Pathways to Institutional Change

Institutional changes in higher education inevitably take place; the key is to develop an institutional culture to help ensure that the changes are not only positive, but are in the best interests of the community. Hope College has a culture in which preparing students to be future leaders in the global community has been foundational. For STEM students, that meant that students needed to be actively engaged in doing the work of STEM professionals through research and teaching. It meant STEM faculty must also be actively engaged in research and teaching, not just locally, but also in the broader community. When the college was small, the sense of community and shared vision was easy to maintain. As the college has grown and the rate of change has accelerated, more effort has been needed to build community and shared vision for the STEM programs, across the college community and with the national and global STEM community. Over the past twenty-plus years at Hope, some programs and people have come and gone, however the overarching goals are still the same. We are striving to prepare students to be future leaders in the global community. We summarize below some of the lessons we have learned along the way.

A shared institutional culture and community does not just happen. It takes time and effort to build opportunities for faculty and staff to interact and build connections.

  • Professional learning communities that engage faculty in discussions about scholarship, teaching, and learning help to build the connections needed to keep the STEM programs changing in positive ways. However, without leadership, the PLC can lose momentum. Administrators need to be attentive to the PLC leadership, supporting current leaders and cultivating future leaders with professional development opportunities both internally and in the national and global community.
    • In the mid 1990s, Hope College chose to transform the general education curriculum. PLCs were created to support the development of the general education mathematics and science curriculum. A series of retreats, workshops and lunch discussions led by a passionate individual ensued and led to the development of a large number of new inquiry-based STEM courses. Once this grant-funded program ended, the conversations continued with institutional support for meetings, but when the passionate leader left this role, the program seemed to lose its way. While sporadic gatherings continued, it took many years before another similar effort was launched with grant funding to support the programming and the leader. It is too soon to tell if the program will continue once the leader moves on to other roles.
    • The professional community must extend beyond the campus in order for the institution to not only stay informed of best practices, but to help shape the future direction of higher education. The professional community must involve a two-way street. Hope faculty and staff must go outside of Hope to engage with the global community, but external experts must also be invited to come to Hope.

  • Shared spaces can also lead to greater communication between community members. Whether it is shared research instrumentation or a shared coffee pot or copier, the conversation shared in these common spaces helps to build familiarity and understanding. As opportunities present themselves, the community members can then develop new collaborative efforts due to the shared interests they learned about over the coffee pot.

    • In the early 2000s, a new science building was designed and constructed at Hope College. Faculty research programs were co-located with other research programs based on their similar infrastructure needs, not just their departmental affiliations. Hallway conversations between faculty, staff, and students from multiple departments have grown.
    • As research instrumentation becomes more expensive, it is not uncommon for research programs to collaborate to acquire the instrumentation. As with the common coffee pot, this fosters greater communication between groups who share the resource, which often leads to transferal of knowledge as well. Interesting new directions in research programs have developed because of the cross-communication and, in some cases, new interdisciplinary or even convergent research endeavors have begun due to these conversations.

Leaders do not just show up and lead the community. It takes time and effort to cultivate leaders. Transforming the traditional siloed institution into one that is integrative takes effort, and leaders who can function as bridges between traditional institutional silos are key. Care needs to be taken to make certain that community members are encouraged to develop leadership skills both through local efforts and national connections. Structures must be in place so that as people transition in and out of specific roles, smooth transitions occur. As mentioned earlier, when leadership transitions in PLC programs are not planned for, programs can stagnate or atrophy. Other programs or facilities that lie outside of traditional administrative structures are also at risk for failure during transitions.

  • For example, while many interdisciplinary programs at Hope have survived and, in some cases, flourished, others have floundered. What made the biochemistry program thrive while the computational modeling program seemed to flounder from the very beginning? Well-defined leadership is the key factor for these two programs. In the former, the faculty leader was identified from the start of the program and clearly had a passion for building and sustaining the program. The administrative structure of a joint-faculty appointment was clearly defined. The institutional commitment to program (both instructional and research) was well defined and persistent. The computational modeling program had many enthusiastic proponents, but no one committed to leadership.
  • It has become clear that it is no longer all about the academic department. Not only must leaders of new programs build bridges between traditional departmental boundaries, they must engage the entire college community. The high-impact programs now span academic programs, residential life, and student support services. They must work with the admissions program and campus marketing offices to make first-year students aware of the high-impact programs as soon as possible. It is no longer sufficient to build an academic program and assume the students will come.
Change for the sake of change is not useful and can be disheartening. Get all stakeholders on board to set goals and objectives and develop plans to assess the success of programs. Provide opportunities for the stakeholders to provide input, but also reflect on assessment results.
  • It is often the case that external funding can help to launch a new program. These external funding opportunities often require program assessment. However, once the external accountability requirements end, it is easy to let the assessment, reflection, and revision process slide. Building a culture of continual assessment and reflection is key to continued program evolution and improvement.

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