“What did you do to my kid?”
This is how Rick Miller, President Emeritus of Olin College of Engineering, opened the 2023 Coalition for Life Transformative Education (CLTE) conference. The question was posed to President Miller by an Olin parent after a graduation ceremony many years ago, noting the significant growth of their child over four years. It has remained with President Miller since, often inspiring his work with CLTE. This simple question demonstrates the transformative power of higher education when institutions go beyond the expected knowledge production and job placement to prioritize student well-being and engagement across their lifetimes.
If you have read a college strategic plan in the last decade, you likely find a section devoted to student well-being, mental health and belonging. New senior leadership positions focusing on student wellness are being created, and non-profit organizations focusing solely on the college mental health crisis are emerging. Students’ mental health has become a moment you can’t ignore for higher education. Institutions must answer a critical question: how do we go from a strategic priority to institution-wide change that supports student well-being? In no small part, the answer is to focus on your culture.
Changing culture on your own can be challenging because essential aspects are unspoken and unconscious, often even to the institution’s leaders. We experience an organizational culture, we know it is there, and yet it can be challenging for institutions to wrestle with its influence. Culture change requires institutional consciousness, a willingness to face some hard truths that require persistence and hard work to shift, and a thoughtful set of supports to make that change stick. At CFAR, we approach culture change with a three-step method: discover what exists, set the direction, and support and embed the changes.
The first step in our culture method is to understand your starting point. Gather as much data as possible from every level of the institution. We use an ethnographic approach and cast a vast net. When making a culture change, the dining hall staff must be as committed to the new culture as your President. Ask the hard questions that typically do not surface and listen intently to the answers. You will likely hear two main themes: a lot of what is not working and a little bit of what is working extraordinarily well. At CFAR, we call the practices that are working well Found Pilots: the seeds of change that you will want to plant and nurture in other areas of the institution.
Consider the example of Arlington College*, a highly selective institution, struggling with students who exhibit high levels of perfectionism. This is coupled with increased anxiety, heightened competition, and isolation across campus. When the institution looks to understand the culture of its student body, it needs to look no further than its admissions page. Arlington College tells prospective students a story about what is expected of them once they matriculate, reinforcing the same perfectionist culture which they seek to shift away from before a student ever sets foot on campus.
Now that you understand the “cultural norms” across the institution—how work happens, what people believe about their work, and the stories you tell yourselves and others about your institution— you can set the direction for the future. Culture is often implicit, and we must make it explicit when moving in a new direction. Learn from and leverage your found pilots in strategic areas at first, where early successes are most likely. Then, identify champions who can build a coalition for change and begin to spread successful shifts more broadly.
Revisiting our example of Arlington College, early changes to shift a perfectionist student culture include examining faculty grading practices and pedagogy, programming in the residence halls, library hours, and even the sheer number of offerings students can take advantage of outside the classroom. Arlington College offers more than 500+ student organizations on a campus with a population of 3,000 students. While administrators thought they were saying that “there is something for everyone,” students heard, “I have to do everything.” Decluttering the student experience and creating focus areas for each class year (like service-learning and internships) helped students design their own pathway through college rather than trying to do a little bit of everything put in front of them. This was a skill that had to be taught early and reinforced often.
Finally, we embed the changes institution-wide. This requires behavior change, support systems, accountability levers, and ways to monitor progress. You must be clear across the institution about expectations and how every community member can participate. You must also be realistic— not everyone will choose the new culture. When embedding change, there are three primary groups: champions, detractors, and those waiting to be engaged. Human nature tempts us to focus on winning over our detractors. This can waste time and energy needed elsewhere. Instead, focus on the middle group waiting to be engaged in the new culture, who need to know what is expected of them and how the change will affect them. Champions and those waiting to be engaged will give you the critical mass needed to make the shifts you desire.
At Arlington College, administrators empowered their faculty and staff to say no to more things and instead focused on creating fewer, higher-quality experiences. This was a scary change to undertake in the beginning but had significant payoffs in engagement. They also embedded rewards across the institution for faculty and staff to make more meaningful connections with students through mentorship opportunities. Arlington College adopted a motto of “unlearning” for its first-year class to acclimate them to the new culture—they were explicit about what they were trying to change. As a result, students reported an increased level of connection to each other and decreased levels of competition.
As more and more campuses face their unignorable moments, the need to focus on culture as an enabler of change will continue. Culture change is hard—there is no way around that. It takes time, resilience, and a demonstrated commitment of resources. However, we believe the outcomes are well worth those investments; you can accelerate your strategy, create stable and thriving communities, and increase engagement. And, hopefully, more college presidents who come across delighted parents on graduation day asking, “what did you do to my kid?”
We would love to hear about the moments you can’t ignore and think about how to move forward together. Please share your thoughts with us at email@example.com.