Best Practices for Leading Positive Change in Higher Education

Academic leaders come together on chalkboard for positive change in higher education

It is becoming increasingly important for universities to meet the needs of today’s global learners. As a result, online academic institutions are raising the bar on instructional practices and faculty engagement expectations. Advancements in technology and societal complexities push universities to foster a culture of innovation that prompt faculty to reimagine the possibilities of their online classroom.

While change and innovation are pivotal to the success of any organization, knowing how to lead positive change is even more critical. A majority of organizational change initiatives end before they start. Leaders underestimate the difficulty of change, the time it takes to manifest change, and exactly how comprehensive change can be (Black, 2015).

Knowing change and innovation are necessary for organizational growth, we reflected on best practices for leading change at institutions of higher education. With our previous experience as academic leaders, student affairs practitioners, and researchers, we came up with five tips to lead positive change:

  1. Know Your Work Culture. Deciphering organizational culture in a virtual work environment is not easy. Find time to uncover the hidden belief systems, values, and stories of your academic department. Consider the following questions when assessing work culture: What are the generational cohorts that work within your department? How does diversity impact your approach to leading change? How can different worldviews and perspectives be honored in the transformation agenda? 
  1. Rebuff Resistance. For many people, organizational restructuring prompts fear and anxiety. As such, resistance spreads quickly through destructive employee backchanneling and mishandling of contentious workplace behaviors. Provide a safe space for individuals to voice their concerns and make sense of the change process. Use coaching strategies to facilitate constructive communication and active listening in times of contention. Explain why change is necessary and effectively communicate your vision for change (Kotter, 2014). Finally, help followers see the benefits of meeting the change goal and reflect on the consequences if the change does not occur.
  1. Create Collective Learning Opportunities. Changing and learning are connected (de Caluwe and Vermaak, 2004). Managing change involves learning new behaviors and creating new ways of thinking. Build learning teams that foster collaboration and knowledge sharing. Communities of practice work well for this process. What leadership behaviors motivate faculty to learn? How can you continue the learning processes throughout the change endeavor?
  1. Share leadership practices. Shared leadership is the hallmark of effective leadership. Identify innovators and change-makers within the group or team. Delegate tasks and responsibilities to hold employees accountable. Remind faculty that change provides opportunities to develop new skills, positively impacts work performance, and builds self- esteem. Remember, leadership is everyone’s responsibility(Kouzes & Posner, 2014). How can you nurture leadership in others?
  1. Above all…continue to facilitate change. Even after the heavy lifting, and you achieve your organizational goals, change remains necessary for continued growth. Therefore, help faculty see the value of change throughout their tenure. Here are a few ways to seed change:
  • Make communities of practice a part of your department’s organizational structure (Algozzini et al., 2018)
  • Host professional development workshops that openly discuss change and change management
  • Include faculty input at the strategic leadership level
  • Organize a book club to foster a sense of belonging
  • Support conferencing and publication opportunities so faculty can advance the research in their field
  • Consider coaching training programs for managers and leaders

Academic leaders must know how to shift the culture to maintain a university’s competitive edge. Therefore, these strategies work collectively to mitigate the many challenges to change. However, these strategies are only the tip of the iceberg. Academic leaders must invest in human potential to nurture leadership and create agents of change. 

Valencia Gabay is an adjunct instructor at Purdue Global University and a doctoral student in Organizational Leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Dr. Shannon Voylesis an experienced educator who has served as an assistant professor, course designer, content curator, consultant, and researcher. She is currently a faculty member at Galen School of Nursing. 


Algozzini, L. C., Gabay, V. L., Voyles, S. D., Bessolo, K., & Batchelor, G. (2018). Breaking the code: Barriers affecting inclusive thinking-HETL Scotland 2017. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, 10(2), 118–129.

Black, J. S. (2014). It starts with one: Changing individuals changes organizations (3rd ed.). Pearson.

de Caluwé, L., & Vermaak, H. (2004). Change paradigms: An overview. Organization Development Journal, 22(4), 9–18.

Kotter, J. P. (2014). Accelerate: Building a strategic agility for a faster-moving world. Harvard Business Review Press.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2014). The five practices of exemplary leadership: United Kingdom. The Leadership Challenge.