How to change an organization, a department, a curriculum

Whatever field you are in, there will be organizations with structure and rules. In academics, departments have committees, undergraduates have a required curriculum, graduate students have their courses, exams, and theses. Sometimes these structures are very well known and standard across universities. Other times they are divergent. It is universally true that change is hard and can bring about unintended consequences. The result of this is that some change happens far too slowly. For example, why on earth have the revolutions in molecular molecular biology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology had so little impact on what we require of undergraduates? What if we collapsed the physics and chemistry requirements to cover more biology? Well, it would be change and change is hard.

But this is not meant to be an article on the undergraduate curriculum. Look at Harvard’s curriculum from Organismic and Evolutionary Biology if you want to see a visionary one. What I want to talk about is how to change things. Anything. This is not a complete list, just a start.

First, figure out what the status quo is. In many cases it is written down in a constitution, a set of guidelines, a curriculum, a set of job descriptions, laws, or the like. It is crucial that you first know what the current situation actually is before you set about to change it. You might even have to clarify

These little girls are now in their 30s and they are changing things!

These little girls are now in their 30s and they are changing things!

the current plan first, making sure the stakeholders, that awkward but useful word, agree as to where they are now.

Second, figure out all the strengths and weaknesses of the current structure. There may be one weakness that bothers you, inciting you to seek change, but others may resonate more with other weaknesses or strengths. You have to thoroughly understand what you want to change. Try to predict unintended consequences as much as possible.

Third, follow the procedures for change. You don’t get to just do things on your own and make others follow in most cases. It may be a struggle to figure out what the procedures are, but you should do this before revealing your specific agenda. If there are no procedures, this is a first goal. Part of the procedures will usually involve a committee. This committee will meet, discuss, and decide. If you are running the meeting, provide an agenda in advance. Run the meeting carefully so everyone gets to speak. End the meeting on time, even if the job is not done.

Fourth, change your mind. Several people are always smarter than one. Listen to people on the committee. They will say smart things, at least some of the time. Learn from them. Maybe you were all wrong. Maybe you were partly wrong. Maybe you were right about the problem, but someone else has a better solution. Maybe there is another even more important issue. If you are not in a frame of mind to listen, you will miss all this.

Fifth, seek to change the fewest things that will meet the most urgent goals. Even if the committee is in agreement, it will need to bring it to another body for approval. Small change is more palatable than large change. Some will be against any change.

If you follow this path, it should work. It will be time consuming and slow. But change will come.

Am I not interested in truly major changes? Of course I am. I teach a course without lecturing, having made it a Wikipedia course in Behavioral Ecology. I was fascinated by the innovative departmental structures and overall excitement at Arizona State University. But these are not on my current set of goals. And it is not clear to me how to make these major leaps.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Department politics, Life in a biology department, Politics, Undergraduates and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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