[A Study in Change] Willamette University

We are in one of those periods of great transformational change. Things that we’ve taken for granted, such as hard copy publishing (newspapers, magazines, books, records/CDs) – as well any number the “normal” ways things get done in different sectors and businesses – are morphing in front of our eyes.

The enduring challenge for continuing organizations, even educational institutions like colleges and universities, is to anticipate transformational changes before they occur: gain advantage on any favorable aspects of the change they can as well as figure out how to mitigate the negatives so they don’t sink you.

That said, this change thing is no walk in the park, and it’s tough for most people to name more than a handful mature, established organizations that do it well on a sustained basis. The upside, if you are successful, is to get live for another day.

Effective organizational change management requires vigilence (“scanning the change horizons” in the language of change professionals) as well as a sense of urgency bordering on alarm. When transformational change occurs (think horse and buggy to cars, or print publishing to online), its either adapt and change, or be the very best of the best to survive in a significantly smaller niche market.

The big problem, as organizational wonk Wayne Brockbank once pointed out to a group of execs at McKesson where I served as a Senior Vice President of Human Resources, is that organizations are typically fighting the changes they know, not the “new” changes that happen. As a couple of examples, in an earlier era, it was the surprise of Pearl Harbor (e.g. how would any would-be enemy get planes so close to a naval base like Pearl Harbor situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii?); in 2001 it was the shock of realizing terrorists would and could turn jetliners into World Trade Center destroying bombs.

And one more thing. The final conundrum around change is well known: the more successful you are, frequently the more complacent you become.

While the things that made you successfull may not be what moves you forward, the organizational blindness to the unexpected changes lulls you into believing the organization will conquer the next challenge as it has earlier challenges. The tendency is to dismiss critics as alarmists: people from the fringe who don’t know better.

Even when you’re at the organizational top – as Bill Gates demonstrated in trying to mobilze Microsoft against the paradigm shift posed by the rise of the Internet – it’s tough to institutionalize that mentality. Ten years after Microsoft ruled the technology roost (see Newsweek: The Lost Decade), it’s been surpassed by Google, a company that capitalized on changes to technology (fast broadband) and business model (search-led advertising).

Willamette U: How to Handle Signals from the Change Horizon

Three months ago I had the opportunity to visit my alma mater, Willamette University (“First University in the West”), in Salem, Oregon for a college reunion. Part of the weekend included a speech by President M. Lee Pelton where he shared a vision of Willamette’s future that was dependent on engaged alumni as a key element. Good speech, spot-on vision.

As someone who has worked both worked in higher education (a member of the staff & faculty at the University of Southern California) as well as with organizational engagement and change for 30 years, I wrote a post to Lee about the choppy design and sub-par experience of the reunion. In that note I pointed out that if Willamette was counting on reunions as a basis to engage alums it was in deep doo, both because not only was the design and execution of the reunion I experienced flawed, there are a number of other levers that need to be utilized to if the university wanted to engage alums.

Based on my experience with follow-on from Willamette’s University / Alumni Relations department, I wrote a follow-up post ( Does Willamette U. Want Engaged Alums? Answer: Maybe) and suggested three steps (and pretty easy peasy as these things go) to move forward:

  1. Get a task force of alums (and others) who know the space together who work (or have worked) in student affairs or the recruiting / training / organizational development side of HR as an ad hoc task force.
  2. Collect good data. What, for example, do alums want from their alma mater, and how does that map to what Willamette finds in its long-term interest?
  3. Get clear on the degree of University commitment and priority regarding the role that the school is prepared to engage and involve alums.

Willamette’s visible response to this change challenge has been frankly underwhelming, and based on the anecdotal stories from other alums, not so surprising. The one telephone call I’ve had (Amy Erekson Varga, newly hired as the Reunion Coordinator) was pleasant but the offer to help plan the reunion in 4 years missed the point made about how to engage alums.

Here’s what I’ve seen as “alumni engagement” actions since that early November when Denise Callahan wrote “I will use the suggestions you have provided . . .much, much more to grow our engagement with alumni”:

  • An e-mail pitch for money from Stephen Brier, who I don’t know.
  • Two e-mail pitches for money from a Tyler L. Reich ’06, who I don’t know, on behalf of the Annual Giving Campaign.
  • Two e-mail pitches for alumni travel opportunities (Russia and US Canyon Country)
  • Two sports teams e-mail updates.
  • One or two hard copy regular Willamette magazines.

So what’s going on?

It’s hard to know what’s going on, but we can tell what’s not: no externally visible change.

Willamette appears to be doing what so many other organizations do: hunker down, avoid engagement with people who point out change opportunities, and count that past practices will lead to future success. There may be something in the works to help meet the vision that President Pelton has outlined, but it’s not apparent from outside. It is, after all, one alum with a blog pointing out that there’s a disconnect between what the schools says it wants, and how it goes about it. The be polite and ignore approach may be what’s in play. Not a bad strategy assuming that nothing changes.

But things in the higher education business – the business in which Willamette competes – are changing. Traditional education may be on the edge of the same paradigm shifts that have transformed other industries.

Michael Hooker, author of The Transformation of Higher Education, notes “Irrespective of whether it was in Paris, Oxford, or Bologna, historians agree that it began at the start of the 13th century. It has not changed much since.” Hooker goes on to state “As Robert Zemsky (1995) and others have pointed out, higher education’s core values will be at severe risk if a larger share of the market for undergraduate education is secured by nontraditional providers. Proponents of the residential university experience will have to develop credible and persuasive arguments for the value of the programs they offer.

One way to spot change is to take the advice of “follow the money.” Former GE CEO Jack Welch has invested serious cash in a bid to reshape online business education, and schools that used to be confined to a geographic location are spreading out wherever it makes sense. Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon now has set up camp 3,500 miles away in Silicon Valley. You don’t need to be Ray Kurzwell to know that some shift is just around some corner for traditional higher education and schools like Willamette.

The Willamette Change Conundrum

By some measures my alma mater has been successful. It’s raised its national profile, has done well in fundraising, and continues to experience strong demand for its offering: student education. As residential education shifts – and residential education is arguably the core of the Willamette U undergrad experience – Willamette faces a common competitive challenge: good, but maybe not good enough.

In the national rankings such as those from US News & World Report – rankings that the school has traditionally used to monitor itself – Willamette ranks 62nd nationally among liberal arts colleges. Not so bad perhaps. However, it ranks behind 7 school in the Pacific West (Reed, Whitman, Occidental, and four of the Claremont schools: Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Scripps, and Pitzer).

When things change, though, the likely survivors in traditional liberal arts higher education will be the top few, those that are “protected” by basis of geography, unique offerings, plain good luck, unusual affiliations, or those that change now to be well-prepared for the upcoming future. Those are the patterns that you see in business time and time again, and hunch is that it will be the same in higher education.

President Pelton’s proscription – excellent academics coupled with an engaged alumni community which provides significant networking and career advancement opportunities to compete in the global economy – is as good as any. It just requires engaged alums.

So it’s been three months since I sounded an alarm and raised an observation about a disconnect in vision, strategy, and execution. For organization like Willamette that goes back to 1834, it may seem like a period on a dot. When I worked in the dot-com space, where time existed in “dog time”, it would almost 2 years.

Given the pace, change, if it happens at Willamette with respect to reshaping the university relationship with alumni, will land sometime in 2020. And that pace – if structural, cost, and technology changes hit higher education as they’ve hit any number of other area, will not be fast enough.