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

By December 20, 2023No Comments

image with text culture change

This week I complete this series of blogs by sharing the remaining steps we took that coincided with observations and recommendations provided by John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett in Corporate Culture and Performance on how to achieve success in changing an organization’s culture.

  • “looked for some quick but sustainable successes.” We focused on increasing enrollment and increasing the quality of incoming freshmen. The 1998 freshman class provided tangible evidence we could increase significantly the perceived quality of the undergraduate student body.
  • “displayed unusual persistence and patience, they were also impatient to create some successes that would give their efforts credibility.” Those who worked closely with me learned that I’m often pleased, but never satisfied. Using kudzu management (see Chapters 11 and 13 in Why It Matters), we persisted, stayed the course, and kept applying pressure.
  • “wasted little time and energy on people and products or plants that seemed to have little long-term potential.” Not because we thought there was little long-term potential in other colleges, but because we believed we could demonstrate improvements faster by focusing on the College of Business, working with the dean we secured a $50 million gift from the Walton Family Support Foundation. The Walton College rose rapidly in national rankings.
  • “demonstrated positive results within their first two years.” Enrollment increases, as well as increases in quality of incoming students, occurred quickly. Private support increased quickly, including a $50 million gift for the business school in 1998. However, increases in state support didn’t occur at the rate hoped for or needed. (They still haven’t!)

Now, I address the four things Kotter and Heskett claim leaders “must do” to be successful:

  • “must have both an outsider’s openness to new ideas and an insider’s power base.” We had an outsider’s openness to new ideas, but we didn’t have an insider’s power base. However, we had the support of UA’s president, UA’s trustees, business leadership, and alumni. As successes occurred, more and more faculty and staff members supported our efforts.
  • “must create a perceived need for change even if most people believe all is well.” Clearly, in 1997, most Arkansans and UA alumni believed all was well with the University of Arkansas. However, with a two-pronged strategy of differentiating UA from other universities in the state and associating UA with national public research universities via benchmarking, more and more Arkansans and UA alumni agreed that change was needed.
  • “must create and communicate effectively a new vision and set of strategies, and then behave accordingly on a daily basis.” A 2-day retreat involving a wide range of stakeholders produced the UA vision statement: The University of Arkansas is a nationally competitive, student-centered research university serving Arkansas and the world. It was communicated repeatedly on and off campus, but “While the UA vision is clear to the members of the 2010 Commission, it does not appear to be well understood by many citizens of Arkansas.”[i] As noted by the Higher Learning Commission, the 2010 Commission played a significant role in the strategic planning process. While it facilitated communicating the vision and strategies, it was not as successful as hoped in securing increased state support.
  • “must motivate an increasingly large group of people to help.” Revenues supporting public universities typically come from three sources: student tuition and fees; state appropriations; and private gifts. To engage widespread support for increased state support, the 2010 Commission was established. Ninety-two leaders across the state from business, education, government, and the professions provided advice and counsel on making the case for increased state support, resulting in the publication and dissemination of its first of four bi-annual reports: Making the Case; subsequent reports were Picking Up the Pace, Gaining Ground, and Raising the Bar. To increase private support, 93 individuals served on the Campaign for the Twenty-First Century Steering Committee; they were supplemented by more than 100 prominent alumni and friends; from July 1, 1998 to June 30, 2005 the campaign raised $1.046 billion in private support; at the time only 13 other public universities had achieved billion-dollar fund raising goals. To put things in perspective, more private gift support was committed during the campaign than in the previous 127-year history of the university. More than 41,600 new donors participated and the total number of individuals who contributed reached 72,641.

On page 148 of Why It Matters, I state, “The challenge in changing an organization’s culture is its ingrained memory. Not unlike metal alloys possessing shape memory, an organization’s culture over time can revert to what it was before a new leader changed it. Leaders come and go, but organizations remember!”

When heat is applied to a memory metal it returns to its original shape. So can organizations return to an earlier culture when stress is applied. In the fifteen years since I was UA’s chancellor, considerable stress has been placed on the university. As a result, several cultural changes have occurred. During that same time period the state’s culture and nation’s culture have changed.


Next Week: Leadership Transitions—Part I


[i] Making the Case: The Impact of the University of Arkansas on the Future of the State of Arkansas, 2010 Commission, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, 2001, p. 9.