Higher Learning Commission

Change Agent Leadership

Linda L. Baer, Ann Hill Duin and Deborah Bushway

The times are changing for higher education. The times are changing in dramatic ways in what feels like warp speed. What skill sets are mandatory for change agent leadership? We provide the following direction (Baer, Duin, and Bushway 2015).

Change agent leadership creates the capacity and environment to move into a changing future while preserving the values and core missions that make their institutions strong. Change agent leadership must determine what made institutions strong in the past versus what will make them strong in the future: strong in terms of articulating the value they provide to students, communities and society as well as strong in terms of sustainability in an ever-changing environment. Change agent leadership must identify future trends and needs, lead change agendas, invest in what makes a difference, and remain authentic and courageous. We propose a radically different course for assessing change agent leadership skills.

1. Focus an institution on accountability and analytics, and do so with authenticity.

Institutions are accountable to state priorities, academic concerns, and market forces. Being accountable to each means balancing the response to ensure service without subservience to public priorities, academic concerns or market forces. These multiple demands place higher education in a difficult position, resulting in conflict between autonomy and collegial governance and accountability to federal, regional, state and local stakeholders. These competing interests create a dynamic tension between internal and external concerns within the institution.

In response to this, leaders need to focus squarely on the right targets. To do so, they should use analytics. The field of data science brings together analytics to assess what is happening and why. Analytics is a rapidly developing field that is improving what institutions know about all aspects of the institution from finances, human resources, facilities, student recruitment, persistence and learning. Predictive modeling determines what will happen next. Prescriptive analytics targets what can be done to improve student success; in addition, it brings far more insight into the decisions leaders make in relation to improving student success.

Change agent leadership must take the vast insight and foresight now available through data sciences and advanced analytics and apply the knowledge to inform the institutional culture, to be the change agent required to move people and institutions to new ways of using data, new ways of doing business, new ways of serving students and communities. It takes authenticity.

Authentic leadership is grounded in core values, strong emotional intelligence, and the reliance on integrated and innovative teams to work on the important issues of the day. Authenticity is based on transparency and open communication. How does this apply to change agent leadership? Authentic leadership keeps the focus on the interconnections between assessment, accountability and analytics.  

2. Build strong strategies, models and approaches to improve student success and institutional sustainability. In short, be bold.

The authentic, accountable leader must also articulate a bold, clear vision of change for his or her organization. This vision must be bold enough to make the case for change in the status quo and clear enough to support implementation efforts. Once a bold vision is articulated, change agent leadership must engage others in sharing this boldness and support risk taking within the organization when it supports this strategic direction. In other words, change agent leaders must not only be bold themselves, they must also support boldness in others in the organization to move in the new direction.

Many questions will arise regarding capability creation. Does the organization currently possess all strategically required capabilities? If not, how might a critical capability best be developed to support the implantation of the strategy? More specifically, each leader and his or her team will face a question of what to create on his or her own, what to purchase and where to partner with others to generate required capability and capacity. This can be thought of as the “Build, Buy, Buddy or Borrow” question. Answering this set of questions involves the consideration of many intersecting (and sometimes conflicting) variables. The answer to these decisions can be found within the organization’s strategy. Donald McGannon, who ran the Westinghouse Broadcasting Corporation and served as president of the National Urban League, is often quoted in this context, stating: “Leadership is action, not position.”

3. Understand culture, embrace collaboration and do so with courage.

Culture, collaboration and courage complete this radical proposal for change agent leadership. The mind-set and practice of collaborating with courage amid recognition of culture provides a clear leverage for accomplishing targeted goals and adding value to the overall work of the institution. Given the complex challenges in higher education, we attest that change agent leadership must proactively identify, understand and foster collaboration; they must foster shared leadership.

Above all, change agent leadership needs to build authenticity, be bold in sustaining the change and be courageous in an unshaken commitment to investing in transformational education. This is the challenge before us: to change the higher education experience for students to improve success and foster the future sustainability of higher education.


Baer, L., A. H. Duin, and D. Bushway. 2015. Change agent leadership. Planning for Higher Education 43 (3): 1–11.

McGannon, D. H. 2015. Quote. Thinkexist.com. http://thinkexist.com/quotation/leadership_is_action-not_position/202872


About the Authors

Linda L. Baer is Senior Fellow at Civitas Learning; Ann Hill Duin is Professor at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in Minneapolis; and Deborah Bushway is Higher Education Consultant at Bushway Consulting.

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