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The Art of Framing in Academic Settings

Leadership and Management

The Art of Framing in Academic Settings

Have you ever witnessed a keynote address in which a new university president shared such an inspiring and imaginative future strategy that you wished you were a part of that institution’s implementation team? Innovative thinkers who transform their vision into eloquent language can have that effect on their audiences. Assuming no bad behavior, how would one explain that two years later that same institution has launched a presidential search? One could list several reasons for this, including personal or family illness or an attractive offer elsewhere. However, in some cases the failure is due to the inability to implement the plan to achieve the vision. This failure would not only disappoint the president but would also be a blow to the governing board, faculty, and students who brought this individual to campus.

If you have not personally seen an example like this, perhaps there are smaller versions that have taken place on your home campus. Perhaps a department sought to raise its research profile by bringing in a dean from a prominent institution, but the dean has failed to deliver; or a new chair arrives with the promise of enhancing the department’s civic engagement profile but after three years has little to show for the effort. Both were carefully vetted prior to hiring, had been successful at their prior institutions, and were provided with the requisite resources to get the jobs done; they were expected to deliver.

So what may have happened in these cases? Why would capable people with great ideas and good initial support crash and burn? In cases like these, the leaders are agents of change. The prospect for change presents a challenge for everyone, although the tolerance for it varies immensely among individuals. At one end of the spectrum, there are individuals who seem open to the consideration of almost any reasonable idea, while at the other end there are those who oppose, outright, anything new or different.

It also seems true that all change generates resistance. Resistance can be strong enough to derail the best of ideas. Thus, change agents need to anticipate and avoid or defuse it in order to be successful. Perhaps the above examples of failed reform can be traced to inattention to the preliminary work of finding pathways to success while taking into account the local variables.

Making sense of complex organizations in order to lead within them (and higher education institutions are very complex organizations with many subcultures) is called framing. The concept of framing was developed for applications in business but is also applicable to higher education (Bolman and Gallos). Framing allows the leader or change agent to examine the impact of the initiative in the four frames of the organization before beginning the change process. Examining the change agenda through multiple lenses or frames allows the leader to identify structural obstacles, change directions, avoid alienating key people needed for support, avoid violating policies, amass support, avoid political missteps, and promote blending into local culture and tradition.

The structural lens or frame consists of policies, procedures, and practices; the chain of command; how authority is distributed; and the like. This includes who approves new initiatives, an important thing to know if there is an agenda for change. An example might be the dean of engineering who fosters the development of a new course in software engineering to accompany a new research focus, only to learn, when the course goes through the approval process, the computer science department in another school on campus has a graduate course that covers this area. Because of the institution’s ban on course duplication, the initiative fails. In many regards, this is an easy frame to deal with if the leader has good people around who know the rules and if the leader is not so brazen to think he or she can have his or her way in spite of standing policy.

The people frame is one that examines the impact of change on individuals. Changing the undergraduate or graduate curricula, adding graduate programs where previously only undergraduate programs existed, adding research expectations, and changing the student advising model all have implications for faculty workloads. Dealing with the frame takes soft skills on the part of the leader. Being open and transparent about why the change is being made will promote trust, and offering resources to help with the transition will go a long way to help relieve faculty and staff angst. In some cases, retraining and assurances of continued value will be part of the equation. Failure here can lead to several types of resistance that can scuttle the initiative.

Viewing the change agenda through a political lens requires significant insight, careful forethought, and planning on the part of the leader. Regardless of the level of the leader, there are immediate clusters of personnel who represent the first wave of those who must be brought into the fold of supporting the initiative. A president may have to take this approach with a cluster of deans who represent many diverse schools, each with a unique blend of missions, cultures, values, aspirations, and ways of conducting business. Similarly, a dean would have to gain the support of faculty chairs as the first steps to success. The true complexity of higher education is most evident when considering change through the political frame.

The political frame is marked not only by complexity but also by the fact that it constitutes the most treacherous terrain in implementing an agenda for change. Bolman and Gallos suggest a basic “political” approach for survival. After setting the goals for the initiative, the leader must carefully identify those who would be impacted, decide who would support and who would oppose, and estimate the influence of each of these players. Once done, the leader then begins to establish a support base by forming coalitions and cultivating those who are judged to be neutral or uncommitted while providing arguments for those who raise issues in opposition. There are even cases where bargaining (quid pro quo) can come into play if the initiative is critical. After all, we are talking about politics here. It is also important that the change agent stay in close contact with those who are opposed so that elements of strategy and patterns of behavior can be closely observed. Finally, the leader must learn from these experiences because a similar scenario is likely to recur, perhaps with supporter and antagonist roles reversed.

Bolman and Gallos suggest three “Ps” for successfully implementing a change agenda. The first is being persistent in using every opportunity to promote, to explain the necessity for, and to cite the benefits of the initiative. This can be done in campus-wide addresses and even individual conversations in the hallway. Patience is the second virtue that the leader should have. These two behaviors tell the opposition that the leader remains serious about the agenda and that stalling is not going to be an effective mechanism of resistance. The final “P” is that of process: performing all the right steps in the right order according to local policy and tradition. Examples including the many nuances of navigating the political frame would require far too much space to describe here, so we challenge you to apply the principles listed here using a controversial issue or proposition on the home campus.

The symbolic frame is the final lens through which the agenda for change is viewed. Included here are the institution’s traditions, history, values, and even specific rituals. If the leader is new to campus, it will be critical to learn about this aspect of the institution not only to move the agenda forward but also to avoid unnecessarily offending those who hold these things to be inviolable. Change can be promoted through language that ties it to the glories of the past and local core values rather than presenting the agenda as one that changes the “personality” of the institution. This allows those who are closely invested in the institution to embrace change on an emotional level.

While everyone frames decisions to some extent (“Bill certainly wouldn’t like this decision” or “Chemistry would be pleased with this policy”), it is often not done systematically or thoroughly. An observer might say, “Why didn’t she see that coming?” Did the president, in his haste to implement change, fail to take the time to assess the positions of campus deans and work behind the scenes to gain sufficient support? Did the dean of engineering fail to consider that many senior faculty who had not conducted research in decades would need special assurances and support to participate in the new world? Did the engagement chair fail to assess the external partnerships already in existence on campus before contacting community organizations and individuals? Appropriate framing may have been able to prevent these failures. Framing is never perfect (there will always be some unexpected things that will happen), but it can significantly improve the odds of being successful.

Lee Bolman and Joan Gallos, Reframing Academic Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

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