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

By December 13, 2023No Comments

image with text culture change

Last week I shared recommendations provided by John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett in Corporate Culture and Performance on changing the culture of an organization. They identify thirteen things that leaders did to achieve success. In this and the next blog, I share steps we took that aligned with their observations and recommendations.

  • “got off to a relatively fast start after being appointed CEO, COO, or head of a business.” Soon after arriving on July 1, 1997, accompanied by Richard Hudson, vice chancellor for government and public relations, Mary Lib and I traveled across the state, meeting academic, civic, and governmental leaders, and speaking to numerous civic clubs. We shared my aspirations and dreams for the university. At the first UA Board of Trustees meeting held on our campus, we proposed raising the admission standards for the university. A headline on the front page of the August 4-10, 1997, issue of Arkansas Business read, “White Grabs Attention of Businesses,” with a sub-heading, “New Chancellor Wants Help to Put University of Arkansas Among Elite.” The article began, “John White’s straight-shooting approach and aggressiveness in his first month as chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has grabbed the imagination of the state’s business leaders.”
    In meetings with parents and community leaders, many referred to UA as a party school. During fall semester, in a meeting with the Interfraternity Council, leaders of UA fraternities, I said I was a beneficiary of the Greek system as a UA student and was counting on them to model the core values of their fraternities. I also said we needed to change UA’s reputation from being a party school to being a strong academic institution and I was counting on their support. Some didn’t believe me, including Sigma Nu, my fraternity. Not long after my meeting with the Interfraternity Council, it had its charter removed. During my chancellorship Sigma Nu was re-colonized and it returned to being respected on campus: the 2021-2022 UA student body president was a member of the chapter.
  • “developed a strong belief in the need for change before their appointments.” In the on-campus interview and interview with the UA Board of Trustees, I was very direct about what I intended to focus on if selected and let trustees know that I was planning on making numerous changes.[i]
  • “had a relatively clear vision of the kinds of changes that were needed.” As noted in Chapter 9 of Why It Matters, I was quite open about what my intentions were and what I envisioned for the university.[ii]
  • “asked to run their organizations because they had those beliefs and visions.” Comments to the media by Alan Sugg, UA System president, and Lewis Epley, chair of UA’s board of trustees, among others, indicated my goals for the university were aligned with theirs.
  • “[tried] to create an atmosphere of perceived ‘crisis.’” As noted in Chapter 11 of Why It Matters, using data from U.S. News & World Report, we showed how UA compared with a benchmark set of 53 other national public research universities. We attempted to make the case for increasing quality, size, and revenue.
  • “communicated widely the facts that pointed to a crisis or potential crisis.” Traveling across the state and speaking to numerous civic clubs, we shared data showing areas in which UA needed to change to compete academically with universities we competed with athletically.
  • “created new measurement systems to obtain [convincing data].” As noted in Chapter 11, we created a UA report card, called The Progress Report. Containing 24 performance metrics and goals for the year 2010 for each metric, the report was updated annually and published. In addition, we established a benchmark set of 54 national public research universities and showed where the UA ranked among the performance metrics.
  • “developed or clarified their visions of what changes were needed.” Responding to feedback, with the participation of a broad cross-section of academic leaders, the UA vision of being the model land-grant university of the 21st Century was changed to being a nationally competitive, student-centered research university serving Arkansas and the world.
  • “challenged the status quo with very basic questions.” At a meeting with the faculty, I asked, “Would you recommend the University of Arkansas to your children and children of your friends? If not, how can we ask other parents to send their children to the University of Arkansas?” After showing UA financial data to state legislators, we requested financial support comparable to that received by 53 national public research universities.[iii] To increase private support, we launched the Campaign for the 21st Century and became the 14th public university to raise $1 billion in private support.

Next week: Part III

[i] Amy Schlesing, “Candidate talks about goals for UA,” The Morning News, March 28, 1997, pp. A1 & A2.

[ii] Viewpoint, “Sharing White’s Vision,” Northwest Arkansas Times, August 10, 1997; Jennifer Pinkerton, “Driven chancellor seeks new U of A for 21st century,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 28, 1998, pp. 1B, 5B.

[iii] Maylon T. Rice, “UA’s five-year plan calls for significant budget increases,” Northwest Arkansas Times, Thursday, October 15, 1998, p. A3.