SAGE Musings: Catalyzing and Sustaining Institutional Change

Andrew Haveles and Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Feb 21, 2019 10:19am

Our world is changing rapidly. To prepare the next generation of students for their roles in the workforce and society, our institutions of higher education need to change as well. However, institutional change is hard (e.g., Kezar, 2014; Kotter, 2014; Kezar et al., 2015; Elrod and Kezar, 2017). Moreover, institutional change can be emotional, political, and messy, and is seldom as logical as STEM faculty might expect it to be (Kezar et al., 2015). The SAGE 2YC: Faculty as Change Agents project has engaged faculty members at two-year colleges across the nation in the process of working for change at their institutions. What can we learn from other projects engaged in similar efforts?

Since 2012, the InTeGrate project -- Interdisciplinary Teaching about Earth for a Sustainable Future -- has been working to build curricula and capacity to integrate sustainability into how we teach about the Earth. This work has significant overlap with the strands of the SAGE 2YC project, including changing how faculty teach and building the capacity of the future workforce by attracting diverse students to STEM, supporting the whole student, and preparing students for careers. The InTeGrate website has extensive resources about catalyzing and sustaining institutional change, including a set of web pages drawn from presentations by Dr. Judith Ramaley, President Emerita and Distinguished Professor of Public Service, Portland State University. Dr. Ramaley describes the processes of change as a cycle of innovation, and you can use this model as a guiding workflow as you plan, initiate, and work to sustain change at your institution.


You are likely to be most successful when you can explain how the changes you want to implement align with other initiatives or institutional goals on campus, or how they will support what other faculty are already doing or want to do. For example, the InTeGrate team at Wittenberg University wanted to embed geoscience sustainability curriculum in established courses across a breadth of disciplines. They dovetailed their project into existing campus sustainability initiatives. The InTeGrate team at Savannah State University used awareness of environmental justice issues to build a collaborative campus community seeking to evaluate and manage the risk associated with being located on the coast.

When you have identified something that you would like to change at your institution, you will almost always need the support and help of others. Think about how you can pitch your idea to them. Recall that not everyone sees the world through the same frame you do, as Pam Eddy wrote in her SAGE Musing on Seeing the World Through Multiple Frames. Using both qualitative and quantitative evidence to tell the story will reach a broad audience and engage potential stakeholders. Creating a compelling case will include using what you have learned from exploring your current campus culture.

Questions you might ask yourself and others include:

  • How does what I want to do fit into other institutional initiatives?
  • Who is working on similar projects? Who will benefit if we succeed? Who may feel threatened by what we propose to do?
  • Who needs to be involved? That is, who has the power to make these changes happen?
  • Why will people participate?
  • What's an achievable goal / first step?
  • How will we know if / when we are successful?


Once you have a shared vision of the changes you want to initiate, choose an achievable first goal. The InTeGrate team at Wittenberg University wanted to embed geoscience sustainability curriculum in established courses across a breadth of disciplines, in part to increase the participation of underrepresented students in STEM. They started by implementing curricular materials in their own courses. This allowed them to discover and solve some of the challenges related to fitting curricular modules into existing courses before asking colleagues to use the same teaching materials. Similarly, the InTeGrate team at California State University - Chico developed a new general education "Sustainability Pathway" at the university. An interdisciplinary group of faculty infused Earth science content, such as climate change and sustainable agriculture, into courses across the liberal arts curriculum. The team included faculty from Geological and Environmental Science, Biology, Agriculture, Economics, History, Comparative Religion and Geography. Some of the teaching methods involved in the curricular materials were unfamiliar to some of the faculty members, so they engaged in peer mentoring to teach each other new pedagogical methods.

Sometimes strategies for implementing change emerge as you begin your work. As the University of Illinois - Chicago (UIC) InTeGrate team communicated with their students about career opportunities and pathways in the geosciences, it became clear to them that students were struggling to find information about geoscience careers. They took this opportunity to develop resources inside their course management system that the students access regularly.

Bigger goals may require a multi-pronged approach and/or partners beyond your own institution. The InTeGrate team at the University of Texas - El Paso wanted to facilitate transfer from El Paso Community College into UTEP's geoscience program. They combined several strategies, including using similar course content at the two institutions and developing a bridge program to support transfer students. Their success is built on both institutions working toward their shared goal.


To sustain institutional change, you'll need to cultivate a community of practice. This community is composed of the people who share your vision and goals. One key to cultivating this community is communication. The InTeGrate team at the University of South Dakota wanted to increase their undergraduate students' science literacy. In addition to running yearly workshops, the USD team hosted monthly brown bag meetings to provide additional opportunities for faculty to talk about teaching. The Wittenberg InTeGrate team describes the high level of administrative support of their project as an unexpected outcome of their commitment to communication: "Throughout the project, administrators supported our effort and offered us space at faculty retreats and attended joint meetings/webinars (e.g. first Supporting Change webinar led by Judith Ramaley). This likely resulted from our commitment to looping faculty leadership into our project progress and the administrations' desire to support program growth" (

A second key feature of sustainable change is having measurable impacts. Collecting data early in the project is important to provide a baseline, and can also help to drive refinement of the project or to make course corrections.


Elrod, Susan and Adrianna Kezar (2017). Increasing Student Success in STEM: Summary of A Guide to Systemic Institutional Change. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 49:4, 26-34, DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2017.1357097.

Kezar, Adrianna (2014). How Colleges Change: Understanding, Leading, and Enacting Change. Rutledge, 280 pp.

Kotter, John P. (2014). Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Harvard Business Review Press, 220 pp.

Kezar, Adrianna, Sean Gehrke, and Susan Elrod (2015). Implicit Theories of Change as a Barrier to Change on College Campuses: An Examination of STEM Reform. The Review of Higher Education, v. 38, n. 4, pp. 479-506.

Additional resources

Go to /integrate/about/implementation_programs.html
InTeGrate Implementation Programs

Go to /highered/inst_change.html
Collection of Resources for Institutional Change

Go to
Accelerating Systemic Change Network (ASCN)

Go to
The Network of Stem Education Centers (NSEC) Toolkit

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