Explore the Levels of Change Management

Empower and Drive Change Management in Higher Education

Research consistently supports the need to align leadership approaches with the unique needs of faculty, staff and students to achieve success. But, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, universities and colleges face challenges on a much larger scale.

  • Post-secondary enrollment is over a million students below pre-pandemic levels
  • The number of students dropping out before completing a degree rose to over 40 million
  • Only 3.6 million college and university students graduated last year, a four-year low

Leaders in higher education are now tasked with improving these poor outcomes while undergoing significant changes to keep pace in a transforming landscape—from incorporating remote learning opportunities to integrating new technologies. According to EDUCAUSE, a third of surveyed institutions increased their central IT operating expenditure by over 30% between 2022 and 2023.

In this context, it’s clear that the leaders in higher education need to expand their focus to embrace a systemic change management approach that allows for more.  

What it Means to Be an Effective Leader in the Changing Higher Education Landscape

Leaders in higher education are as diverse and multifaceted as the institutions they represent. The context of their work is equally dynamic—institutional leaders navigate a landscape of entrenched traditions, cultural change, and the relentless tide of technological innovation.

A female presenting a meeting to two other females

Key academic leaders, such as university presidents, provosts, deans and department chairs, are the primary sponsors of change in higher education—not to mention key C-suite stakeholders across finance, human resources, IT and academic departments. These leaders authorize major transformations and also play a major role in helping their institution realize the desired benefits of a digital transformation or policy overhaul.

Specifically, these academic leaders help coordinate the change effort from a high level, engaging constantly with project and people leaders across academic and administrative departments.

It’s crucial to remember that key stakeholders—including students, faculty, administrative staff and well-funded academics—also play an important role during times of change. While these individuals may not be the initiators of change, some are critical influencers during change, and all of them need to adopt the change for it to be successful.

Unfortunately, there are many challenges facing both the primary sponsors and key change agents in academia as these institutions try to keep up with the changing education landscape.

The Challenges of Leading Change in Academia

The unique culture of higher education makes the change process arduous. Unlike organizations in the business world, university and college leaders must contend with a range of unique attributes while trying to implement new policies, initiatives or infrastructure changes. 

Higher education organizations face challenges during change initiatives, especially considering the different leadership styles deployed

Those leading or sponsoring change initiatives in higher education often come up against many of the following issues:

Decentralized decision-making – Complex and layered governance can slow decision-making and dilute accountability. Faculty governance means deans and department chairs can have high power and autonomy.

Entrenched culture – Many leading academic institutions have been around for centuries, creating deeply rooted traditions and highly esteemed values. Furthermore, tenured faculty can often be more resistant to change than non-tenured counterparts.

Varied interests and capacity – There can be large disparities between departments regarding priorities, budgets and values. For instance, business, engineering and medical schools often have more financial resources and sway than other schools and institutes.

Multiple bottom lines – Return on Investment (ROI) is defined differently in the higher education context, especially with public funding. These institutions have the typical financial goals of large organizations but also prioritize non-financial outcomes like retention, graduation rates, growth in sponsored research, faculty recruitment/retention, faculty recognition and national rankings. The multiple stakeholders beyond students and faculty vying to influence leadership goals and decision-making can be overwhelming—e.g., alums, donors, city/state lawmakers, federal regulators, federal grant agencies, and accreditors.

Reputational damage – Many universities and colleges prioritize maintaining a strong reputation in academia and the public eye. Key stakeholders may resist significant change if they believe that failure to achieve outcomes will negatively impact that reputation.

Increased risk of losing talent – With higher education’s unique factors of tenured faculty, entrenched culture and extreme decentralization, poorly managed change efforts are more likely to lead to loss of valuable talent in key areas throughout the university.

These issues all contribute to the dismal state of change in higher education, where over 70% of large-scale initiatives fail to achieve desired outcomes. So, how can universities and colleges enact successful change in an environment where governance structures and cultures are so resistant to change? 

Empowering Higher Education Leaders
to Enact Change

The sheer variation in governance structures, leadership roles, and levels of autonomy interacting in academia precludes using a one-size-fits-all change management approach. It requires a structured, flexible approach to managing the change and a nuanced understanding of the institution's culture, the specific change and those impacted.

With 25 years of applied research in organizational change, Prosci has developed a framework that adapts and scales to the needs of these complex organizations and their leaders. In that time, our team has collected over two decades of longitudinal research on the dynamics of change within large institutions. 

Here are three of the biggest findings observed over this time:

1. Active and visible sponsorship is the number one contributor
to successful change management

Since 1998, one factor has led the way in Prosci benchmarking reports in terms of the biggest contributor to change management success—primary sponsorship.

These individuals ultimately sign off on investment in change and, while they may not lead the initiative directly, play an indispensable role in determining its outcome through active and visible promotion. Our research shows that primary sponsors who follow the ABCs of sponsorship—active and visible participation, building a coalition of sponsorship, and communicating support—strongly correlate with achieved outcomes.

2. The use of a structured change management approach
is the second strongest predictor of successful change

Outside of effective primary sponsorship, there’s no more important contributor to successful organizational change than a structured change management approach.

Researchers, industry experts and consultants have developed methodologies, often based on change theory, that can be flexibly applied across different organizational contexts—even those as complex as higher education. Prominent examples include Kurt Lewin’s change model, Kotter’s 8-Step Change Process, and the Prosci ADKAR® Model.

Prosci research shows that organizations that apply effective change management are seven times more likely to meet or exceed objectives.

3. Middle management is the leading
employee cohort in terms of resistance to change

Prosci research consistently points to middle managers as the most resistant to change within the organization. This resistance can culminate in technical system changes, an emotional reaction to a changing power structure, and other technical and human factors. Considering middle managers are the connective tissue between the upper level of a company and its front-line workers, overcoming this resistance is vital.

Over time, we’ve also discovered and tested a range of solutions for overcoming resistance to change within this central tier of the organization. 

The Prosci ADKAR model helps drive change on an individual level

The Prosci Methodology

The Prosci Change Management Methodology stands at the forefront of enabling organizations, including higher education institutions, to navigate the complexities of change with a structured and practical approach. At the core of the Prosci Methodology and models is the understanding that successful change isn’t just about the technical solution being implemented but also about the people involved and being impacted.

Here are the structured, scalable and adaptable approaches Prosci takes to driving organizational change:

PCT Model – The Prosci Project Change Triangle (PCT) Model is a framework that highlights these four critical aspects of successful change efforts:

  • Leadership/sponsorship
  • Project management
  • Change management
  • A shared definition of success

This model underscores the importance of a shared definition of success across these areas. In higher education, leaders need to actively sponsor and support change initiatives, aligning them with the institution's strategic goals and managing the people side of change.

ADKAR Model – The Prosci ADKAR Model is a goal-oriented tool that guides individual and organizational change through five key outcomes:

  • Awareness of the need for change
  • Desire to participate and support the change
  • Knowledge of how to change
  • Ability to implement required skills and behaviors
  • Reinforcement to sustain the change

This model is handy for leaders in higher education, as it helps them understand and address the individual change journey their faculty, staff, students and other stakeholders experience.

Prosci 3-Phase Process – The Prosci 3-Phase Process is a structured yet adaptable framework designed to guide organizations through successful change management. It divides the change process into three key phases:

  • Phase 1 – Prepare Approach – This phase involves defining the change strategy, preparing the change management team and developing the sponsorship model.
  • Phase 2 – Manage Change – During this phase, the team develops and implements plans for communication, sponsor activities, training, coaching and resistance management.
  • Phase 3 – Sustain Outcomes – The final phase focuses on collecting and analyzing feedback, diagnosing gaps, managing resistance, and implementing corrective actions and recognition.

The PCT Model, ADKAR Model, and 3-Phase Process complement each other to create change. It's particularly relevant in higher education, where institutional challenges and governance structures greatly influence the success of change initiatives.

Prosci® Methodology

Prosci Drives Change at Leading Institutions

The Prosci Methodology has guided prestigious institutions like Texas A&M and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) through significant change initiatives, demonstrating the power of adaptive leadership and strategic change management.

Texas A&M University (TAMU)

The Texas A&M University System needed to overhaul its 35-year-old legacy payroll system to a cloud-based version—a process that would impact 200,000 students, faculty and retirees across numerous organizations. In addition to the technical challenges this represented, the project leader faced long review cycles, a lack of alignment on the ideal solution and a decentralized process for determining finances. What appeared to be a technical process was a change that affected every level of the university ecosystem's operations.

The Prosci team stepped in to facilitate this transition, recognizing the need for a leadership approach that was directive, inclusive and repeatable. Using the Prosci 3-Phase Process and ADKAR Model to guide the process, Prosci helped TAMU’s Executive Director of Project Management with the following:

  • Identification of the over 10,000 stakeholders most impacted by the project and an assessment of their leadership styles and training needs.
  • Proactive management of likely areas of resistance, including repeated communication of upcoming changes and access to technical coaching.
  • Strengthening ties between the A&M System sponsors and the Chief HR and Financial Officers from each university and agency through an Executive Advisory Committee (EAC).
  • Application of the ADKAR Model to create training curriculum and eLearning modules for full-time employees, HR liaisons and managers.
  • Facilitate collaboration between the EAC and key change agents in middle management to develop a communications plan that resonates with all impacted parties.

Read the full case study for a closer look at how TAMU’s $4.5-billion higher education network successfully navigated change in a complex, decentralized environment.

Two individuals sitting on a couch

University of California, San Diego (UCSD)

UCSD, a top-15 research university worldwide, needed to change numerous processes and systems to create a more collaborative cross-discipline environment. This plan would impact all aspects of the campus. University leadership knew that a comprehensive change management plan was required to ensure that the tens of thousands affected by the transition would receive support throughout. This required a balance of leadership styles, blending democratic and transformational approaches to engage a diverse academic community.

UC San Diego partnered with Prosci to speed up the transition process and leverage our decades of experience enacting complex change. Working closely with the Staff Education and Development team, Prosci helped drive change in the following ways:

  • Preparing UCSD change agents for the necessary large group training sessions through the Prosci Train-the-Trainer Program
  • Facilitating award-winning development days that empowered 90% of the 500 attendees with new knowledge and tools
  • Building off the success of development days by promoting and regularly hosting change management training and services on campus
  • Augmenting change management training with smaller-scale webinars based on pressing issues like resistance to change and sponsor engagement

UCSD's initiative led to a more change-capable organization, where the principles of change management became embedded in the university's culture, paving the way for ongoing and future transformations.

Read the full case study to see how Prosci helped UC San Diego empower key leaders to embed change management materials throughout their campus and foster a pro-change environment. 

Leadership styles in education

Training and Supporting Key Change Agents in Higher Education

Prosci empowers leaders in various organizational contexts, including higher education, to drive and manage change effectively. Prosci has been applying research on best practices in change management for over 25 years, and we base our structured methodology and analytic tools on that research.

With decades of experience, Prosci offers comprehensive enterprise training and supportive advisory services tailored to meet the unique challenges and dynamics of leading institutions like Texas A&M and UCSD. These resources are invaluable for institutions seeking to foster transformational leadership and successfully navigate the complexities of change.

To explore how Prosci can assist your institution in harnessing effective leadership for change management, visit the Enterprise Training and Advisory Services pages for more information and guidance.

Timothy Slottow

Timothy Slottow

Tim Slottow is a former C-suite executive with more than three decades of experience sponsoring enterprise-wide changes while driving organizational performance in a variety of industries. The former President of the University of Phoenix, and EVP and CFO for the University of Michigan, Tim has successfully guided teams through disruptive changes, including mergers and acquisitions, organizational restructurings, and cost reduction initiatives. Tim is an Aspen Institute Fellow and frequent lecturer who has served on multiple boards in the higher education, insurance and healthcare sectors.

See all posts from Timothy Slottow