Angie Fuessel, EdD

Angie is the Director of Changemaker Campus and the lead for the Ashoka U Senior Leaders’ Experience.

13 Calls to Action for Leading Systems Change On Campus for Impact: Reflections from the 2020 Ashoka U Senior Leaders’ Experience

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”

-Peter Drucker

Senior leaders on college and university campuses around the world are being tested like never before, both individually and institutionally. That’s why when we convened senior leaders virtually in a special track at the 2020 Ashoka U Exchange, we were anxious to provide them a “space” to pause— even if for a few brief hours —to reflect on the current landscape while being thoughtful about change going forward.

The eighth Senior Leaders’ Experience (SLE) conducted April 16-17, 2020 brought together more than 70 global senior leaders (from associate dean to trustee) as well as thought leaders and ecosystem partners in higher education.

The first day of the SLE focused on making sense of the changing landscape and drivers, including our internal purposes and external trends, pushing higher education towards systems change for the greater good. The second day focused on exploring the systems that need change—whether on campus or across the sector—and the type of leadership needed to do so.

The conversations throughout the two days were rich beyond our expectations. As such, we’d like to share about four sessions from the Senior Leaders’ Experience and the thirteen calls to action gleaned across the two days. Special thanks Ashoka U Exchange co-host University of St Thomas, Sponsor Martini Education and Opportunity Trust, and our guest panelists.

Why Storytelling. The spark, let alone fuel for changemaking, comes from deep inner work and connecting with purpose. In this session, three student leaders shared their changemaker stories, serving as both an inspiration for senior leaders of the need for changemaker education, as well as a springboard for reconnecting with their own purpose for reimagining higher education through breakouts.

Insights on Student Changemaking Identity. The student changemaker identities were sparked by personal life experiences, observations of systemic injustice, and peer community and stories of changemaking. They were drawn to their universities for a variety of reasons: one because the university was designated an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus and another because a faculty member was willing to acknowledge the need for change on campus and have difficult conversations to address it.

Calls to Action:

  • Be open and curious about institutional change and what it could look like rather than assuming systems are too large to change. Reflect on your own internalized racism and colonialism and how these may be unconsciously getting in the way of serving students. Show up to student events and ask questions. (Sofía Leyva Lundberg)
  • Provide mentorship to students to provide structure and activate their agency.  (Yanniz Valadez Cortés)
  • Consider what percentage of your students are changemakers and help grow changemaking on your campus. (Jayden De Armas)

Innovating Education & Employment Systems. Coauthor of The Innovation Imperative and author of The Edge, Goldie Blumenstyk noted the increasing imperatives for technology infrastructure, open education resources, and lower-cost and shorter-term educational options in light of the pandemic. Janet Salm added that the labor market and higher education will never be the same. She contended that as we (re)design systems, they need to serve the most vulnerable; innovation can trickle up, but it isn’t guaranteed to trickle down. More than ever, we need affordable education, targeted credentials, and better connections between education and workforce systems.

Redesigning for Lifelong Learning. Laurie Forcier factored lifelong learning into the equation. She referenced the Pearson Global Learners’ Survey, which explored the perspectives of approximately 11k learners across 19 countries, aged 16-70. She noted that respondents highly valued education and that it played an important role in shaping their identity. Yet, respondents in many geographies indicated waning confidence in higher education and a complacency in upskilling. She emphasized that taking lifelong learning seriously will require lower cost solutions and new business models.

Innovating through Intergenerational Collaboration. Drawing on her work in youth and innovation, Ilona Dougherty noted youth are more than learners and developmentally at their prime to be creative, collaborative, and innovative. In the context of rapid change and complexity, she believes that intergenerational innovation—leveraging the innovation insights of youth and the strategic planning, critical thinking, and project management skills of those with more experience—is an economic and social imperative.

Calls to Action:

  • Figure out your mission and hold to your values, which will be more crucial than ever as institutions will not be able to be all they ever hoped. (Goldie Blumenstyk)
  • Promote inter-generational collaboration and engage youth and students in decision-making so your institution can be agile. (Ilona Dougherty)
  • Don’t go back to the old normal. This moment is an opportunity to do the things you’ve long known are right to truly serve your mission. (Janet Salm)
  • Think beyond content delivery and experiment with new models to support learning (e.g., peer learning arrangements and different types of cohort models). (Laurie Forcier)

Epistemologies for Public Engagement. Mathew Johnson, who directs the Carnegie Elective Classification in Community Engagement, observed that universities are in a pivotal moment, with the option to lean in or turn away from public engagement. He noted that public purpose has always been core to the role of academic institutions and argued that epistemologies that include lived experience and co-creation of knowledge with students and the community are needed to fulfill that.

Structures and Measures for Integrated Education. Drawing from his work in incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals into teaching and research and designing integrated curricular and co-curricular experiences like the Hatchery, Jay Friedlander emphasized the importance of enabling students to merge their interests and education to change the world. He encouraged senior administrators to give faculty and students greater latitude to do so and cautioned that narrow measures reduce educational outcomes. 

Standards for Impact. Juliane Iannarelli noted that strategic direction is the starting point for assessments. She shared how AACSB’s Final Proposed 2020 Business Accreditation Standards include a focus on engagement, innovation, and impact and have been guided by AACSB’s “A Collective Vision for Business Education”. She and Mathew both emphasized the need for external recognitions and accreditations to use flexible standards to achieve impact outcomes in institution-specific ways that cultivate institutional diversity.

Calls to Action

  • Be laser-focused on your mission and purpose. Use what is happening today to question false barriers. (Juliane Iannarelli)
  • Open tenure and promotion processes so faculty can engage students and community members as co-creators. Create pathways for faculty to experiment with knowledge creation. (Mathew Johnson)
  • Remove barriers to allow for more integrative curricular and co-curricular experiences where students get credit for experiential, impact work. (Jay Friedlander)

Research. Anita Baggio noted the pandemic is revealing how interconnected our systems are. As we grapple with crisis, we are more humble, realizing we don’t have all the answers. This is calling forth systems change leadership—letting go of our egos and collaborating and co-creating at new levels. She introduced recent research co-led by McKinsey and Ashoka on the worldview and core competencies of system change leaders.

Practice. Building on this, Valeria Budinich noted systems change leadership is the practice of seeing the world as a collective experience. Citing insights from an Ashoka Fellow example, she emphasized having a purpose that moves beyond self and enabling everyone to contribute and co-create value together. She noted that system change leadership must be a verb, rather than a noun. We all have an important role in enabling changemaking to scale.

Implementation in Higher Ed. Philip Steenkamp noted that the interdependence of systems is highlighted both in the current pandemic and in pre-COVID issues of climate crisis, growing inequality, and conflict. He called for academic institutions to step into challenges and employ unprecedented levels of collaboration, innovation, and systemic solutions. This means a fundamental change in university structures, processes, and cultures. Sharing from his work at Royal Roads University, he emphasized the importance of clarity of vision and purpose as well as values to align—and push—the culture of the institution. He noted the importance of universities removing silos, hierarchies, and sub-cultures that prevent experimentation and iteration.

Calls to Action:

  • Use connections with Ashoka, Ashoka Fellows, and peer networks to learn through experience and exchanges. Look for role models. Identify projects on campus, codify leading practices, and establish coaching and mentoring. (Anita Baggio)
  • Create “containers” for faculty and students to venture into the unknown together to address real problems on topics that are not as safe, protected, or siloed. Enable conversations, stories, and cases around collective value creation for systems change to accelerate the emergence of this worldview and culture. (Valeria Budinich)
  • Within the institution, find pockets of opportunity to influence structural change that promotes courage to act, fail, and iterate. Beyond the institutional context, focus less on university ego and brand, find non-traditional players, and collaborate using networked approaches. (Philip Steenkamp)

Additional Ashoka U Opportunities for Senior Leaders

Stay tuned for more information about our upcoming Senior Leader Huddles, a series of virtual convenings to be launched this summer with the generous support of Martini Education and Opportunity Trust.

In the meantime, check out a new digital series Stanford Social Innovation Review recently launched in collaboration with Ashoka U, “Innovating Higher Education for the Greater Good.” Discover key trends and lessons from changemaking colleges and universities in the launch article, “Leadership, Resilience, and Higher Education’s Promise”, that Marina Kim and I co-authored. And follow weekly case articles with inspiring stories, strategies, and lessons of change and innovation that bring new value to students, the institution, and society.