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Design Thinking in Higher Education, Part Two: Addressing Collegewide Challenges

Leadership and Management

Design Thinking in Higher Education, Part Two: Addressing Collegewide Challenges

In the first article in this series, we defined and explained the concept of design thinking for higher education settings and described how our college-level administrative team used the framework for collaborative professional development.

To review, Brown (2019) offers a three-phase design thinking framework made up of inspiration, ideation, and implementation. During the inspiration phase, the problem is identified and elucidated (see Figure 1). During the ideation phase, solutions to the problem are brainstormed and refined. During the implementation phase, solutions are piloted and modified until the desired impact is achieved. Each phase requires active engagement by individuals and teams as well as constant consideration of the institution’s overall systems since systems influence the problem—and possible solutions.

Circle of arrows illustrating design thinking.
Figure 1. Design thinking framework

Firsthand accounts of successful design thinking

With this brief review of the design thinking framework, we each offer a specific, firsthand account of how we used inspiration, ideation, and implementation to achieve a desired impact related to our specific college-level responsibilities.

College-wide leadership

Transitioning into a new leadership role is challenging. In June 2021, I (Jessica) began my tenure as dean of Bradley University’s College of Education and Health Sciences (EHS). The college had a history of inequality related to workload practices and rapid growth that caused discrepancies in standard practices across departments. My inspiration came from my background as a healthcare provider familiar with triage tactics. As a nurse, I was trained to focus on people who needed my professional skills to discern unarticulated needs. By engaging directly with faculty, staff, and students during meetings, social events, and day-to-day activities, I came to better understand the varying perspectives and needs of the individuals who make up EHS, which in turn helped me better understand the needs of the college overall.

The ideation phase took the form of engaging with individuals both campus and community wide, which paved the foundation for external partnerships, a restructured EHS advisory board, and stronger alignment between college and university priorities. This led to a college-wide assessment during fall 2021, where we collected numerous data to write a first draft of a college-wide strategic plan. During fall 2022, we shared the draft with internal and external constituents, using their feedback to refine the plan by including baseline data for every strategic goal. We shared the final version with all college faculty and staff in spring 2023, made final revisions during summer 2023, and implemented the five-year plan in August 2023. While the process took longer than expected, I am confident that the strategic plan reflects the priorities identified by both internal and external stakeholders and proves ambitious enough to “move the needle” toward achieving the college’s highest priorities.

Daily operations

Today’s colleges and universities grapple with challenges that pose significant threats to traditional business models and financial stability. Some threats—such as a decline in traditional enrollments, rising costs, and the perceived value of a college education—we saw coming, but no one could have predicted how the COVID-19 pandemic would accelerate their impacts. EHS recognized these challenges in a fundamentally different way. One such example occurred in fall 2021 when Bradley transformed the structure of its administrative operations university wide.

As the assistant dean for administration and finance, I (Cara) was responsible for facilitating our college-wide transition during summer 2021. Specifically, EHS was tasked with moving from a decentralized to centralized deployment of administrative support personnel. For decades, each unit within EHS employed individuals who identified closely—even exclusively—with their department, making centralized administrative support a seismic shift from traditional operations. The change was met with confusion, fear, and opposition, resulting in the loss of long-time personnel and the hiring of an entirely new administrative support team.

While our inspiration was the campus-wide mandate to centralize operations, ideation and implementation were rooted in design thinking. Jessica and I met numerous times with the college administrative personnel to discuss what centralized administrative support might look like and design a more centralized approach to workflow, workspaces, and delegation of duties. To leverage their perspectives, we explored individuals’ feelings, attitudes, and strengths as we pondered our new structure.

The transition took time. In fall 2021, we relocated support personnel to a central suite of offices to foster community and synergy. While this was necessary to ensure the support team’s effectiveness, we soon discovered that the EHS academic departments felt alienated from support. In January 2022, we responded by redeploying administrative support staff to department reception areas to ensure proximity and reaffirm the availability of support. Each administrative support team member now has both a front-facing workspace in an academic department and a private workspace in proximity to other support personnel, allowing each one to serve both department and college. We continue to adjust our operations as needed. A brief, daily meeting of all EHS administrative support is one useful strategy for maintaining open lines of communication, holding everyone accountable, and mobilizing to complete unexpected or urgent tasks when needed.

Curriculum development

As associate dean for academic affairs, one of my (Jana’s) major responsibilities is overseeing the curriculum development process. For decades, EHS has offered a health minor that provides an opportunity for undergraduate students in any major to develop knowledge of personal and community health. When reviewing enrollment data in fall 2020, however, we noticed that most students enrolled in the health minor were majors in health-related disciplines within our own college! In talking to students and their major advisors, we learned that the health minor was perceived by students as “easy” and by advisors as not having a clear purpose.

Hence, we were inspired to create a health minor that was interdisciplinary beyond the health professions to enhance the electives in the minor as well as attract more students from outside EHS. We also sought to ensure that the minor had both a clear purpose and academic rigor. Two of us took the lead in developing an initial redesign plan and sharing it with the entire executive team. When one department expressed apprehension about the direction we were taking, we sat down together with department representatives to address their concerns before presenting the plan to faculty outside EHS.

The ideation process continued campus wide, with one-on-one meetings between me and department chairs in biology, psychology, sociology, communications, and economics. From these conversations, EHS collaboratively developed two distinct concentrations for the minor—personal health as well as community and professional health—along with a one-semester-hour practicum course where students would set and pursue a health-related goal. By the end of the process, faculty across campus with an interest in the health minor had both contributed to its development and provided written letters of support for the planned modifications. The health minor modification progressed through our university-wide curriculum approval protocols without incident, and the new minor was launched in fall 2023.

Distance education

As an associate professor of nursing and associate dean for distance education in EHS, I (Deb) am proud to say that Bradley is highly respected regionally for its robust bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program. Several years ago, however, we also offered on-campus master of science in nursing (MSN) programs in nursing administration and nursing education, but enrollment in these programs had decreased to the extent that we considered closing them. Our inspiration to try something different was intensified by the increased need for advanced practice nurses due to the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010.

The ideation phase started with a nursing faculty member who had an adult child taking an online course in an online nursing program at another university. Intrigued, the college dean at that time and several nursing faculty met to discuss the potential of developing online nursing programs at Bradley. After receiving permission to pursue the idea, we collaborated with an online partner to identify market needs and worked with units across campus to obtain the permissions needed to offer online programs and to develop implementation strategies and infrastructures. Within the Department of Nursing, we developed curriculum and worked with our online partner to build the online courses for each program.

In fall 2015, we launched our first four online nursing graduate programs. Since then, we have launched six more, plus an online master’s degree program in counseling and an online doctoral program in educational leadership. Currently, over 900 graduate students are enrolled in EHS online and distance education programs, and more are being planned.

Student success

EHS recently received a call to improve our first-year student retention rate and increase interdisciplinary experiences for students. As associate dean for student support, I (Rachel) was eager to take the lead. Ideation occurred over several months. Our college advisory board, the EHS executive team, and faculty in all EHS departments sought student input and learned that students in EHS felt that they did not have a class early in their college experience that helped them understand how to ask questions, explore topics, and engage in meaningful discussions with their peers. In response, I developed a brief for faculty review and discussion at the department level.

With faculty support, a committee convened to test several prototypes. We contemplated questions about the ideal number of semester hours for a first-year seminar, whether the seminar should be required or elective, and how to make it eligible to meet Bradley’s core curriculum requirements. Students wanted a one-semester-hour elective course that counted toward Bradley’s core curriculum, but this had to be balanced with faculty needs. EHS faculty had recently received a course load reduction to achieve equity with faculty across the university. Thus, teaching a one-semester-hour seminar would put faculty at 10 credit hours instead of the equitable nine. We discussed several solutions, but with faculty input we decided to offer a monetary stipend for faculty who taught the first-year seminar on overload.

We implemented the EHS first-year seminars in fall 2022, and we have already had to return to ideation. For example, we created student-centered messaging to attract first-year students during summer registration, and we believe faculty may need professional development that focuses on teaching first-year students. We are currently collecting data to help us understand how to further improve the first-year seminar program.

Positive impact

In each of these accounts, positive impact is the desired outcome.In Change by Design,Brown reminds us to “aim for ‘groundbreaking ideas’ as opposed to incremental changes” (p. 5).When using design thinking, higher education leaders may develop fewer projects and objectives, but those they champion are more likely to have a positive and lasting impact.


Through what began as a collaborative professional development experience (see part one of this series), our college-level administrative team confirmed Brown’s assurance that “the skills that make for a great design thinker . . . all can be learned” (p. 92). Now, we encourage other higher education leaders to give design thinking a try. Regardless of whether your college or university is public or private, large or small, urban or rural, academic or technical, the design thinking process of inspiration, ideation, and implementation can help your administrative team address challenges, support continuous improvement, and effectively lead others in making a positive impact.


Brown, T. (2019). Change by design, revised and updated. HarperCollins.

Jana Hunzicker, EdD, is the associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.

Deborah Erickson, PhD, is the associate dean for distance education in the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University.

Rachel Vollmer, PhD, is the associate dean for student success in the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University.

Cara Burritt, MBA, is the assistant dean for administration and finance in the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University.

Jessica Clark, DNP, is dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University.


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