During my undergraduate years in student government, I often aimed high for the reforms I wanted in my Alma Mater. I resolutely entered administrative offices and left feeling that change could and would (and should) come quickly.
I had much more idealism then.
After a bout of frustration with bureaucracy during my senior year as student body president, I observed the actions of my mentor, a mid-level administrator at the time. He taught me several important lessons about achieving change in higher education which have stuck with me to this day.
The Difference between “No” and “No, Not Right Now”
As dismaying as a “no” can be, it might not be “no, not ever.” Discerning the no’s nature is tricky; it takes good knowledge of your institution’s history and the agendas of the key power-players to make an educated prediction of how another attempt at change would fare. If the no is non-negotiable, focus on another cause you care about, or it might be time to consider looking for another institution. Even if you believe another chance will come around, you will need patience with the process to get there.
Find Like-minded People, and Visit Dreams Often
Speaking of patience, while you are waiting for another attempt at change, concentrate on building a coalition around you. Identify other administrators or faculty who share common goals as you do, and visit those goals often over a cup of coffee. Talk about how you can utilize your roles to create possibilities and accomplish steps along the way to realizing the change you seek.
You say there’s a problem that needs fixed? Prove it.
Eloquent personal anecdotes may win hearts, but not votes. In this emerging era of Big Data, the need for compelling assessment will not be going away anytime soon. Be good friends with your Director for Institutional Research or your Student Retention Coordinator. You’ll need them in finding the qualitative or quantitative data you need to demonstrate why changes must be made.
Once you get the data, make sure to tie the changes you seek back to the institution’s mission or core values. Show the committee how your ideas for a better institution are not merely in your interests, but in theirs as well.
Trust the Process
As frustrating as bureaucracy can be, the rigorous testing of it can sharpen resolve and focus the message. The old adage of “it takes a village to raise a child” can apply to well-made policies too. Trust the process to make the dream happen. Attempting to go above the process may deliver a catharsis for you in the short-term, but it may backfire in the long-term when someone else decides to go above you and the processes you trust someday. The circumstances within higher education will seldom call for radical action. Don’t set a bad precedent of disrespecting the process and burn bridges behind you which no one else can cross.
Achieving lasting cultural change in higher education takes more than just intensity in the moment. It takes long-term commitment to do things well. As an emerging student affairs professional, I still struggle with impatience. However, I am grateful for the seasoned student affairs professionals I know who have modeled faithfulness to their profession through the storms of many school years. They made change happen by their perseverance for the good of the people they served.