Exploring the “Why” Behind Change Resistance in Higher Education

April 28, 2023 Watermark Insights

In order to provide a top-quality student experience, it is critical for higher ed leaders to innovate. But many institutions are slow to adopt new ideas due to obstacles like long-standing traditions, systemic barriers, or a lack of faculty buy-in. 

In an ever-changing world, how can higher ed leaders encourage innovation to keep their institutions thriving? Read on to learn more about this topic, and how you can incorporate innovative thinking into your own work.

Systemic Barriers That Prevent Higher Ed Innovation

Though it can be easy to play the blame game, there are countless reasons why innovation can be difficult on higher ed campuses. As stated in the article “Why Can’t Higher Education Change?” by Kathy Johnson Bowles, “the systems, traditions, and practices valued so deeply — and essential to change — are also the ones that frequently pose barriers.” Here are just a few examples of systemic barriers that can keep campuses from enacting change.


Though the goal of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom, it can sometimes affect an instructor’s motivation to innovate. If a professor knows that there will be no consequences for their lack of participation in a new process, they may not see the point in participating at all. Or, if they are encouraged to innovate their pedagogy, they may think, I’ve received tenure for my teaching abilities, why should I change the very thing that’s led me to success? In these circumstances, it is important to acknowledge the instructor’s abilities and contributions and be ready with the “why” behind the change. You can even include innovative thinking as a goal in their annual review to clearly set expectations.

Institutional Processes

Many institutional changes require the approval of various committees, administrators, and leadership teams. These processes can ensure that there is a principle of shared governance at the college or university, making way for everyone’s voice to be heard. However, if there is too much back and forth, the momentum to create change will be lost. Sometimes institutional processes ensure that every participant can share their point of view. On the other hand, these processes can contain so many roadblocks that they prevent any change from taking place.

Lack of Resources

Though higher ed professionals are naturally curious, creative, and gifted in their field, a lack of resources can discourage innovative thinking. Why spend time innovating if the results of that innovation can’t be implemented? According to the National Education Association (NEA), 32 states spent less on public colleges and universities in 2020 than in 2008, with an average decline of nearly $1,500 per student. Especially in times of economic downturn, institutions have had to do more with less. When the topic of “innovation” comes up, faculty may think, these are great ideas, but how are we going to pay for them? If you want to encourage a trailblazing spirit on your team, do your best to communicate the parameters. What initiatives can your institution actually support? How will you carry forth the ideas presented and provide the resources needed to see them come to fruition?  

Faculty Buy-In

If you work through the systemic barriers in place, the next major hurdle to creating change is getting faculty buy-in. Faculty can be resistant to change for a number of reasons including balancing multiple responsibilities and being committed to their existing routine.

  • Multiple responsibilities: Faculty members are often stretched thin. They teach a demanding courseload, serve on various committees, and have their own research goals to pursue. Balancing these responsibilities can already be a challenge, so when they are presented with a new tool or system, they might feel like another task has been added to their never-ending to-do list.  

  • Disrupted routine: Higher education is rooted in tradition, and faculty spend years honing their systems to become the best teachers they can be. Though this can help faculty fine-tune their courses to have the most educational impact on their students, it can also make them resistant to anything that may disrupt their system. Their perception may be, my way of doing things has worked for this long, so why do I need to start from scratch with a new tool that changes how I do my job? When incorporating new technology for institutional improvement, it’s important to involve faculty early on in the process. This gives them time to adjust to a new routine, share their point of view, and be part of the decision-making process.

Fear of Failure

The fear of failure is natural and felt in many individuals, but higher education institutions can struggle with this as well. It can be scary for campus leaders to take risks and try new things, especially in a climate of declining enrollment and limited resources. What happens if it isn’t successful? 

Though this apprehension toward innovation is understandable, there is also risk associated with maintaining the status quo. The world around us is changing rapidly, and as new technology is being developed and new political ideas are being awakened, the students are changing also. There are many understandable reasons why institutions may be afraid of change. But they must consider, what is the greater risk? Innovating and being unsuccessful, or resisting change and being left behind?   

How Higher Ed Leaders Are Making Change

Interested in learning more about leading change in higher ed? Hear from the perspectives of professionals who have not only overcome the challenges mentioned above, but have met their institution’s lofty goals through innovation. 

Watch our on-demand webinar presented in partnership with the Chronicle of Higher Education. In this panel, Ian Wilhelm, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Assistant Managing Editor, leads a panel of higher ed professionals, discussing how they achieved strategic goals like increased enrollment and student success. Watch this free webinar here!

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