Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation
reviewed by Deborah Shea - May 02, 2019
Title: Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation
Author(s): Elaine P. Maimon
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1620365685, Pages: 180, Year: 2018
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The importance of the new majority student, defined as those individuals who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds or whose parents did not attend college, has grown significantly over the past decade. For many colleges, attending to the needs of these students fundamentally returns them to their institutional promise and mission. These colleges are exploring many avenues that promote degree completion through interventions and supports that meet the unique needs of these students, albeit with limited or uneven results. It is for this reason that Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation is so timely, moving the reader to consider change that is transformational. Furthermore, the premise of this book is that serving these students is the right thing to do for society as well as the economic futures of these young people.
While it might be argued that the book is written for the college president, Maimon frames the conversation from a social justice perspective and broadens her recommendations and rationale to persuade any reader to recognize the potential of these students (and the ways that institutions can undermine them). The first chapter includes a rationale for the use of transformational strategies, which are described throughout the remainder of the book. Maimon makes the necessary distinction that her mission (and the purpose of education at her institution) departs from the traditional imparting of knowledge to the construction of programs that build wisdom among students. She argues that it is through wisdom that we apply what we know to higher purposes, and that wisdom accumulates when knowledge is married with critical thinking and rich experiential opportunities. Her aim is to create a liberal education that pragmatically blends the demands of careers with the preparation students need to participate fully in a democratic society.
A curriculum that transcends job preparation necessitates environments and experiences that add breadth and depth to the college experience. To accomplish this requires a different style of college leadership; one that is transformational. Solutions recommended in this chapter, explored deeply in subsequent chapters, target structural, human resources, and curricular changes.
When Maimon suggests the assignment of mentors during the first year, when dropouts are highest, and alterations to the very design and nature of first-year courses, we begin to see how system transformation can occur. She argues against the manner in which entry-level courses are assigned to the instructors with the least experience and expertise in the content area. Furthermore, she criticizes the prevailing notion that first-generation students need remediation. Maimon suggests that the deficit does not reside in the student, but in the systems ability to meet their needs. Using a well-researched, strength-based theoretical lens (Gallup), she directs efforts to the thoughtful realignment of structures rather than the narrow focus on fixing the student. Very concrete examples are described that bring many of the campus human resources to bear on targeted support mechanisms for students.
Another structural challenge faced by many colleges is the entry of first-generation students from two-year community colleges. Maimon argues for an integrative four-year experience that builds on the supports and curricula from the prior year. This curricular and experiential alignment of blended content and support can become disrupted when a student misses those first two years. However, there is a potential solution for this as well: partnerships with community colleges.
Maimon concludes by stating that we can change outdated educational practices and shake up old hierarchies that stand in the way of reform (p. 131). After reading about how her interventions required fundamentally altered expectations and structures, my reservations regarding this persuasive and hopeful argument focus on what second-order change requires of leaders and their systems. What seems absent in the book is a theoretical lens for organizational change; a prescription for how to make these transformational changes and what leaders should consider as they strategically plan for substantive change. In fact, the title of her second chapter is A Vision Without a Strategy is a Fantasy. Maimon provides suggestions based on what she did and what tasks she engaged in; however, these actions are not grounded in a well-researched organizational change model (Bridges, 2009; Kotter, 2012) in such a way that would allow the reader to begin to think about how they might replicate these changes in their own colleges. It is possible that readers could leave this text inspired, but then find that their own efforts collapse under the weight of what these changes would require of their organization.
Thoughtful and purposeful system changes require the participation of all members of the school community. In other words, complete buy-in and acceptance that the work they have collectively been engaged in may no longer be meeting the needs of their students. This may be a difficult pill to swallow for many instructors in higher education. Organizational change begins at the personal level; how do we convince an entire faculty body of the need for and promise of changes that have not yet occurred? Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009) suggest the following:
New adaptations significantly displace, reregulate, and rearrange some old DNA. By analogy, leadership on adaptive challenges generates loss. Learning is often painful. One persons innovation can cause another person to feel incompetent, betrayed, or irrelevant. Not many people like to be rearranged. (p. 16)
I found that I yearned for the strategy referenced in the title of the book, which presumably existed behind the significant progress resulting from the laudable interventions led by Maimon at Governors State University. That being said, the book was inspirational and its rationale built upon our collective desire to promote the democratization of our society through quality higher education. While efforts here were targeted specifically at the new majority student, one could make a strong argument that these changes would benefit all students.
Argyris, C. & Schon, D. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Bridges, W. (2009). Managing Transitions: Making the most of change. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.
Heifetz, R. Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Kotter, J. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.