Understand Potential Reactions to Change

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

Your project represents an element of change and even in its early phase, the work will be altering how your culture works, even if only temporarily. Such change can be challenging to deeply held beliefs and assumptions as well as the values that shape those beliefs. This can generate opposition and resistance from some and support and encouragement from others.

Unfortunately, no matter how you build your case or try to broaden the group of people who buy-in to your effort, you won't be able to recruit everyone or convince all of the skeptical or resistant among them. The important thing to consider is how to show respect for different views, knowing full well that many objections are based on hidden assumptions that would not survive if exposed to the light of day. Resistance may reflect unspoken concerns about what this change might mean for them personally rather than how it might enhance the experience and success of your students. You will be dealing with a "whisper mill" of speculations and concern both in the minds of some of your detractors and within the gossip network that infiltrates your campus community.

As Eckel et al. (1999) makes clear,

"Institutional culture determines what is important, what is acceptable, and how business gets done at a particular campus." (p. 21)

You may run into barriers, including lack of buy-in or support; this prompts many to ask:
  • Many/Most of the people in my department/program are not supportive of what I am trying to do. How can I gain support/resources/time to pursue this work?
  • Somebody on my campus tried something like this years ago and people say that "we tried that" and it simply won't work. What arguments can I make that will encourage people to support this effort now? How can we overcome that kind of resistance?

To address these challenges, anticipate that colleagues will have objections or questions about the effort. Brainstorm a list of these and understand how to respond to them based on the Explore Your Campus Culture Exercise. Have good answers for such questions as:

Related Resources

The NSEC project has also focused on connecting with stakeholders and aligning with the campus culture. Read more >>

  • What does this mean for me or for my department?
  • Will I be expected to do this too?
  • Will this effort take money away from my own pet project?
  • Is this work going to destroy the integrity of the curriculum as I define it?

Senior administrators may have a different set of concerns than faculty and staff. Prepare good answers to questions such as:

  • Do we have too many projects going already? Is our campus becoming a weed patch of attempted and failed initiatives?
  • Does this project add something valuable to the mix of other efforts underway or will it be an unnecessary distraction?
  • What is this going to cost and what strain will this place on our already overburdened campus support functions?
  • What might be the return on this investment in terms of either budget relief or income generated or improved relationships with key constituents, etc?
  • Why does the team think this is a good idea and what do they hope to accomplish?
  • What can we learn from this that could also make other campus efforts pay off?
  • Can we leverage this with local foundations or with the business community or some other source of funding and support?

By paying attention not only to campus culture but the larger context in which the campus is operating, it is possible to predict with some accuracy what questions and objections may be encountered as you seek endorsement and support, gather together a team, ask for assistance from various campus offices, gather and interpret evidence to track progress, and measure impact. Whatever questions are encountered, it is important to respond to them in ways that make sense to those asking the questions. The ways, and even the value, of building arguments and testing outcomes can vary greatly between disciplines and subcultures on campus. The evidence which convinces a geoscientist that something is worth doing may not be meaningful to someone from the Humanities or Social Sciences. Understanding those differences doesn't guarantee success or acceptance, but not understanding them hobbles the effort from the start.Related Resource: Build
Interdisciplinary Connections »


Eckel, Peter, Madeleine Green, Barbara Hill and William Mallon (1999) On Change III. Taking Charge of Change. A Primer for Colleges and Universities. American Council on Education