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A five-step program for change

Martha Piper preps university presidents on how to push their institutions into the 21st century


Let me start with a quote by James Duderstadt, from the book A University for the 21st Century:  “We must take care not simply to extrapolate from the past, but rather to examine the full range of possibilities for the future.”

But there’s a problem with that quote as far as I’m concerned – it doesn’t resonate particularly well in universities.

Why do I say that? Because universities relish the past. They’re built on the history of centuries. They pride themselves on not changing. Scholars are taught by scholars who were taught by scholars. Teaching methods and cultural values have been handed down from generation to generation to generation. They actually resist change because they believe they’ve done it right, and the traditions are so ingrained in the culture.

A different call for change

This raises the question, why change? Change for change’s sake is not warranted. Change should not be applied when it comes to the core values of the academy: academic freedom, peer review, the pursuit of truth, respect for and tolerance of opposing views and freedom from political interference. And I also believe significant change should not be motivated by short-term problems: enrolment, funding pressure, labour shortages.

But I think today’s call for change is different. It’s based on something bigger than regional economies, demographic trends or financial concerns.

It deals with the basic relevance of our postsecondary institutions to the contemporary world. It deals with our curriculum, our outdated teaching methods, the global issues that we can no longer ignore, the commitments to the public, engagements of our communities and accountability to our society.

Why is this call for change so deafening and so loud?

I think we live in the most remarkable of times. We’ve seen the increase of computing strength, the mapping of the genome, whole new areas of science. And yet, even with these decades of scientific advances – and this to me is the point – the world continues to be challenged.

We have a worldwide explosion of ethnic and cultural tensions. Cities are reeling from overpopulation and environmental pollution. Global warming now is very clearly the result of human activity. Social disparities between the rich and poor are growing. Ethical issues such as those associated with stem-cell research have not been solved. And our social structures, the integrity of our families and neighborhoods, are threatened.

Universities as change agents

Enter universities. Universities are now beginning to be seen to be at the heart of change, both social and economic. Regions around the world are looking to universities to help them solve their problems.

Is the current system of postsecondary education aligned with the future needs of Canada and the world in the 21st century? From my perspective, there are clear indicators that this is not the case.

So, the big question is: what is the role of a president in leading and inspiring change within your institution and within a system? I’ve come up with five broad things to keep in mind as a president when you are trying to initiate change or move these very difficult institutions forward in this interesting time we find ourselves in.

Don’t take it personally

The first: a recognition and almost acceptance of the fact that there will be resistance to change and that you can’t take it personally. At best, you might call it inertia, at worst, it’s hostile downright resistance.

If you interpret the resistance to change as a personal affront, you will not be successful in your efforts. Rather, you must accept the fact that resistance to change is the norm. Indeed, you will encounter all sorts of excuses why change is not possible, with the most common excuse being the lack of money.

Money is not an excuse

This leads to my second point: money is overrated. We’re fixated on money to the point that it freezes us into inaction. Money is important – you can’t grease the wheels without it – but it also can get us into trouble and keep us from doing things that we need to do.

The point is that there is never enough money. So you’ve got to go beyond money and you’ve got to go beyond whining about money.

Because the only way you build something is my third point: it’s all about vision. It’s not about money, it’s about vision.

Presidents, unfortunately, have very little power. All we have is the power of influence, the power of inspiration, the power of passion. And vision is what leadership is all about: creating a vision, working with others to craft that vision, believing in that vision and articulating that vision.

Reading, listening and engaging

Well, how do you craft a vision? How do you come up with those ideas? My first suggestion is, you read.

You read everything you can possibly get your hands on. You read when you’re on the airplane. You read when you’re in the bathroom. You read fiction, you read non-fiction. You read the Economist, you read Harper’s, you read the New York Times. You go on the Internet.

Second, listening. We’re not good at listening. We like to talk. But if we force ourselves to listen, I mean really listen, to what people are saying, sometimes things click. And that includes listening to governments.

It doesn’t matter what political stripe your government is. If I hear one more time, “Oh the government, it’s just awful. We can’t work with that government.” That’s ludicrous!

One time, when I was complaining to a public official about the government, he stopped me in mid-stream and said: “Martha, you represent a public institution, and the last time I checked the politicians were elected by the public, and they represent the public, and you need to work with them, not against them.” I will never forget that dinner. It changed my view of how you work with government.

What you need to do is you need to listen to the government, listen to their concerns and then try to figure out how you can help them solve their concerns. And you know what, it works. It works when instead of advocating for yourself, you advocate for the public and the government that serves the public.

So reading, listening, and then third, engaging. Engaging others in helping you craft the vision or articulate the vision or believe in the vision.

Use your voice

Fourth point to keep in mind: the power of speech. Never underestimate the power of your voice. It’s really all you have.

Figure out where you can speak and how you speak, and then keep speaking the same thing. Say it over and over and over and over again. Why? Because, believe it or not, people do listen to you. It’s amazing, we don’t think they do. We think we’re just up there pro forma. But people do listen.

And then fifth: walk the talk. You need to have the nerve to follow through on the plan or the strategy or the vision that you’re putting out there. It’s the hardest part of the job.

How do you dig deep to get the nerve and to keep pushing in the areas you want? Three things: accept criticism, rather than fight it.

Now I know that when you get criticism, the first reaction is to defend yourself and to say they’re wrong. I think if you can say, “You know what, maybe there’s something to that. Maybe I should go talk to that person and try to figure it out,” it will make you stronger.

The second way to find the nerve is optimism. There’s nothing worse for a president than getting up and saying, “Things are really terrible. I don’t know what we’re going to do.” If everyone starts believing that things are terrible, then things will be terrible. I actually believe it’s your job, as hard as it can be, to be as positive as you can be. You have to have confidence that you will prevail.

Trust your principles

And then, finally, rely on your own personal principles, your own sense of what’s right and what’s just and what needs to be done. That’s what really steers you. Principles allow you to find the nerve.

We have a wonderful opportunity to shape our future, probably more so than at any other time in the last 50 years. Not only our future, but the future of our country and, I honestly believe, the future of the world, because I think Canada can and must play a critical role in solving today’s global concerns.

But, we must have the nerve to use our positions of privilege to lead, to shape the vision of postsecondary education for the 21st century, to work to build change so that the systems we create will contribute significantly to our prosperity, our civility and our sustainability in a new world.

Martha Piper
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