Introduction: Change Leaders

Scott Simkins, Linda Slakey, and Lorne Whitehead

The papers here take a broad view of who leads change. The interventions studied portray the whole range of scale from individual classrooms to consortia of institutions, and of maturity, from early tests of models to summaries of lessons learned in work going back more than a decade. Further, the formal role within the institution of the change agents presented ranges from individual instructor, through formal leadership roles including teaching center director, department head, dean, provost, and president, and for the first time in the Transforming Institutions series, studies of significant roles for students as change agents. A subtext in several places is that not all change agents are aware that they are in a role that may have that effect. Collectively, the chapters expand our sense of what have come to be called top-down, bottom-up, or middle-out approaches to bringing about sustainable systemic change.

The first two chapters focus on models that see students as partners and agents in bringing about change. Cook-Sather and colleagues at Haverford College present a compelling account of pedagogical partnerships engaging students for the purpose of improving equity and inclusion efforts in STEM. At the micro-level, two approaches were explored—one in which the partnership pairs were initiated by faculty members, and the other in which students took the initiative. Also explored was a “meso-level” partnership involving a center director and a student partner, and a “macro-level” partnership involving a group of faculty collaborating with one another and students on designing a co-curricular course. The implicit definition of leadership in this model is one of mutual support among partners. For all partners, this can lead to a sense of agency and an increased confidence in the possibility of change. The authors report positive accounts from everyone involved. Overall, students both benefitted from and contributed to this equity work by supporting faculty engagement in these efforts and taking up and initiating partnership approaches for change.

Like Cook-Sather et al., Callahan and colleagues sought to engage student leaders in conversations about pedagogy that have traditionally not included them. The population titled “student leaders” included students in the roles of learning assistants, education research assistants, and serving on departmental committees. The authors review Henderson et al.’s (2010) four change strategies of disseminating curriculum and pedagogy, developing reflective practitioners, enacting policies to influence change, and developing a shared vision. They engaged student leaders to stimulate new conversations focused on improving teaching and learning at multiple levels to support success and retention in STEM for a broader diversity of students. A key observation was that faculty looked to student leaders for information about their students’ needs and received it as advice to consider. Their overall recommendation is to bolster recognition of student leaders as experts of the student experience and incorporation of their ideas into STEM improvement efforts.

Viewing students as change agents, and engaging them as partners in this work, has been a topic of interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning community for some time. Healey (2020) maintains a bibliography of this literature that includes an acknowledgment of the substantial contributions of Cook-Sather. The new examples presented here illustrate how student leaders can move from work with single courses or professors to broader efforts within an institution. What students have to say has particular resonance for some faculty members in terms of bringing about pedagogical change, thus this approach has untapped potential.

The next three chapters approach institutional change using faculty learning communities (see Cox & Richlin [2004] for a history and overview of this model.) Dillon and colleagues describe an example of leadership exerted by individual faculty committed to structural change, acting within a learning community framework. They report on a 3-year pilot program funded by the National Science Foundation, the purpose of which was to study an implementation of the CACAO change model (Change, Adopters, Change Agents, and Organization). A key approach was for faculty members to select a specific aspect of teaching to be observed by peers, which reduces the time commitment for the observers and provides a greater sense of control for those observed. The work evolved through careful implementation stages, and the authors report two particularly encouraging outcomes—very good feedback from a survey of faculty participants, and a very significant level of faculty participation.

Nelson and colleagues evaluated a particular model of discipline-based faculty learning community, called SIMPLE, across a group of five departments. The acronym summarizes a commitment to achieving Sustainable change, the encouragement and valuing of making Incremental changes, the use of Mentoring within the group, working on the specific needs of the People in the group, and attending to the Learning Environment. In initiating the study, obtaining funding for it, and providing training to the internal leaders of the learning communities, the authors themselves have modeled acting as change agents within their institution. Their study gives substantial attention to the importance of engaging early adopters of active learning strategies who are opinion leaders within their departments to be the internal leaders of the learning communities.

Klein and colleagues studied the use of cross-course faculty learning communities within departments as a way to bring about both broad and lasting cultural change. The study particularly calls attention to ways that faculty working within such a venture can leverage factors in their environment to increase their effectiveness in engaging colleagues and at the same time use their work to catalyze broader institutional change.  For example, the orientation meeting for the team included leaders at several institutional levels: a vice-provost, dean, and department head. They involved very highly respected colleagues in the leadership teams for the learning communities and took care to frame the work in ways that aligned with departmental cultural norms. This study viewed the leader of a learning community as the key change agent, but as with the work of Nelson et al., the authors themselves were leading institutional change, and involved other campus level leaders as well.

Halasek and colleagues describe an ambitious, top-down project actively led by the president and provost of a public research university with an undergraduate enrollment of over 45,000 students, designed to offer substantial teaching enrichment instruction to every instructor of an undergraduate course. Like Callahan et al., the authors use the model of Henderson et al. (2010) as a framework for analysis of their observations, and they also view the actions of the two high-level leaders through the lens of Kotter’s (2012) model for organizational change. While they find that the president’s thinking and actions map well onto Kotter’s framework, they note the need to also make effective use of pressures and circumstances that lie outside the initial linear process for the proposed initiative. They find that a model of interacting gears serves well to analyze how the leaders navigate a complex set of issues.

The chapters summarized above all describe work relatively close to its initial implementation phases. The final two chapters offer reflections on the use of Discipline-Based Education Specialists (DBES) to bring about department-level change. This model, also called the embedded expert model, has been in place for over a decade at two universities, and for more than five years at several others. A focus in both these chapters is on the specialist as a key agent of change within departments, but the model also requires departmental leadership and guidance from the department head or other senior faculty member, and coordinating leadership across the program. Higher-level leaders willing to invest resources in the DBES positions are also needed, so change is supported at several levels if not actively led by them.

The chapter by Chasteen and colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of British Columbia is a compelling summary of their free, online, open-licensed Science Education Initiative Handbook (Chasteen & Code, 2018) and its practical advice concerning DBES. Unlike the models in previous chapters, the DBES typically use postdoctoral fellows or others with direct training in teaching and learning within the discipline to catalyze teaching change within a specific department. The authors concisely cover key ideas concerning the required high-level training and interpersonal skills, and summarize practical tips based on careful, sound observations over many courses over many years. Topics include the persuasive use of data, boosting visibility of teaching improvement efforts, using evidence-based reasoning, and ensuring that support is available, especially for junior-ranking DBES.

Greenhoot and colleagues are each the leader of a central unit that coordinated the embedded expert model across departments on their campus. They present three key leadership questions that should be addressed in order for these resource-intensive programs to yield a good return on investment: how to deploy the financial resources, how to engage departments and faculty in the work, and how to plan for long-term sustainability once the initial investment period is over. After reviewing tactics used to good effect on each of their campuses, they offer a set of guiding principles which echo themes that emerge in other papers in the section. In particular, they point out the usefulness of leveraging other factors on campus, and attending to the factors that make pedagogic change feel both possible and rewarding for faculty.

Returning to the question we first raised, of whether individual project leaders see themselves as change agents on a larger scale, we see cases here in which micro-level, faculty-led approaches point toward sustainable and systemic change at the institution. This is a common entry point for faculty who are interested in institutional (or at least departmental) change. We look forward to further studies that specifically examine steps leaders can take in order to lift projects that impact only a few colleagues toward ones that produce sustainable systemic change, as well as examples of how project leaders can develop broad, self-sustaining models of pedagogical change leader development that will promote permanent institutional change.

The papers in this section illustrate a variety of approaches to leading change that could be adopted by different kinds of institutions in different kinds of settings. These approaches, taken together, are inclusive, rather than exclusive, and the institutions involved in these projects reflect that. If sustainable systemic changes in higher education pedagogy are going to become widespread, and thus provide opportunities for greater participation in STEM disciplines (and beyond) for all students, institutions of all types must be part of that process. The examples here show how those interested in leading change at a wide variety of institutions can join that process. We look forward to even more examples in the future from community colleges and minority-serving institutions, who are historically underrepresented in systemic change efforts, yet provide important roles in U.S. higher education.

In closing, we note that as this volume goes to press, the higher education community has an increased awareness of the need to foreground equity and inclusivity in all our work to lead change. This trend was already evident, but it takes on additional importance across the STEM education reform community at this moment of sharply heightened awareness of the toxic effects of racism and the importance of social justice in society. The statement of purpose of the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses [SEISMIC] (2020) initiative, a coalition of universities that use data analytics as a principal tool to assess and guide pedagogic change, captures the motivating force of this concern in a way that is useful for change agents at all levels:

[W]e aim to motivate changes to long-established practice with something more than the possibility of marginal improvements in learning. By focusing on equity and inclusion as our central metric for success, we harness a higher level of collective passion from the students, faculty, staff, and administrators who participate.

We look forward to seeing the progress change agents in higher education will make in this area in the years ahead.


Callahan, K. M., Williams, K., & Reese, S. (this volume). “Student leaders as agents of change.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 16). Pressbooks.

Chasteen, S. V. & Code, W. J. (2018). The Science Education Initiative handbook. Pressbooks.

Chasteen, S., Code, W., & Sherman, S. B. (this volume). “Practical advice for partnering with and coaching faculty as an embedded educational expert.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 21). Pressbooks.

Cook-Sather, A., White, H., Aramburu, T., Samuels, C., & Wynkoop, P. (this volume). “Moving toward greater equity and inclusion in STEM through pedagogical partnership.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 15). Pressbooks.

Cox, M. D., & Richlin, L. (Eds.). (2004). Building faculty learning communities [Special issue]. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 97.

Greenhoot, A. F., Aslan, C., Chasteen, S., Code, W., & Sherman, S. B. (this volume). “Variations on embedded expert models: Implementing change initiatives that support departments from within.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 22). Pressbooks.

Halasek, K., Heckler, A., & Rhodes-DiSalvo, M. (this volume). “Transforming the teaching of thousands: Promoting evidence-based practices at scale.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 20). Pressbooks.

Healey, M. (2020) Students as partners and change agents: A selected bibliography.

Henderson, C., Finkelstein, N. & Beach, A. (2010). Beyond dissemination in college science teaching: An introduction to four core change strategies. Journal of college science teaching, 39(5), 18–25.

Klein, C., Lester, J., & Nelson, J. (this volume). “Leveraging organizational structure and culture to catalyze pedagogical change in higher education.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 19). Pressbooks.

Kotter, J. (2012). Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press.

Nelson, J. K., & Hjalmarson, M. A. (this volume). “Discipline-based teaching development groups: The SIMPLE framework for change from within.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 18). Pressbooks.

Salomone, S., Dillon, H., Prestholdt, T., Peterson, V., James, C., & Anctil, E. (this volume). “Making teachers matter more: REFLECT at the University of Portland.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 17). Pressbooks.

Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses. (2020). SEISMIC overview.


Share This Book