There is not a great deal detail I am able to recall from graduate work, but I clearly recall the words of one of my professors, who while discussing topical issues in higher education, stated with authority: “The only thing higher education fears more than change, is rapid change.” Throughout my career, this phrase has been re-affirmed on a regular basis. Colleges and universities strive to be “different” and “unique” (this same professor talked about “the sylvan glade of academe”), and somehow above the issues taking place in the general society. The reality is colleges and universities also reflect the issues taking place in general society. Higher education has embraced state of the art technology, but there are few institutions where it is fully integrated in the curriculum. Higher education clings to the concept of tenure. Universities have not used their best abilities to “grow” the idea of multiculturalism, focussing on statistics and individual classes, instead of establishing the true value of different voices and ideas to the general society (at least in my opinion). I would also guess many of us could go back to our Alma Mater, and take, with few exceptions, the same courses we took when we graduated, and still receive a degree. The basic foundation of higher education at my home campus, is extremely similar to what I found when I started college in 1969.
People, as well as institutions, struggle with change. It is always a struggle to get people to step out of their comfort zone, and if they are willing, it is typically with great reluctance. How many of us have a special “something” which has to be just right? Coffee? Route to work? Manner in which we read the newspaper? How many of us have dealt with the issue of change in a relationship? As in “why can’t you just change?’ or “why do I have to change?” If there is any place in the universe where change is constant, it is in relationships. I’m reminded of the Men’s Prayer from “The Red Green Show”: “I’m a man. I can change. If I have to. I guess.”
Change is an issue, not only in our personal relationships, but also in our work lives. How many of us have moved during our careers? How many of us have changed jobs, welcomed new staff, had to release staff, worked with a new supervisor, or have been told we would have to change a particular behavior or attitude? I am always surprised, given the revolving door that is Housing and ResLife, and the fact that we deal with students (who are always changing), how committed we can be to the status quo.
We are blessed with a hard-working housekeeping staff who does excellent work. Suggesting schedule changes, use of different cleaning products, changing their “territory” is a process requiring careful framing, patience, and communication. This same approach is required when suggesting changes to management staff. Business and administrative staff, like our housekeepers, are comfortable with the things that are working. If it’s working, why change it? Residence life staff are just as cautious when it comes to change. Are the people who comprise our staffs the same today as ten years ago? Has our staff training changed appreciably, and recognized the change? It’s my opinion; student staff training has changed little over the past 30 years. Some of the topics have changed, but the format is very similar to my staff training thirty years ago. Students, and their expectations (and those of their parents) have changed significantly since 1970. Higher education receives much greater scrutiny from outside, and is struggling to deal with this new accountability. Budget issues, always difficult, are more crucial today. This issue is even more significant when one considers the growing market of vendors seeking to crack the college housing market today. These venders were not present even 10 years ago.
In terms of our work lives, why are we so cautious about change? Is it because we are simply reluctant to give up (what we perceive) is working and/or comfortable? Or is it because things change with such rapidity, we hold on to those things we know and understand? “Things change”. We all know this. Higher education, like much of society in general, is struggling with change. We all know this, as well. Our success is measured as to how well we understand, accept, and deal with change.
I have found some key components that help me understand the issue of change at work.
1. Change is a part of life. It is natural, constant, and predictable in the sense that things will change.
2. Not all issues of change are to be taken personally. They may not be evaluative comments, they may not presume a problem, and it may just be issues of change.
3. Additionally, never assume the change will, of course, be bad. At the same time, never assume what is in place is always the best way of doing things. This is particularly a good thing to consider when dealing with a new supervisor, as he or she will have a new perspective from different experiences. I use an objective third party as a sounding board, if they cannot see the reason for your policy or point of view, it may not be a bad idea to consider the idea of change.
4. Teach your staff change is natural. This will permit you to focus on new ideas, and not on the concept of change itself.
5. Learn to use the phrase “it’s just business”. Issues of change at work do not need to be life changers.
6. Don’t wait for change to be placed on you. Take time to reflect on what is being done on a regular basis, know what issues/concerns may be present, and plan to address those issues. We can typically solve an issue, if we are able to define it.
7. See #1.
No doubt, we believe strongly in the value of what we do for our residents and campuses. As a result, it may be difficult to be objective when we receive requests to consider changing something in our portfolio. At the same time, we should not assume our current practices are always the best, and should be willing to listen to new ideas and perspectives. We all know “things change”. Perhaps we should try to understand this better.
Submitted by Fred Fotis, Director, University Housing, Pennsylvania State University