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Author: Lynn Gillette, PhD

Last November, I gave an invited plenary session at the Lilly International Conference on College Teaching on how we transformed Sierra Nevada College (SNC) to embrace active learning, undergraduate research, and the scholarship of teaching. In only a few years, SNC transformed from a culture of little engaged learning and low expectations of students to active learning, undergraduate research, student competitions and symposiums, flipped classrooms, and faculty scholarship on teaching. In short, we transformed SNC by focusing on student learning, and the resulting change in academic quality drove a doubling of undergraduate enrollment, a tripling of net undergraduate tuition revenue, increased retention, and financial sustainability.

A turnaround of this magnitude is rare in any industry, especially in higher education. How did we do it?

When I became Provost in May 2008, I knew we needed to raise academic quality, increase expectations of students, and embrace active learning. However, it is difficult for faculty to change the way they teach. The change could not be top down. Faculty had to take the lead.

I had to create a sense of urgency. I decided to leverage experts on student learning. I chose three faculty members to attend the 2008 Lilly Conference. I told them that I would pay all expenses and that I wanted them to present what they learned at our next faculty development workshop. I wanted them to interpret for themselves what they were learning at the conference, so I did not attend. This accomplished exactly what I had hoped it would. It helped them see that there was a great deal about student learning and great teaching that they did not know, and it motivated them to want to change the way they taught.

In terms of leading change, the conference (1) started the critical process of building a sense of urgency that the way SNC was teaching was no longer good enough, (2) identified a group that informally served as a guiding coalition leading the change, (3) gave a picture of what SNC could become, (4) provided training to empower faculty, and (5) provided short-term wins when faculty tried new active learning techniques that worked.

In 2009, four faculty members attended the Lilly Conference. I did not. The conference had the same impact as in 2008. Momentum for our change was building.

In 2010, five faculty members attended Lilly. I attended because I felt we had sufficient urgency about embracing active learning that I should spend time with faculty to move our change dramatically forward. Each night at the conference, we had dinner to discuss what we had learned and how we might make changes back on campus. One night, I floated the idea of undergraduate research. I said I would provide funding and was looking for a champion to lead it. The following Monday morning, I had one of the five come by my office to say that she wanted to take the lead. By the spring of 2011, we had our first undergraduate research symposium. The change to active learning was taking off.

For active learning to become a part of our culture, we now needed to move into the scholarship of teaching, where our faculty presented what they were doing to engage students. From 2011 to 2014, SNC faculty gave 22 presentations at Lilly Conferences. Although I had become president of SNC in 2011, I presented as well, because I wanted to communicate to our faculty the importance of engaged learning.

We did indeed transform the college. The key driver was leveraging the expertise provided by the Lilly Conference. However, we also: (1) brought master teachers to campus to give workshops on active learning; (2) provided funding for undergraduate research, student academic competitions, student symposiums, and conference presentations; and (3) constantly communicated the importance of student learning and engaging students. The most essential thing that we did was build trust and be patient. We allowed time for faculty to discuss, disagree, and argue over the pros and cons of active learning. In short, we gave space for the messy two-way communication that was so important.

In retrospect, it is amazing how well this change worked. I have experienced top-down change, and the resistance can be agonizing. In terms of John Kotter’s framework for leading change we were successful because we:

Engaged learning is now the culture at Sierra Nevada College.

Lynn Gillette is the former president of Sierra Nevada College. On March 11, he will lead the Magna Online Seminar “How to Effectively Lead Change in Higher Education.” For information, see www.magnapubs.com/online-seminars/how-to-effectively-lead-change-in-higher-education-13361-1.html.