Skip to main content
CommnicationEffectivenessHigher EducationImprovementLeadershipOrganizations

A Case Study on Changing
a University’s Culture
Part I

By December 6, 2023December 13th, 2023No Comments

image with text culture change

After becoming UA’s chancellor, as Mary Lib and I traveled the state, we heard that it was a party school and was perceived to be the University of Northwest Arkansas. To achieve what the UA trustees asked me to do, I concluded a change in its culture was needed. To do so, I needed a game plan. In this and the following two blogs, I share what we did.

In Chapter 8 of Why It Matters: Reflections on Practical Leadership, I address the role that an organization’s culture plays in achieving excellence. In doing so, I refer to Corporate Culture and Performance by John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett.

Observations of changes in organizational cultures and personal experiences over my career confirm conclusions and comments made by Kotter and Heskett regarding major cultural changes. They identify four “musts” for the leader:

  • “must have both an outsider’s openness to new ideas and an insider’s power base.”
  • “must create a perceived need for change even if most people believe all is well.”
  • “must create and communicate effectively a new vision and set of strategies, and then behave accordingly on a daily basis.”
  • “must motivate an increasingly large group of people to help with this leadership effort.”

Based on their research, they concluded executives who led efforts to successfully effect cultural change:

  • “got off to a relatively fast start after being appointed CEO, COO, or head of a business.”
  • “developed a strong belief in the need for change before their appointments.”
  • “had a relatively clear vision of the kinds of changes that were needed.”
  • “were asked to run their organizations because they had those beliefs and visions.”
  • “[tried] to create an atmosphere of perceived ‘crisis.’”
  • “communicated widely the facts that pointed to a crisis or potential crisis.”
  • “created new measurement systems to obtain [convincing data].”
  • “developed or clarified their visions of what changes were needed.”
  • “[challenged] the status quo with very basic questions”
  • “looked for some quick but sustainable successes.”
  • “displayed unusual persistence and patience, they were also impatient to create some successes that would give their efforts credibility.”
  • “wasted little time and energy on people and products or plants that seemed to have little long-term potential.”
  • “demonstrated positive results within their first two years.”[1]

Concerned it might come across as self-serving, in Why It Matters I didn’t describe the steps we took to change UA’s culture. However, because our actions aligned with comments by Kotter and Heskett, I’m sharing them in this blog.

As background, North Central Association, the UA’s accrediting body, visits campuses every 10 years and visited the UA campus the year before I became chancellor. A decade later, following a visit in 2007, the Commission issued its report, stating, “the University of Arkansas has transformed itself. … The visiting team was impressed with and commends the university for the sense of direction and accomplishments … as well as the overall morale of faculty, staff and students.

“UA is on a new trajectory, one that is rapidly moving it to truly become a world-class student-centered research university. … The 2010 Commission approach to institutional planning and change could be used as a highly successful model by other institutions of higher education interested in deep and extensive planning and transformative change.”[2] The transformation detected by the North Central Association visiting committee reflected a change in UA’s culture. Its report provided several recommendations for further improvement. So, important work remained.


Next week: Part II

[1] John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance, The Free Press, New York, NY, 1992, pp. 94-95 and 99-101.

[2] See