Institutional Agency and The Flourishing of Higher Education

institutional agency
Thought Leadership

Institutional Agency and The Flourishing of Higher Education


In my academic discipline of developmental psychology, we often refer to the concept of agency, defined by the American Psychological Association as “the state of being active, usually in the service of a goal, or of having the power and capability to produce an effect or exert influence.” Although this term is typically used to refer to the agency of an individual, it is a useful term to apply to organizations as well. For too long, higher education has been reactive in response to changing environmental conditions, shifting demographics, and external threats to fulfilling its purpose. It’s time for us to take charge and strengthen our ability to anticipate, adapt, and achieve, no matter what gets thrown at us.

For the past 10-15 years, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic started, we have all heard about “the new normal” in higher education, referring to declining state funding and enrollments, souring public opinion of the value of a degree, and increased scrutiny and accountability for colleges and universities. As reflected in the titles of several articles from the past few years, including The Incredible Shrinking Future of CollegeHere’s How Higher Education Dies, and The End of College as We Knew It?, many pundits have a pessimistic view of the future of higher education.

In actuality, higher education’s fate has yet to be determined and there is reason for hope. Yet, hope alone will not save the industry to which so many of us have dedicated our lives. Rather, with effective planning and execution hope will translate into optimism, which will translate into confidence, and ultimately assurance, that higher education will not only survive in the future, but thrive. And the key to higher education’s flourishing future is agency, proactively preparing for any future conditions so that our institutions can adapt and succeed in any environment, ensuring we continue to develop a society led by creative and critical thinkers.

At this year’s Ellucian Live conference, the event’s four themes highlight critical features of institutional agency that will allow colleges and universities to thrive in the future: Build Institutional Resilience, Empower Faculty and Staff, Accelerate Student Success, and Drive Innovation.


Build Institutional Resilience

Developing and reinforcing institutional systems, processes, and resources is essential to create proactive colleges and universities. This includes strengthening cybersecurity in an era of increasing threats, improving business processes to be more efficient, leveraging technology so our people can spend more meaningful time with students, and optimizing our governance structures and business continuity plans so we can move briskly yet thoughtfully as agile institutions. Moreover, building organizational capacity for managing change will set our institutions up for success under any future conditions. Institutional resilience will not make our institutions immune to environmental threats and changes, but it will ensure we are prepared for any situation and allow us the freedom to proactively plan for the future and more intentionally determine our own fate.


Empower Faculty and Staff

Another essential part of building institutional resilience is organizational health, which can be defined as having minimal politics and confusion, high levels of productivity and morale, and strong employee retention (see The Healthy Organization by Patrick Lencioni). Engaged faculty and staff are absolutely necessary for an institution to proactively plan for and create its desired future. It is important to note that empowering faculty and staff does not mean administrators give up all decision-making authority expected of their positions, a common misconception I have heard from some higher education executives. What it does mean is faculty and staff must have a voice in developing institutional priorities and decisions as well as play key roles in executing on plans to improve student success and institutional effectiveness. Trust is the currency of organizational success and it is developed by acting with integrity and authenticity consistently over time. By empowering faculty and staff to contribute meaningfully to the health and success of the institution, and by celebrating their accomplishments, leaders can earn their trust and enhance organizational health. Trust and organizational health will ensure institutions have the necessary support, will, and expertise to collectively face any challenges thrown at them.


Accelerate Student Success

A lot has been discussed about “today’s students” and how their needs differ from previous generations of learners (see What Today’s College Students Need by Steven Mintz). While it is necessary for institutions to pay attention to the needs of their students in all eras, what is more important is creating systems and processes for keeping a finger (or a whole hand!) on the pulse of changing demographics and student needs over time. It is not sufficient to do a deep dive on student data every five years while developing a strategic plan. By regularly assessing student needs, colleges and universities can remain informed no matter what trends emerge. It is important to note that this work, often relegated to offices of Institutional Research, should permeate an institution such that all employees stay abreast of developments. By focusing on ongoing institutional learning in this way, leaders can continuously work with faculty and staff to create clear and efficient pathways to student completion. The specific barriers and circumstances of learners will change over time but the desire, and often need, for students to complete high-quality programs efficiently will remain ever-present. Institutions’ ability to proactively adapt to changing student (not to mention labor market) needs will be a foundational component of the industry’s success in the future.


Drive Innovation

By strengthening institutional resilience and health, colleges and universities will achieve the ingredients necessary for the collective creativity that will allow them to proactively plan for and create their desired future state. Yet, just as a homeowner might worry more about a leaky roof or foundation cracks than the color of the kitchen’s backsplash, higher education leaders need to focus on the stability and health of their organization and resources before they are able to truly innovate. All too often, new leaders enter an institution and immediately implement some “innovative” programs or organizational changes without first taking the time and care needed to build institutional resilience and empower faculty and staff. Not surprisingly, these efforts typically fail miserably. The adage “go slow now to go fast later” is particularly relevant for higher education leaders who want to drive innovation at their institutions. However, once organizational conditions are right, critical to an institution’s agency and ability to thrive is creating systems and processes that support creativity and innovation at all levels. As the higher education landscape continues to shift, colleges and universities need to adopt as a norm a method for testing new ideas, programs, technologies, and practices that best support and accelerate discovery and student success. It is often said that higher education lags behind other industries in terms of innovation and adaptability. Moving forward, we must change our mindset and capitalize on the talent within our physical and virtual walls to lead the way in designing, testing, and implementing effective pedagogical and business practices. Doing so will ensure that we, more than any external entity or threat, control our own fate.


Hope + Agency = The Fully Functioning Institution

Undoubtedly, the past 15 years have been incredibly difficult for higher education. Nevertheless, by turning inward and leveraging the talent, creativity, and will of our institutions we can evolve from the status quo of reactionary problem-solving and cultivate a culture of proactive solution-finding that will allow higher education to flourish in the future. To reference another psychological term, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers often wrote about the “fully functioning person”, defined as, “a person with a healthy personality, who experiences freedom of choice and action, is creative, and exhibits the qualities of existential living.” It is time we think about our institutions of higher education in this way and combine our hope with organizational agency to control our fate and become “fully functioning institutions.” By building institutional resilience, empowering faculty and staff, accelerating student success, and driving innovation, we will not only ensure colleges and universities survive, but we can create stronger and more fully functioning institutions that will produce a greater impact on students, employees, and society than ever before.

About the Author

Kevin David, Ph.D.
Executive Account Director

Dr. Kevin David is a higher education leader with teaching and administrative experience in community colleges and universities. A graduate of the Aspen Institute’s Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence, Kevin holds a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Developmental Psychology from University of Oklahoma as well as a Strategic Planning Certificate from the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). He is also a Prosci® Certified Change Management Practitioner and Trainer.

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