Embracing Change Without Losing Your Soul

Every college and university is under pressure to evolve in response to the changing market for higher education, but for some, the evolution that is necessary to re-establish institutional viability seems more like a revolution. How do schools make “revolutionary” changes without losing their institutional integrity, or, if you will, their souls?

If, for instance, you are a liberal arts institution at a time in which appreciation for the value of the liberal arts is on the wane, what do you do? Change your mission? Abandon your beliefs that a liberal arts education provides sound preparation for a lifetime of work, leadership and fulfillment? Do you suddenly become a trade school? And if you do head in that direction, how will you be as competitive as those other institutions that have been doing ‘professional prep’ forever?

In thinking about this subject, I find myself drawn to a message Abraham Lincoln delivered to Congress in December of 1862, one month before the Emancipation Proclamation, seven months before the Battle of Gettysburg, and more than two years before the end of the American Civil War:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.

The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise–with the occasion.

As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

If we were to change only one word of this message–the last one– to read either “college” or “university,” it could serve the purposes of any college or university president in the country today who needs to rally the community of his or her institution. Here’s why Lincoln’s message is so suitable:

1. He did not declare an ambition to change the country, but rather to save it:
The country was changing dramatically: for one thing, a month after he uttered these words Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery in the southern states, thus ensuring that soon America would no longer be a slave-holding nation. The post-war America he envisioned was actually truer to our founders’ original intent (a nation in which all men are truly equal) than the America of 1789.

Suggestion One: Position what needs to happen at your institution as a necessary and creative response to changing circumstance and present difficulties; this will allow you to position whatever the change is as the best means of keeping the faith with your institution’s founding vision, and to continue serving its most central mission.

2. Lincoln distinguished the “dogmas of the quiet past” (read: old ways of thinking) from the people and the nation that had subscribed to these dogmas:

The dogma of slavery for instance, was not a guiding principle of the founding fathers; acceptance of it compromised the highest ideals of most of them, but they considered it a necessary compromise in order to be able to form, as was written many years later: “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Suggestion Two: Your institution is greater than its individual programs and principles. Dig into the history of your institution, and you are likely to find there the authorization for the changes you need to make. Take, for example, Wells College, founded in 1868 to provide an education for women of a type that was otherwise largely unavailable to them otherwise. When Wells began admitting men 136 years later, more than a few in the Wells community felt strongly that it had been a betrayal of Henry Wells’ original purpose. But the presence of “a few good Wells men” did not destroy the DNA of Wells College because what’s really at the heart of that institution’s original purpose was the delivery of an ‘intensely personal intellectual experience’ to students. In a dramatically changed world in which women have access to virtually every college and university in the country, and men also need the kind of education Wells offers, Henry Wells would have been the first to sign on to the move to co-education.

3. Lincoln challenged Congress (and the nation) to “rise with the occasion” (i.e., not struggle against the occasion):

Suggestion Three: Think of current conditions as an occasion for the community of your college or university to rise “with” them, rather than a calamitous perfect storm against which it must struggle. That will keep your creative juices flowing, making it much easier to make your case “new,” to “think anew,” and to “act anew.” And then, you will save your institution.

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