Systemic Change

Research Questions

  • What do we know about systemic change that can guide the design and implementation of professional development for staff and administrators regarding universal access in their services and programs?
  • What do we know about institutionalizing staff and administrator professional development activities for staff and administrators?

Overview of Research

It has been said that you cannot change one thing without changing the whole thing (Price Waterhouse, 1995). If you change processes on a college campus, you can expect that you will also need to change job descriptions, systems, and technologies, as well as train people to support them.

The increasing number of students with diverse abilities and other characteristics has created the impetus and necessity to change some of the traditional structures and procedures of colleges and universities. Postsecondary institutional experiences in promoting diversity related to gender, ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status have taught us that change does not occur quickly and without conflict. Creating a more inclusive environment for students with disabilities often requires system wide change. Successful change efforts are more often gradual than radical.

Although there is typically resistance to change, change is central to college and university cultures (Andresen, 1991). New laws, demographics, and technologies are part of their realities (Englert & Tarrant, 1995). Competing theories about systemic change abound. However, success in implementing change is often more related to a specific context than to a general theory (Wilson, 1992).

The argument has been largely against skill-based approaches, ready-made models of good organizational practice, and reliance upon analyzing change as primarily the outcome-oriented pursuit of great and charismatic individuals. The arguments have, rather, favored the potency of organizational structures, of economic determinism, and of institutionalization within which the manager must operate (Wilson, p. 122).

Change can be viewed from three perspectives: the reason for change, the process of change, and the content of change (Levy & Merry, 1986). We will first consider reasons to change and then the process of change.

Reasons for Change: External and Internal Forces

Postsecondary institutions experience pressure to change from both external and internal sources (Yee, 1998). Institutions must respond to external changes in order to thrive (Kozeracki, 1998). One of the external factors promoting change is the worldwide transformation to an information-based economy. New technologies have prompted educators to reexamine the content and delivery of instruction (Travis, 1995). The incorporation of new information technologies over recent years demonstrates how rapidly new products and behaviors can be assimilated into campus life. Some staff members welcome these changes; some resist. Nevertheless, technology plays a significant role in systemic change.

Another example of how systemic change can occur as a result of external forces is the way "tech-prep" and school-to-work movements have stimulated staff to collaborate with high school educators and to incorporate more career-related skill building into the curricula. (Horan, 1995).

Legislative and funding issues can also force institutions to change. For example, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and state legislation require that institutions provide reasonable accommodations for qualified students with disabilities in programs and services. In part because of such legislation, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are gaining access to programs.

Changing demographics call for increased multicultural awareness and more inclusive learning environments (Harris & Kayes, 1995; Rendon & Hope, 1996). Today's student body is also diverse with respect to age, gender, ethnic and racial background, and part-time student status (Yee, 1998). Stereotyping, social isolation, and alienation are experienced by women, racial and ethnic minorities, and adult learners, as well as by students with disabilities (Smith, 1989).

Forces internal to the institution can promote or retard change. Academic values and attitudes about diversity can motivate staff members and administrators to advocate for educational equity. Seeing students with disabilities as a minority group with civil rights to education instead of as a needy population deserving of charity has dramatically changed the service provision for students with disabilities in recent years (Oliver & Barnes, 1998; Shapiro, 1993). Diverse perspectives within organizations promote sensitivity to pluralism.

Process of Change

Staff and administrators can benefit from keeping four questions in mind as they begin change efforts (Bruce & Wyman, 1998):

  • Who are the people involved in the change?
  • What are the organization's abilities and resources?
  • What is the climate for change?
  • What are the mandates/objectives of the organization?

In addition, Creamer and Creamer (1986) identified several key environmental conditions that predict the likelihood that an institution will successfully adopt innovations that require systemic change. The Probability of Adoption of Change (PAC) Model is grounded in student affairs and higher education. The model can be used as a guide to organizing change and as a diagnostic tool for assessing progress. The model is developed around several variables that can contribute to the success of systemic change projects:

  • Circumstances: the source of impetus for change, the environmental readiness for change, and the degree of need felt for change
  • Value compatibility: the degree of harmony between the values and procedures of the project and the institution
  • Idea comprehensibility: the clarity and simplicity of the project goals, the ability to articulate their implementation, and the timing of the project
  • Practicality: the adequacy of the personnel and resources necessary to carry out the project
  • Superintendency: the levels of authority and guidance that support the project
  • Top-level support: persistent and continuous support from the chief administrator
  • Leadership: a quality revealed by actions to gather resources and cultivate initial readiness for the idea within the organization
  • Championship: persuasive advocacy for the idea by one or more persons with the authority to carry out the implementation plan
  • Advantage probability: the likelihood that the project will solve a difficult institutional problem or problems
  • Strategies: the adequacy of the procedures or methods used to institutionalize the project

Continuing with the issue of diversity as an example, some postsecondary administrators have responded to increasing student diversity by modifying the organizational culture, infusing multicultural education into the curriculum, reflecting a diversity in values and norms in organizational policies and practices, and creating campus wide action committees (Guy, Reiff, & Oliver, 1998; Harris & Kayes, 1995; Levy & Merry, 1986). However, a fundamental and continuing conflict exists between diversity and quality in postsecondary education. Staff may need to reform their understanding of quality service and then modify standards, performance criteria, and assessment tools (Smith, 1989). Infusing multicultural education at an organizational level requires simultaneous changes in the organization's values and culture (Guy et al., 1998). Strategies to initiate change include the following:

  • Build a powerful case for change. Assume that people are not prepared for change and that you must convince them, using education and consensus building, that change is needed. Practical and immediate action steps should be shared in training sessions.
  • Let the customer drive change. In postsecondary institutions, customers include both students with disabilities and faculty delivering courses, services, programs, and information resources.

Keep in mind that staff members may be more open to new ideas when they are actively involved in the process. An administrator at one school that successfully implemented a change process reported that effective communication was key. "Inherent was a mutual respect for the other's background and talents, plus a genuine perception of their equality" (Hord, 1986, p. 22).

In order for systemic change to take place, there must be adequate motivation from the institution, as well as a supportive social and cultural climate. Although staff may be motivated to learn new skills and knowledge that will enhance student life, a competing motivation may be to maintain their existing roles and procedures. Staff need practical examples of the benefits of change to their service unit. Sometimes it is effective to apply the power of peer example by sharing the experiences of other campus service units.

Implications for Practice

Transformation of the institution into a system that supports diversity means addressing a number of issues, including staff diversity; institutional mission and values; diversity education; the quality of interaction between students, staff, and administrators; and the perceived conflict between quality and diversity (Townsend & Twombly, 1998). Institutional changes should be reflected in policies, procedures, and job assignments to assure that change efforts will not collapse abruptly if one person leaves a position.

Consistent quality support services for students with disabilities requires a campus wide commitment that includes administrative support and well-informed administrators and support staff (Duffy, 1999; Kalivoda & Totty, 2003). Administrators must assure that campus policies and procedures do not negatively impact students with disabilities. Staff providing front-line services to students should be knowledgeable about access challenges, the accommodation needs required by students with different types of disabilities, and campus resources. All staff should be aware of effective ways to communicate with students who have disabilities.

To make improvements in student service access on a postsecondary campus, provide training to staff and administrators on a regular basis. The content of professional development should include information and guidelines regarding universal design, disability-related accommodations, rights and responsibilities, and campus resources.

Consider the capabilities and limits of the institution and encourage gradual, sustained changes that involve all stakeholders in the change process. For instance, annual departmental in-services, new staff orientations, and mailings regarding topics such as accessible web design support systemic change more than would one large event. Consider setting up an ongoing community of practice that includes a diverse set of stakeholders all interested in improving the accessibility of campus services.


In postsecondary institutions, long-lasting positive changes supporting equal access to facilities, services, and resources require more than isolated actions of individuals; they require institutionwide systemic change. Collaborative efforts of administrators, faculty, and support staff, as well as students with disabilities, should work toward a goal of equity throughout the institution.