Universities interpret change as harm… but that’s probably ok

We were discussing the new Open University strategy recently, one strand of which calls for innovation in teaching. This has been a constant thread in nearly all strategies that I can recall in my 27 odd years at the OU. And, to be fair, it is something the OU and colleagues have largely delivered on. However, based on my own experience and that of nearly all colleagues I speak to, the university (and it would seem, all universities), often acts to counter and thwart such innovation. From delivering all online courses in 1999, to establishing the VLE in 2004, to introducing Learning Design, to trying to establish microcredentials more recently, the university seems to operate a rather split personality approach. At a senior level it promotes and encourages these initiatives, but at a more day to day, governance and operational level it often actively works against them, providing blockages, delays and endless compromises, that feel as though they seek to undermine the initiative.

To rehash John Gilmore’s First law of the internet trinity, that “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”, it feels like “the university interprets change as harm and seeks to eradicate it.” When you are trying to implement change it can feel like the organisation is actively folding around it, making progress difficult and seeking to limit its impact. This is found in much of the culture and practicalities of realising change. It is also because education is a precious thing that needs to be treated carefully, that involves people. It’s not a new washing machine. There is a general risk adverse culture, that arises from this appropriate caution.

The OU is by no means unique in this – my experience in talking to colleagues at other universities is that it is a feature, not a bug of introducing change in higher ed. This is one of the reasons why people who come to higher ed from elsewhere often bemoan its ability to change. However, while it feels like that, I think that is a misunderstanding of how universities function.

Universities operate on a longer time frame than many businesses. While businesses may desire to be around for decades, they often aren’t. Universities operate on long time scales and promote stability, not rapid changes to immediate concerns. It would be inappropriate for a university to behave like a start up (those that do, don’t last very long). So this isn’t just curmudgeonliness in resisting change, it is part of the character of what it means to be a university.

Making Change

But it is necessary to implement some change, right? Maybe the metaphor of damage can help here. We live happily with many things such as viruses that could cause harm after all. So one way to implement change is to do it slowly, so it doesn’t cause the adverse reaction. This is the point Rebecca Galley makes in implementing learning design across the OU over a decade – institutional change takes time. By giving it the appropriate time, the university acclimatises to it and accommodates.

Another corollary of the metaphor might be that it is best to convince the university that this is not harm – organisms don’t reject viruses that look familiar to them, or animals don’t respond aggressively to things in their environment they don’t interpret as a threat. So, change is best couched in terms that are meaningful and recognisable to those within the organisation. When the OU was going through its crisis, this could be characterised as an excess of change that created an appropriate rejection by the University. Part of the problem was the change was often couched in terms that were antagonistic to existing practice and values. Whenever I sit on boards that are implementing changes my one piece of sage advice is to communicate in terms that are meaningful to educators.

Another aspect might be to reduce the threshold for what is interpreted as harm, to try to prevent the excessive reaction every time. This might arise through greater flexibility and autonomy, to reduce some of that risk averse culture. I’ve found this often arises by using outsourced staff for areas such as finance or legal advice. They do not have any particular buy in or knowledge of the context, so saying no is the safest option. Making administrators more involved and part of a team, and giving them more freedom to be creative can alleviate many of the barriers. Academics often moan unfairly about administrators, they become a convenient scape goat, but I have been fortunate enough to work with great administrators throughout my career, and when they get creative it is a thing of beauty. We need to establish a culture that promotes this.


So, in summary, universities often react to change in the way an organism might react to harm and seek to limit it. This is not however, necessarily a negative thing, given the nature of universities and the roles we want them to perform in society. They’re not WeWork for chrissakes. If we accept this, then there are ways of approaching necessary change then that are more likely to be effective and productive for everyone involved.

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