It’s Not All or Nothing: Planned Versus Emergent Change Theory

Molly Kerby, Associate Professor, Western Kentucky University

June 3, 2019

During the early beginnings of the American Association of State Colleges & Universities (AASCU) American Democracy Project (ADP), a handful of civic-minded leaders in higher education began to grapple with what it meant to be an engaged citizen. We proposed initiatives focusing on efforts such as voting, stewardship of land, political engagement, and citizenship in an electronic age (eCitizenship). We found ourselves building a foundation for change in civic literacy, democratic agency, and grassroots social movements – it seemed we were starting a revolution of sorts in higher education. Across the country, centers for democratic and community engagement gained popularity among public institutions and efforts to build programs focusing on community engagement became commonplace. After all, isn’t that what colleges and universities do?

Historically, higher education has provided students with the skills to successfully engage in philosophical debates, defend democratic values, and gain what we like to call a spirit of public mindedness. These are the foundation that sets our institutions apart from vocational training and job-skills instructions. In light of the current climate and attacks on higher education, however, it is important for colleges and universities to remain steadfast in their common goals of creating democratically engaged citizens who are skilled in the areas of civic dialogue, ethical practices, and public problem-solving even in work-force development curricula. Unfortunately, the underlying dilemma lies in convincing college and university administrators to continue support of civic-minded programs when state and federal budget cuts have left institutions without the adequate funds necessary to merely survive – and, definitely not near enough money to thrive

As some scholars report, enrollment in traditional higher education institutions has continued to drop over the last six years (Fain, 2017; Nadworny, 2018; Shaw, 2018; Vedder, 2018). While some cite the improved economy and availability of jobs, others argue the price of higher education and the daunting nature student loan debt repayment have deterred enrollment. No matter what experts cite as the main culprit, most agree public opinion and distain for higher education plays at least a small role in declining numbers of incoming students. There is a universal belief that only a few fields of study provide students with the necessary training to do tasks needed for skilled jobs (for example, engineering and nursing). For most of us, this ideology represents a paradigm or cultural shift in the public’s view on the nature and value of post-secondary education and the college degree. As a matter of fact, some crticis even believe colleges actually have a negative impact on our country and provide slanted views that disrupt our communities and political system. Unfortunately, this opinion has permeated our national climate and added to the devaluing of educational programming aimed at critical thinking, civic engagement, and diversity. So, what happens to these departments and colleges when budgets get tight and critical decisions to fold academic programs must be made? How do faculty, staff, and students survive when they are faced with defending their existence and forced to come up with creative ways to maintain resilient departments, programs, and centers focusing on civic engagement, social justice, and diversity? How can there be a CLDE Theory of Change when it seems that planned change (or may I say, warfare) is the only and best approach to confronting vulnerabilities? How do we embed our valuable work into the changing expectations of workforce development education?


Each semester, I teach an undergraduate course developed from the roots of my work in the American Democracy Project (ADP) called public problem-solving. For purposes of this course, public problems refer to a range of multifaceted challenges with shifting conditions and complex interdependencies that integrate the natural and social systems. Students explore ways to include diverse voices in strategic plans, identify important stakeholders when working toward community change, and mediate/moderate risk factors to create community resilience. For example, we wrestle with questions like “How and why do systems change?” “What roles do national policies play in community change?” “How do we create resilience and sustainability within a system?” “How do we build protective factors in communities to mediate and/or moderate risk and resilience?” “What makes a good community leader?” And, “Why is effective leadership important?” Armed with the principles of systems theory and a thorough understanding of the conceptions underlying complex civic struggles, students participate in a project-based learning experiences designed to reinforce the principles of systematic change.

The roots of community-based public problem-solving are embedded in the works of Kurt Lewin. Lewin, considered the father of action research, or community-based participatory research, is best known for his development of a planned approach to social change. In addition to field theory and action research, the planned model of organizational change includes steps to “…unfreeze, move, and refreeze” previous conceptions in order to create positive change at the group, organization, or community level (Burns, 2004). This concept suggests the process of change begins with someone or something creating the perception that modification is needed followed by crafting the desired adjustments, which leads to the construction of a new norm or planned behavior modification. For example, Figure 1, is an illustration of traditional linear, or event oriented, thinking. Using Lewin’s logic, A and B represent the root causes of current behavior (note: A and B are often in conflict with one another). The arrows pointing to C represent movement toward a change, or unfreezing, in behaviors A and B. The path leading from C to D then represents refreezing and D becomes the “new norm.”

Figure 1. Traditional or Event Oriented Thinking

Many modern scholars, however, criticize the scripted notion of planned change theory and favor fluid, organic change that emerges naturally and focus on continuous transformation. In his work, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge argues that systems thinking (the fifth discipline) is key to understand why some “fixes” work and others do not or often backfire. Systems thinking recognizes that all things are interconnected and problems are often extremely complex and not easily solved by linear reasoning. Figure 2 represents a visualization of systems thinking. In the systems model,  root causes do not exist and identifying one single problem is not practical or even necessary. Instead, systems thinking focuses on how components interact and function as a whole and change emerges as a result of complex interactions. In addition, the cyclical diagram in Figure 2 indicates that change is also dependent on other forces, often unknown, external and/or internal to the problem (E) (Aronson, 1996). And, finally, the model in Figure 2 allows for feedback and continual improvement. The question then is what is the most effective way to create change within a complex system; planned, emergent, or, perhaps, both.

Figure 2. Systems Thinking

While there is historical merit in planned and emergent change, Figure 3 offers a different approach that combines both theories. From the left, the model indicates the need for change, or shifting, is constantly pushed by the national climate, or factors external to institutions, organizations, and communities. The national climate, in this case, refers to the social, economic, political, and ecological systems that drive the collective forces in our culture. These influences often impact people differently and challenge social, economic, and ecological equity and directly pressure, in the case of higher education, the internal climate and culture of colleges and universities. The arrows leading to the outcomes take two paths: risks and/or protective factors.

When external forces begin to shift the internal culture and climate, the risks of organizational failure are significant and the probability of collapse is heightened. Strategically adding protective factors, however, can mediate or moderate the risk and increase the chances of resilience. Protective factors in the model create an environment in which positive change can occur and mitigate or eliminate a crisis. For example, as far back as 1975, Vincent Tinto began researching declining retention rates in higher education. Tinto drew parallels between what he called the dropout process and Durkheim’s notion of suicide. In other words, dropping out of college was not just something you did all of a sudden but was a process caused by multiple

Figure 3. Model of Organizational Resilience (Kerby & Mallinger, 2015)

mitigating factors and circumstances, many of which are external to the institution itself. The challenge then became creating ways (protective factors) to mitigate risks beyond grade attainment and evaluation of academic performance.  Based on the theoretical work of Tinto and others (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1979; Bean, 1985; and Cabrera, Nora, & Castafneda, 1993), researchers began to identify protective factors that led to persistence in higher education; among the most powerful indicators was student engagement.

By the mid to late 1990s, most colleges and universities were concerned more with what students did while they were in college than what degrees they sought or where they would work after graduation. Results of national studies and surveys like the National Student Engagement Survey (NSSE) concluded that in order for students to persistent and thrive in school, they must practice critical thinking, problem-solving, civic communication, and engaged democracy in courses and programs. In order to achieve these goals, colleges and universities developed programs aimed at creating planned change (Figure 4. Lewin’s Model). While this is a simple

Figure 4. Retention and Lewin’s Model

application, it is a good illustration of how quick fixes can work well in the short run but might have trouble standing the test of time. The model in figure 4 neglects to articulate the wide-range of external factors involved (B), the complexity of solutions necessary for change (C), or the varying degrees of retention, which include transferring to another institution, stopout (taking time off), and dropout (A & D).    

The work done in the last 20 years or so employed the notions of planned change; a) We needed something new to transpire in order to encourage students to persist (unfreeze), b) we developed centers and programs to increase students engagement (move), and, most importantly, c) we shifted the paradigm of the student college/university experience (refreeze). While unfreezing and moving are normally introduced through planning (Theory of Planned Change or Reasoned Action), the aftermath of  “refreezing” is where we begin to see civic learning and democratic engagement’s CLDE Theory of Change blossom. In the example of retention and persistence, higher education administrators, faculty, and student affairs personnel planted seeds that grew through multiple networks. Building on the four questions of CLDE’s Theory of Change, institutions have shifted and engrained the ideas of visionary work, engaged pedagogy, purposeful learning outcomes, and strategic planning in every fiber of the work they do.


Higher education, like many organization, is both a social and economic institution. On the one hand, colleges and universities exist to serve the public good by educating and preparing student to be engaged citizens who make thoughtful decisions in their communities. On the other hand, colleges and universities must generate revenue to, proverbially, keep the lights on. When federal and state higher education funds are plentiful, the latter is less important. In the last several years, however, funding has been slashed at most schools and others have either closed their doors or consolidated. So, what happens now? What do we do when funding runs out for student engagement centers and programs? What makes the CLDE Theory of Change relevant here?

Going back the earlier example of my public-problem solving class, many of the answers to our dilemma are the product of embedded continuance feedback loops. Emergent change is not a cut and dry process like planned change; it is messy and unpredictable. Using this theoretical framework, it is crucial to infuse student and civic engagement throughout the entire curriculum, major fields as well as general education, so the principles survive with or without institutional support of centers, programs, and projects. CLDE’s Theory of Emergent Change addresses this in the five concepts of cultivating campus change:

  1. The ideologies of ethical reasoning, moral decision-making, and global and cultural awareness are not, nor should they be, bound by disciplinary structures – they should exist inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary. In addition, these principles should be practiced in all interactions and structures within the institution (Civic Ethos).
  2. All students should be given the opportunity to practice democratic engagement and debate and taught to think critically about current and historical complex issues that have public consequences (Civic Literacy & Skill Building).
  3. The art of engagement should not be reserved for students who major in certain fields or take the few general education courses where civic inquiry is explored. The ideas of deliberation, historical reasoning, and deliberative dialogue should be included in all general and major-specific courses (Civic Inquiry integrated within the majors and general education).
  4. Through community engagement projects and collaborative projects, students learn to work with diverse groups, promote sustainability, and work toward the public good – again, no matter what field of study (Civic Action).
  5.  And, finally, it is important that institutions embed educational practices that teach students to work across lines of race, religion, ethnicity, sex orientation, gender expression, political ideology, income, ability, geography, etc. (Civic Agency).

As budget cuts force colleges and universities to cut programs, especially in the humanities and social sciences, it is imperative that the work done in the area of civic and democratic engagement over the past 20+ years take root in the curriculum as a whole – this is the underpinning of emergent change. The public problem-solving course detailed in this blog is part of a program dog-eared for transformation because the interdisciplinary department in which it is taught was dissolved due to cuts and reorganization. Fortunately, this course as well as others like it, were purposed as general education courses early on and will remain part of that curriculum as long as faculty exist to teach the material. In other words, though the department will be gone, the courses will continued to be offered. At this point, it is impossible to predict exactly what the outcome will be but if civic literacy and democratic engagement is the foundation of all educational goals and outcomes, the work started years ago will live on. In this case, planned and emergent change work hand in hand rather than in opposition – it’s not all or nothing.

Molly Kerby is an associate professor in the Department of Diversity & Community Studies and the Director of the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) Implementation in Academic Affairs at Western Kentucky University. Her research and teaching focus on systems thinking, sustainability, and engaged democracy. She is an active member and Civic Fellow for AASCU’s American Democracy Project.

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