01/23/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Can a University Be Truly Transformed?

When I Googled "challenges in higher education recently," I received 61 million results in .2 seconds. Just the fact that I could do that is one of our challenges in higher education.

Phrases such as "new normal" and "transformational change" are already ringing hollow on campuses because they're used so much. We're so beset with challenges that we tend to despise the rhetoric. And yet most people realize deep down that things are radically shifting around higher education. Even Moody's Investor Service recently reported on how all sectors of higher education are under tremendous pressure from every direction.

In Oregon, higher education has been losing state financial support for decades. The history of our institution from its founding in 1872 shows a constant struggle for survival. We benefit from a gorgeous location, just 10 miles north of the California border. We attract wonderful faculty and staff as well as significant numbers of out-of-state students. But the slow erosion of state allocations has morphed into rapid and massive divestment just as students struggle desperately to pay their bills.

And financial issues are only a part of our challenge. Technology, changes in public perception of higher education, and many other factors are changing our world. In writing about leadership these days, some strategists evoke a military acronym, VUCA. The environment is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

SOU has worked aggressively to weather the financial storms. We downsized and right-sized, reorganized restructured and rethought. We dropped programs, added programs, consolidated, outsourced, changed leadership in key areas, all while achieving some of the highest enrollments in our history.

But though the changes we made were significant, they were first-order changes -- tweaks around the edges. In this VUCA environment, we need to change fundamentally. We need to move to deep, second-order, change. Rather than rearranging the deck chairs, we must build a better ship.

Our institution must be fiscally sustainable for the long-term, not just surviving from one legislative session to the next. We must retain and graduate our students more effectively. We lose too many along the way. We need to demonstrate why the SOU experience is more valuable for many students than attending an online for-profit institution or simply getting a job out of high school. And we need to contain costs despite state divestment.

We can't just repeat our message that a college education enables a student to think, communicate and solve problems. SOU graduates demonstrate outstanding learning outcomes -- we can prove that. But in this environment, we need to prepare students more intentionally for their careers, to ensure that they have the skills, experiences, and even networking connections to launch a career. We need to prepare our graduates for the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

How do we bring about deep change? Universities are composed of legacy structures. We have longstanding departments, promotion and tenure criteria, a vocabulary of acronyms, deeply embedded social hierarchies, an agrarian calendar, reward systems built on individual achievement, a culture that fears failure and thus avoids too much experimentation. Changing general education? That might take three years. Changing promotion and tenure guidelines? Five years.

At SOU, we're committed to deep and lasting change. We want to become the institution that, if it suddenly turned up in southern Oregon, would put the old SOU out of business.

In coming entries, I will share some of our strategies, our mistakes and missteps, as well as our successes. Our journey is critical for us and for generations of students. We are committed to success.

And we know it won't be easy.