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Managing Change in Student Affairs

Supporting the Profession
October 2, 2018 Felicia Patterson Anne Arundel Community College

In my 25 years of working in student affairs, I have seen profound changes in the academy. Shifting missions, changing demographics, technology advancements, and increased institutional accountability are more and more evident in the profession.  In my opinion, it is critical to stay abreast of issues and respond with the appropriate adjustment to policies, protocols, and support services.  If we are going to be student-focused colleges and universities, then continuous improvement is not only expected, it is required.  To this end, advancing the agenda of student affairs requires innovation, change, and disruption.

There are numerous ways to approach the implementation of change initiatives, but I would recommend the following strategies in managing change:

Root Cause Analysis

Use root cause analysis and action steps to lead you to your change solutions.  Root cause analysis helps you to address the deepest cause of an issue.  Students will tell us what is and is not working well.  Our responsibility as student affairs leaders is to listen and determine how to orchestrate change comprehensively.

Change Agents

Employ change agents to support and implement change.  Visionary and strategic thinking as a leader may mean that others do not yet see the need for the change; however, there will be those big picture thinkers who get excited about opportunities to function differently and embrace change.  Training specifically identified staff in change management can help deliver a consistent message and curtail resistance to change.

Future State

Enlist subject matter experts and those working on the front lines with students to outline how you will shift from your current to future state.  As student affairs work is heavily integrated and interdependent, change in one area necessitates change in another.  Staff are key in developing new ways of conducting business, identifying key decision points, determining risk factors, asking the right questions, and involving the right people to move to a desired future state.


Communication may sound like an obvious, overused word or something we already know to do, yet when change occurs, I am at times surprised by the number of people who are uninformed or misinformed.  A well-developed and articulated communication plan that considers levels of communication for every stakeholder is paramount to allay fears and obtain buy-in. To avoid having people fill in the blanks to questions they cannot answer; clear, transparent, and timely communication is necessary.  

At Anne Arundel Community College, we have experienced the success of these strategies first hand.  Our goal was to transform the student experience to ensure that students would be able to complete their goals through a complete redesign of the onboarding experience for new students.  We worked very closely with Academic Affairs to create student pathways uniquely designed to their area of interest. We redesigned our admissions application, assigned career counselors on the front end, reorganized the advising process to connect with students prior to their arrival, created model courses with equity embedded, and reallocated funds across divisions. While the change process was not without challenges, overall our focus on completion has been strengthened and our students are better served.