Navigating University Cultural Shifts

February 19, 2020  |  Vince Kalt


Change can be scary.

It evokes feelings of uneasiness about potential challenges ahead.  Even for those who welcome change, there is an undeniable sense of the unknown.

Universities and colleges have remained unchanged institutions for well over a century — a traditional structure that served them well. Fast forward to today: change is imminent, change is happening right now. And change, by all measures, is causing unease and discomfort.

What could this change look like? Delivering education in a new and innovative manner. Integrating a university’s go-to market strategy more closely with consumer trends. Finding opportunities to maximize impact on limited resourcing. These changes, and so many more, will challenge the historical culture of universities around the country.

Consider the current challenges being faced by university presidents. And, the toll the dynamic requirements of the presidential role is taking on the leadership pipeline. The American Council on Education’s latest American College President Study indicates a rapidly declining tenure among presidents between 2006 and 2016. Couple that with the changing face of higher ed: more first-generation students, declining enrollments and public scrutiny on the value of a college education. Big challenges for any industry, falling squarely on the shoulders of those who are already putting out repeated fires.

We have choices in how we respond to new challenges. Throw our hands up? That may be the easiest response, but university leaders that I’ve had the good fortune to work with wouldn’t do that. So how do you effectively approach new cultural challenges?

Step 1: Utilize research to find areas of agreement and alignment

Remove your own  emotion and bias—no matter how strong your beliefs. Consider research initiatives that can generate insights that lead to a solution like focus groups and online surveys. Don’t stop at what you believe to be true.  Find a representative sample of all the voices affected by the  issue and use this information to identify areas of commonality and consensus.

Step 2: Remember the why behind your origins

Where does your university’s story begin? What was the founders’ initial vision? If your university did it right, that story has been embedded in your brand. Decisions are made based on the DNA of your university, and the DNA of those who make it what it is. This is the time when a brand is more important than ever. You stand for something bigger than education and delivery methods. When is there a better time draw from the history of your university than during times of change? If your university’s brand does not account for its history, you may want to revisit your current platform.

Step 3: Have the hard conversations

Once you’ve collected all the insights and perspectives, be ready to participate in meaningful and possibly difficult discussions. Identify that elephant in the room. Be ready to listen as well as share. Despite the uncertainty that lies ahead in higher ed, one thing is certain. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. That’s an indisputable fact that will hopefully ground the difficult conversations.

Step 4: Forge a path moving forward

As noted above, the one thing that is certain is that change—big, broad-sweeping, brand new kind of change—is knocking on the door of all institutions. Private, public, large and small. That’s not intended to instill fear, but to help you find that positive side of change that signifies opportunity and new beginnings.

When we have nowhere to look except forward, universities and their leaders can approach this work with the excitement and diligence that’s required. In this new year, colleges will continue to uncover challenges and all-new firsts that will necessitate change. At BVK, we’re ready to re-think and re-define. Join us!

Want to know more? We’re happy to share our approach with you. We have a variety of case studies and sample frameworks. Give us a shout or email [email protected] to request more information.



is a Senior Vice President at BVK

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