Create a Positive Context

Information on this page is drawn from presentations by Judith Ramaley, President Emerita and Distinguished Professor of Public Service, Portland State University

A change agenda should be framed in a way that offers a positive message and does not assign or imply blame. No one wants to feel that their contributions and experience are not valued. Eckel et al. (1999) offer a lovely example of framing the case for curricular change in a positive way:

Don't say: The core curriculum is out of date and does not reflect the needs of today's society or tomorrow's graduates.
Instead, ask: What should a graduate of this institution know and be able to do? Are we preparing them to do that?

Getting Started: Working with and learning from others

Related Resource:
Building Strong Departments:
Design, Development, and
Assessment of Degree Programs »
It may be hard to get traction on your own and is beneficial to have a support network to share the workload of planning and implementation. Even if it is just one other person, this support can also help when things don't go as planned and can help you to brainstorm and strategize ways to overcome challenges and barriers. Start by looking for others who share your energy, interest, and concerns and figure out ways that your project offers insights that will help them with their work.

Explore existing institutional initiatives:

  • Who initiated these related efforts? Did they come from the senior administration? From faculty leadership? Within a particular department/program or system office? From a Foundation or other external body?
  • Who else embraces a similar agenda and how are their interests complementary to the proposed effort?
  • How long have these other efforts been underway and what changes in campus culture have resulted, if any?
  • Are these other efforts experiencing push back from others on campus? If so, how are they handling that problem?
  • Have there been efforts to create a more coherent, collaborative approach to bringing related projects together to share lessons learned and to build momentum and buy-in?

In considering how to work with campus leadership, spend time figuring out what they care about and how your work can be a response to their interests and concerns. Do not try to insert your agenda into theirs or seek to convince them that they ought to support you. Instead, show how your interests fit into their agenda.

Another important thing to consider is how administrators and faculty members at your institution interact and how they talk about those interactions. Think about if there is a gulf between the administration and the faculty at your institution and how the behavior of the governance structure reflects that. Then think about what you can do to create a more supportive context for the changes you want to make. Can you describe why the work is really important and why it must be done; where you can start and how you can keep up the momentum behind the change? Also think about the best ways to share what you are learning and have learned as you progress. With this information you can design an approach to building support for your project and open up pathways for useful exchanges of ideas and opportunities to collaboration and resource sharing.

Exercise: Is your campus receptive to the changes you want to make?

Use these questions to gauge how receptive your campus is to change.

  • Do faculty feel that their work is valued both by their colleagues and by the senior administration? How is that respect made visible?
  • Are faculty encouraged to reflect on important issues and do they have easy access to information that can inform those discussions such as institutional data or opportunities for deliberation and exploration of important topics?
  • If you have a stable institutional leadership team, what messages are they consistently sending and how do they relay those messages?
  • Has your institution recently undergone leadership transition at the presidential, provost of dean level? What sense do your colleagues make of those transitions and why the incumbents left your institution? What messages are the new administrators delivering about their intentions, their goals and their concerns?
  • Who do people turn to when they have questions about what is happening on campus and why it is happening? How well do you know those people and how might you seek their help in building support for your work?


Eckel, P., M. Green, B. Hill, and W. Mallon (1999) On Change III. Taking Charge of Change. A Primer for Colleges and Universities. American Council on Education.

Marshall, G. (2015) Don't Even Think About It. Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury Press. 260 pages.