Given the climate in which theological schools operate, search committees would do well to include this recent special report from The Chronicle of Higher Education in the packages they send to newly chosen leaders. The time when new heads of schools could expect a honeymoon phase is long past.

The 28-page report is titled Preparing for Tough Conversations: How to Set the Stage for Major Change on Your Campus. And at theological schools, tough conversations are bound to take place. “Any leader who hasn’t faced an existential crisis on his or her campus most likely will,” the introduction warns.

Change is a fact of organizational life. In the words of the late J. Irwin Miller, CEO of Cummins Engine and long-time board chair at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, “Organization is reorganization and that’s all there is to say about organization.”

The author of the report, Lee Gardner, notes that the unique nature of higher education, especially the tradition of shared governance, “introduces variables that standard corporate counsel simply doesn’t cover.” This report helps fill that gap in the literature.

In search of practical advice on managing major change, Gardner turned to the presidents, consultants, and scholars whom he has met during his time as a Chronicle senior reporter. He organizes his material under three headings — laying the groundwork, making the case, and committing to change — each illustrated with a case study told in a different president’s words. Sidebar takeaways ensure that even the busiest of readers get the gist of the report.

Gardner projects a hopeful tone, encouraging campus leaders to envision a brighter future for their schools. He assures readers that campus leaders who manage critical changes with skill build “relationship capital” for future challenges. 

And therein lies my only criticism. 

Increasingly, newcomers to campus leadership are faced with the problems caused by predecessors who were not skillful in managing change. Often, new leaders don’t have time to cultivate relationships and build a team that’s “on board and aligned” with what needs to be done, or to accomplish any of the other foundational “must-dos” described in the report. Had Gardner included a section specific to the plight of new leaders thrown into the deep end of messy situations, this would be an even more useful resource. 

This is a minor flaw, however, and it doesn’t detract from the report’s overall value for institutional leaders. Board members in particular can benefit from reading about Gardner’s advocacy for faculty involvement and, if they are invited into the conversation, what they can contribute at each stage of change management. “Thanks to shared governance, faculty members, especially, can prove your biggest allies — or your most stubborn opponents — and you must determine how best to engage them,” Gardner writes. “It’s neither helpful nor productive to assume that engagement with the faculty will result in stereotypical suspicion, resistance, and stasis.”

With the proverbial wolf huffing at the door, the chirpy advice of organizational gurus touting innovation, risk-taking, and daring to fail is about as helpful as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Fortunately, Gardner brings none of that to Preparing for Tough Conversations, laying out instead surprisingly simple, campus-tested strategies for managing major change. He acknowledges in the introduction that “knowledge may not make tough conversations easy” but adds hopefully that “it should improve chances of success.” For beleaguered campus leaders, that’s as good an offer as they’re likely to get.  

Preparing for Tough Conversations: How to Set the Stage for Major Change on Your Campus, by Lee Gardner (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2019, 28 pp., $79).

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