories, so for me, the most valuable thing was seeing how change theories are interconnected with (and can be used as a framework for) many of the issues/phenomena that I study in my work as a researcher."

Others noted the value of empirically supported practices for change:

"Any of the practical tips for change.  I'm not a change researcher, so I was really looking for evidence-based practices that I could use."

Future Directions for the Community of Change Agents

The ASCN and NSEC communities will continue to develop in the future, and attendees noted possible areas for growth. One attendee noted the substantial value present in the community:

I appreciate the unique blend that this community provides - some discipline-based ed researchers, some policy people, some administrators, some CTL people, some faculty change agents. It's a perfect community for me. I would like to see this continue.

Attendees recommended that more work be done to get the word out about ASCN, expand the pool of change agents, and create resources for early career change agents.

"Increased opportunities for interaction with the systemic change community between conferences."

Additionally, some attendees noted the possibility of creating new resources and expanding the scope of ASCN. Attendees emphasized the need for a directed focus on interaction and communication between STEM centers and more support for the change-making community.

There was a productive tension between theory-driven work and practical implications for systemic change; one participant noted the need for more theoretically driven work:

"Increased theory-driven and multilevel work"

 "...involving administration in change models and communities of practice"

And other participants noted the need for more practical work:

"Less focus on research and more on how to leverage systems"

"Building inter-institutional collaborations and involving administration in change models and communities of practice."

Increased community building by the ASCN and NSEC communities can continue to build the community's capacity for systemic change. We at ASCN hope that change agents and change researchers will engage with ASCN resources for the community of change agents and join our working groups to build community. Our collaborators through NSEC invite you to join their email list and submit a STEM Center Profile to be added to their network of STEM Education Centers.

The planning committee is excited to begin planning the next Transforming Institutions conference. We look forward to seeing everyone in 2025!

Suggested Citation:  

Wright, C. E. (August 15, 2023). 2023 Transforming Institutions Conference Takeaways. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://ascnhighered.org/ASCN/posts/277957.html

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