Matthew Barr

As a former undergrad at a Changemaker Campus (Marquette University), Matthew Barr is the Program Manager within Ashoka’s Executive in Residence team, where he works to facilitate collaborations between business leaders and social entrepreneurs to create shared value opportunities between the corporate and citizen sectors.

The Leaders Disrupting Higher Education, and What We Can Learn from Them

In 1999, somewhere in northcentral Wisconsin, there was a boy about 8 years old who wanted to be a neurosurgeon when he grew up. He liked the thought because based on what people had told him, that was the most difficult job in the world, and he always admired a challenge. I was that boy.

Like most kids, my “what do I want to be when I grow up” answer changed, I graduated from Marquette University, an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, and I find myself in a career at Ashoka developing collaborations between social entrepreneurs and executives at fortune 500 companies. Both as an undergraduate at Marquette and now at Ashoka, I have tried to gain insights about the roles different types of leaders play within their organizations, and how this affects the status quo. Recently, my interest has shifted my focus to a group known as Change Leaders – a not-so-secret society of leaders who work at colleges and universities, acting as “intrapreneurs” to advance social innovation education across their entire institution and in higher education more broadly.

In an effort to learn more about these pioneers revolutionizing the higher education system, I interviewed four different Change Leaders located at Changemaker Campuses throughout the United States including: Jay Friedlander, College of the Atlantic, Dr. Pascale Charlot, Miami Dade College, Paul Rogers, George Mason University and Sara Herald, University of Maryland. Each of their institutions are Changemaker Campuses, selected by Ashoka U as exemplars for how higher education can become an ecosystem for social innovation pursuits. Below are the lessons I learned about who these leaders are, what has made them successful, and their vision for the future of higher education.

Change Leaders aren’t solely Defined by their Degrees
While the job of a Change Leader is to create learning spaces for social innovation education at academic institutions, each Change Leader I spoke with said they never planned on working in the higher education space. In fact, as it turned out I interviewed a lawyer, two entrepreneurs, and a consultant. And while their backgrounds may not sound like the traditional approach to entering employment at a university, each of the Change Leaders I spoke with believed their previous work experience was a critical step in their journey to becoming effective leaders in the academic space. For instance, Sara Herald, a former consultant explains, “it is important to have experience outside of higher education, because it is such an unique ecosystem, that if this was the only place that you worked, it would be very hard to understand some of the other sectors that ultimately we want our students to disrupt.” Given the diverse backgrounds, skills and interests of their students, it is important for Change Leaders to bring a wide breadth of experiences into their role in order to support students and help them achieve their maximum potential.

Change Leaders Know Why They Do What They Do
While this lesson may seem generic, look no further than Pascale Charlot’s take on how important it is for Change Leaders to dig deep and truly understand what they are trying to achieve before engaging the university space. She said, “Having served at three schools, I see higher education as a bureaucratic and complex political system. The best thing you can do for yourself before entering it is to get really clear about what matters to you, who you are, and why you want to be there. Knowing what that is, will help you be more impactful while staying true to yourself inside of the culture of any institution.”

Consider a Change Leader’s day-to-day role. Paul Rogers for example, teaches young adults not just how to write, but how to express, through writing, what matters most to them. Yes, Sara Herald teaches the basic tenets of business to her students, but she also prepares them to create long term positive impact in the world. An analogy from Jay illuminates this point: “You can be a Change Leader as a policy person, as a farmer, or artist. What you are excited about is to pursue those [careers] through Change Leadership. The career is simply a perspective, or lens, but in order to make the lens really powerful, you need something to shine through it. Your passion for Change Leadership is the light that shines into the lens.”

Change Leaders Understand their Environment
While higher education is a place that produces innovation, often the institution itself can be rather slow moving. In fact, Paul lays out a simple formula that is helpful to visualize how the Change Leader (CL) is able to succeed in effectively changing this environment.

CL = 50% Team Player + 50% Disrupter

As a team player, a Change Leader must bring people together to find a shared understanding of what different departments (and the university) are trying to achieve. This often looks like some form of “translation,” because while individual stakeholder’s articulation of the problem might be different, they are actually working toward the same solution – they just don’t know it yet. Conversely, when playing the role of disrupter, Change Leaders must find a balance between the ideas themselves and how hard to push for their execution. Ultimately, being able to empathize with colleagues, recognize an institution’s traditions, and find the right way to propose changes is the critical combination needed to be a successful disrupter in the university space.

Change Leaders Envision an Evolved University
Part of a Change Leader’s responsibility is to look ahead, and envision how the future of higher education will be influenced by social innovation. While most expect that social innovation will become embedded deeper into the makeup of higher education, they ultimately stressed the need for higher education to more clearly distinguish its value proposition to its stakeholders. For instance, Sara Herald believes, “at some point, parents and students are going to say enough is enough with the tuition increases.” She went on to mention how looking at higher education across the globe, you see a much different value proposition being communicated to students. One that is void of the beautiful state of the art buildings, sports entertainment options, and other experiences often expected from the college “experience” in the United States. Instead, Change Leaders are working towards a future where the value of a university is measured on its ability to design learning experiences that empower students to create social impact, and solve the greatest problems of our time.

Personally, I agree with their predictions. I picture a future where the “walls” between academic institutions and the communities that surround them will begin to blur. And more than ever, students will be able to apply the knowledge their learning to solving problems outside their classrooms, as much as they do inside. Of course this shift won’t be for everyone, and change will take time, but no matter what the field of higher education looks like in ten or twenty years, after speaking with these four Change Leaders it’s clear that each of them and their Change Leader colleagues will have a significant hand in its evolution.

While the Ashoka U network consists of over 250 institutions and continues to grow, they are always looking to learn more about academia and the leaders transforming the higher education system. If you are a Change Leader – whether formally in title or simply in practice – and have lessons to share, please comment here, or email the team at

A special thank you to the four Change Leaders I interviewed:
Dr. Pascale Charlot, Dean, The Honors College, Miami Dade College
Jay Friedlander, Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green & Socially Responsible Business, College of the Atlantic
Sara Herald, Associate Director, Social Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland
Paul Rogers, Associate Professor of English and Associate Chair of the English Department, George Mason University

As a former undergrad at a Changemaker Campus (Marquette University), Matthew Barr is the Program Manager within Ashoka’s Executive in Residence team, where he works to facilitate collaborations between business leaders and social entrepreneurs to create shared value opportunities between the corporate and citizen sectors.