Executive Director for Finance, Planning, and Procurement, Office of Information Technology, University of Colorado Boulder
Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, Metropolitan State University Denver
Office of Institutional Research, Colorado Community College System
College of Engineering and Applied Science Advancement, University of Colorado Boulder
This case focuses on institutional culture and enrollment management strategies. It centers on a leader transitioning to a new organization with a deeply entrenched culture and an urgent call for boosting enrollment to solve a budget crisis. The intent of the case study is to dissect the challenges a leader faces when having to navigate competing calls for increasing enrollment, while improving student success, without the necessary resources for additional support services. The leader also faces resistance from faculty and staff, led by a long-standing department chair.
Keywords: admissions standards, change management, faculty and staff resistance, higher education funding, institutional culture, rural institutions, strategic enrollment management, student success
Cite as: Hutchinson, E., Jaramillo, K., Kalinowski, S., & Lobdell, K. (2021). New kid, old block. Cases on Leadership for Equity and Justice in Higher Education, 2021(4).
Angelica Cooper was selected as the new provost for Colorado Countryside University (CCU), which is located in the southeastern plains part of the state along the borders of New Mexico and Oklahoma. The public, four-year college, founded in 1953, has 1,500 students, 45 permanent faculty members, 70-80 lecturers, and approximately 70 full- and part-time staff. A majority of the students study a variety of majors in the arts and sciences and the rest are almost evenly split up among programs of Mortuary Science, Agricultural Innovation, and Business Administration.
Prior to her arrival at CCU, Provost Cooper served as the president of a slightly smaller community college in rural Alabama for nearly eight years. She had tremendous success in her presidential role where, most notably, she is remembered for her legacy of implementing change that increased admission and persistence rates for underrepresented minorities by 20%. Provost Cooper greatly enjoyed her time as president but wanted to transition professionally to serve an institution as provost, where she could focus more intently on the academic mission of an organization which has always been the motivational driver of her work.
The search for a new provost at CCU, who is responsible for academic affairs and enrollment management, was led by a national search firm, as the president and the board were committed to finding a leader with a successful track record of boosting enrollment. This had become an increasingly important priority of the board, which is motivated to identify and implement new revenue-generating efforts that can address ongoing budget concerns. For the past two years, funding from the state has been flat with little expectation of change in the coming years.
Provost Cooper was not immediately in the market for a new role, as she still had two years left on her presidential contract, but she and her partner had been discussing her goal to get back to a more academic-centric role. Through the recommendation of a former colleague, Provost Cooper was nominated for this role, given her career success and familiarity with rural colleges and universities. She was subsequently contacted by the search firm with an invitation to apply and was eventually offered the job.
During the interview process, Provost Cooper felt very comfortable with the president of CCU, Stanley Hamilton, and felt the two of them would have a strong working relationship. Stanley was willing to help her adjust out of the president role and into the role of provost. He was confident with Provost Cooper’s experience, knowing that he would have a strong leader on his team who had also been in the presidential seat. Because of her particular professional background, Stanley surmised Provost Cooper would be able to relate to him unlike anyone else on his leadership team.
After making the move to CCU, Provost Cooper was ready to begin her role over the summer of 2019, with time to get settled before the start of the academic year. One of her first meetings was with the Chair of the Mortuary Science program, Edgar Smith, whom she later learned was the only other finalist for the provost role and clearly was ultimately not selected. Edgar was collegial in his interaction with her, but based on a few of his comments, she knew it would take time to earn his trust and that of his allies, who feel threatened by the thought of an outsider coming in to tell them how better to attract, retain, and graduate their students. Provost Cooper is aware that President Hamilton had worked at CCU for more than four decades and successfully rose through the ranks. Edgar, too, has served many years and has demonstrated his commitment to the University, and so she assumes that Edgar must wonder why he was not selected for the opportunity.
Although her first interaction with Edgar was not ideal, everyone else at CCU is very welcoming. Provost Cooper knew there were big expectations for her to work quickly on the goals of making quick changes necessary to increase enrollment. Several options had been proposed, including lowering admission standards to cast a wider net for potential students, targeting new demographic groups—which had worked well at her prior institution, and building an external relationship with the school districts to create a more formal student pipeline to the college. In her quest to achieve the pressing goal to increase enrollment, Provost Cooper needed to find a solution that managed faculty expectations of students while addressing the need to also generate the tuition revenue needed to augment the budget, all while confronting numerous other challenges that have become apparent to her since starting in this new role.
She began the process by consulting with President Hamilton, to learn more background on the institution and identify the key players and potential barriers she would need to overcome. It was during this conversation that she learned Edgar Smith had been the other finalist for the provost role. The president told her, although Edgar was very opinionated, if she could win him over, she would be able to win over the entire campus. According to the president, Edgar has a substantial amount of power but does not quite know the best way to use it, which is one of the main reasons why he was not selected for the provost position. President Hamilton encouraged Provost Cooper to immerse herself in the campus and to meet and learn from everyone over the first couple of months as she formulated her strategy. That said, he also made it clear that she should not wait too long, as severe budget issues were imminent.
One strategy she employed to accomplish meeting the campus community was to invite any and all faculty and staff members to schedule time to meet with her. During these individual meetings, Provost Cooper’s goal was multi-layered: learn more about them as people, gain understanding of the culture at CCU, and offer an opportunity for faculty and staff to share their overall feedback about what was going well at CCU related to enrollment and the academic mission. More importantly, she wanted to hear their critical feedback, which would help her identify areas to focus her efforts.
Issues of Higher Education in Rural Communities
Rural four-year institutions serve a diverse population with specific challenges, and CCU is no different. As with nearly all institutions of higher education, dwindling student enrollments is a major concern for CCU. The university is located in a very rural area where the population has been on a steady decline for several years. Baca County, which is home to CCU, saw a 5.4% decline in the overall population between 2010 and 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). Neighboring counties show similar trends in population decline.
Because students who attend rural four-year colleges like CCU often live far from campus, commuting to class is rarely an option. Therefore, housing students is a significant consideration for rural institutions, and often these institutions issue bonds or accumulate debt to build student dormitories. CCU built a dorm in 2005, through a private/public partnership, that can house up to 250 students. Communications infrastructure can also be a challenge in rural areas, rendering internet connections slow and unreliable and making online course delivery nearly impossible.
Housing for faculty and staff is also a challenge, as availability of affordable housing is often limited, and it can be difficult for spouses of faculty and staff to find employment in the rural community unless both spouses are employed by the college. This can make recruiting and retaining high performing staff and faculty difficult. Notably, rural universities are often the largest employer in their community/area, and CCU is no different. Many faculty and staff have been employed at CCU for well over a decade, and in some cases, several decades.
Over 19% of the Baca County population lives below the poverty line, which is significantly higher than both the state average of 9.3% and the national average of 13.1% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019), and many students enrolled at CCU meet eligibility requirements for Pell grants. Nearly all students attending CCU rely on some form of federal, state, or institutional financial aid. Because part-time jobs outside of the agricultural sector can be hard to find in a rural community, students rely on federal work study and student employment positions on campus. Few opportunities exist for career-expanding internships in the rural communities near CCU, and most students leave the area upon graduation to seek employment in more economically vibrant communities.
Campus leadership is aware that some students come from Spanish-speaking households, but the campus has not been evaluating those data, nor has the campus developed services for bilingual students whose first language is not English. Within Baca County, 84% of residents identify as white. For CCU, 80% of students identify as white, as well as 95% of CCU faculty and staff. Representation of county residents who identified as Hispanic or Latinx for census purposes was at 11% whereas 18% of CCU students identify as Hispanic or Latinx.
Issues of Faculty Ownership of Learning Outcomes
Provost Cooper launched into meeting with faculty, as she knew any solution to the enrollment issue would require their trust and buy-in. She learned the faculty were frustrated with high workloads and dismissive of many proposed solutions to the enrollment crisis, most notably lowering the admission standard to increase access to more students in the area.
Faculty also lamented the issue of federal and state regulations, which generated a significant number of unprepared high school graduates who scored below college level in reading, writing, and mathematics. For the faculty, this has meant that, along with their regular teaching load, faculty who may not be skilled in instructional methodologies must learn to adjust their pedagogy to focus on students who need additional academic support to get them up to speed in a particular class (Kanies, 2014).
While faculty find themselves offering ad-hoc instruction in these areas within their classrooms, they are faced with insufficient resources for necessary developmental support for students who are academically unprepared to be successful. Additionally, the high number of academically underprepared students entering rural colleges and universities already adversely affects retention and graduation rates at CCU. This is an issue for which the faculty feel blamed. They face constant pressure to increase student success.
During Provost Cooper’s tenure as president of the community college in Alabama, she successfully cultivated a culture among faculty, student support services, and staff to help students retain, complete, and graduate. Intending to empower faculty to take ownership of course learning outcomes, Provost Cooper directed faculty to provide appropriate integrated approaches in their teaching strategies to meet the challenges of underprepared students. Provost Cooper also believes the positive results of activities focused on improving students’ basic developmental skills can be demonstrated by adjusting instructional methods and techniques. Moreover, when approaching classroom challenges, faculty must identify the teaching and learning principles and search for practices that follow them, a practice Provost Cooper employed with success in her previous roles.
This charge to faculty was met with resistance, particularly from the Mortuary Science program led by Chair Edgar Smith. He believed academic standards should remain at the current level and stated, “some students simply don’t belong in college.” Regardless of the resistance, Provost Cooper believes that duplicating strategies proven effective with faculty from her previous institution will be just as successful at CCU, regardless of evident faculty push-back.
Issues of Accessibility and Student Success (Persistence)
CCU has maintained a steady rate of enrollment with very little increase in five years and lowering the admission standards to increase access could give the university a boost. However, Provost Cooper’s prior institution was a community college with an open admission policy, so she understands the faculty’s concerns and the challenges associated with serving academically unprepared students. As is true of many open access institutions, graduation and retention rates tend to be significantly lower than at more selective colleges. If students do not succeed, the result can be mounting student debt with nothing to show for it (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020).
Provost Cooper revisited the idea of building relationships with the nearby school districts to strengthen the student pipeline into the college. She wondered if it might also be worthwhile to discuss with them the possibility of creating a summer bridge program that could help increase academic readiness of the students before entering college. She did not know the local leaders, but she knew that President Hamilton would. He’d served for many years on one of the local school boards. He was excited by the idea and set up a meeting with the chair of the nearby school board and the district superintendent.
Provost Cooper recognized that this meeting could be a great opportunity to engage Edgar Smith in the process. By inviting him to the meeting, he would have the opportunity both to share his passion for his department with others as well as work toward enrolling more academically prepared students. She knows that this relationship will be critical to any changes she wants to make. Smith is surprised by and suspicious of her invitation but accepts.
Provost Cooper believed helping the underprepared students was critical to the university’s mission, values, and culture, understanding CCU’s fundamental role and community responsibility is to provide accessible, high-quality, and equitable educational opportunities to meet the diverse needs of students while remaining committed to their success. She knew she must determine how to apply her knowledge of best practices for helping underprepared students at CCU, regardless of whether the decision is made to lower admission standards.
Issues of Budget and Finance
During the interview process, Provost Cooper learned that CCU’s budgetary challenges were largely due to declining student enrollments and flat state funding allocations. She was not too alarmed by this fact, since many institutions of higher education face the same challenges, but she was keenly aware that the board expected the new provost for CCU who could address their persistent enrollment and budget concerns. Provost Cooper’s leadership track record at her previous institution demonstrated that she could move the needle on student enrollments.
During her first days on the job, Provost Cooper learned that the director of admissions had recently been granted an increase in budget for enhanced recruitment efforts in Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Since CCU rarely has discretionary or initiative funding available, this budget increase was achieved by Provost Cooper’s interim-predecessor, who filled the role for nearly two years, cutting and directing budget from the orientation, student support services, and academic advising budgets.
At the urging of Edgar Smith, two academic advisors had been reassigned to serve as admissions staff to help recruit new students from Colorado high schools. The rationale was that the advisors were familiar with the unique degrees (like Mortuary Science) offered at CCU and could really “sell” the programs to students who otherwise would not be interested in the university. It was also rationalized that, because recruiting new students was more expensive when compared to the costs associated with student-support services, it followed that more resources should be allocated to student recruiting. Provost Cooper supported the idea of additional recruitment and admissions resources but was curious about the impact the budget and staff reductions would have on the orientation experience, student support services, and academic advising. These cuts could adversely impact CCU’s already low student retention rates.
As Provost Cooper contemplated other levers that she might have to increase revenue, she consulted with the director of budget and finance, Adam Draper (who had held that role for 17 years and had no intention of retiring anytime soon). Provost Cooper learned that the amount of institutional-funded financial aid was directly tied to tuition revenues, so as revenues increased, the amount of institutional aid increased, but as revenues declined, institutional-funded financial aid decreased as well.
The director warned her that the board would not be willing to decouple aid from revenue and also cautioned that the board would not entertain any ideas to increase tuition rates because they believed CCU students were so price-sensitive that a 2% increase in tuition rates would lead to a 5% reduction in next year’s incoming class. The director of budget and finance proudly pointed out that he had provided the board with that metric in 2009 after conducting a student survey and the board had been referring to it and relying on it ever since.
Given all the circumstances facing CCU, how should Provost Cooper and the rest of the college’s leadership team proceed? What current programs, initiatives, and staffing structures should be maintained, and what should be adjusted? How does Provost Cooper successfully achieve the directives given to her within the existing institutional culture and context?
Instructors should use this case study and teaching notes to examine the complexity of organizational change in higher education through the lens of various cultural and institutional theories. In particular, the teaching notes focus on how culture influences, and sometimes acts as a barrier to, organizational learning and ultimately organizational change. For the purpose of the teaching notes, institutions are assumed to be open systems, which contributes to both the internal and external cultural influences on decision making.
The following discussion questions will allow educational leadership students to critically analyze their organization’s culture and its very real impact on the students and communities they serve, especially with respect to admission standards. Discussion topics will include concepts such as culture, isomorphism, and power. Current and aspiring higher education administrators can also use the questions in this section to practice talking about sensitive topics that are largely left unspoken, what Argyris (1980) called the ‘undiscussables.’
Discussion Questions for Graduate Students
- Through this guided reading session, faculty should explore issues of how the culture at our institutions is affected by the process of isomorphism. The goals of the following questions are for students to think through the norms of their industry and institution and how they may work against meaningful organizational change. Instructors should distribute DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) article, “The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields” for discussion.
- DiMaggio and Powell (1983) postulated that there are three types of isomorphic change that ultimately result in a “startling homogeneity of organizational forms and practices”: coercive isomorphism, mimetic isomorphism, and normative isomorphism. Think about the field of higher education. Discuss how each type of isomorphism has impacted the culture at your current organization? How might this be the same or different at rural institutions? Where do your answers differ from other students’ experiences?
- Discuss how institutional isomorphism might have already impacted the situation at CCU or affected the choice of problems the university has chosen to address.
- How might isomorphism guide or constrain the Provost Cooper’s decision-making choices at CCU?
- This question will explore barriers to organizational change. Instructors may introduce Bauer and Brazer’s (2012) concept of “consequence analysis” to students. The goal of the question is to examine how various stakeholders may respond to the potential changes at Colorado Countryside University.
- Bauer and Brazer’s consequence analysis uses a four-frame structure to critically examine the impact of a planned change. Consider the possible consequences of the provost’s decision from the perspective of the four frames: structural, human resource, political, and symbolic. What barriers might President Hamilton, Edgar Smith, and Adam Draper put up in response to the proposed change of lowering admission standards?
- Would those barriers change if Provost Cooper suggested marketing to untapped demographics?
- Through this guided reading session, faculty should explore the role of power in organizational change. The goal of the following questions is for students to examine how power and power dynamics can hinder or facilitate organizational change. Students should be encouraged to consider their own power in decision making. Instructors should disseminate Lumby’s (2019) article, “Leadership and Power in Higher Education” for discussion.
- Lumby (2019) identified several “subtle forms of power”: creating a favorable impression, shaping discussion and decisions, acquiring the support of others, and weakening opposition. What forms of power did Provost Cooper have when she first came to the university? What about Edgar Smith? The faculty generally?
- What forms of power do you typically use when leading organizational change initiatives at your own institutions? You do not need to limit yourself to the types of power in the Lumby article. What forms of power do you see great leaders use most often? What about bad leaders?
Activities for Professional Development
- Instructors should put educators and administrators into groups. Given that colleges, especially in rural areas, have a considerable impact on the communities they serve, ask them to discuss the potential impacts of raising and/or lowering admission standards on potential students in the area. What impacts might lower the standard have on student success? What impacts might raise the standard have on accessibility to higher education? How could either option impact the community as a whole?
- Continuing in the same groups, discuss the impact the provost’s various decision choices might have on faculty. Faculty at CCU were overworked due to the number of academically unprepared students. Is it the job of faculty to provide this type of additional help or is it the case, as Edgar suggested, that some students “simply don’t belong in college?”
- After discussing the prior two questions, ask students to explore how they, as educators and/or administrators, consider how this case relates to cultural situations at their current organization. Has this type of decision been made at your organizations? If so, what cultural factors influence the decision? Is this a student-centric or faculty-centric decision? Can the competing tensions of student success and accessibility be navigated as Brown-McNair, Albertine, Cooper, McDonald, and Major Jr (2016) suggest?
Argyris, C. (1980). Making the undiscussable and its undiscussability discussable. Public Administration Review 40(3), 205-213. DOI: 10.2307/975372
Bauer, S.C. & Brazer, S.D. (2012). Using research to lead school improvement: Turning evidence into action. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Brown-McNair, T., Albertine, S., Asha Cooper, M., McDonald, N. & Major Jr., T. (2016). Becoming a student-ready college: A new culture of leadership for student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
DiMaggio, P.J. & Powell, W.W. (1983). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review 48(2), 147-160. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2095101?origin=JSTOR-pdf
Kanies, J.D. (2014, April 25). Critical issues facing college faculty. Reforming Edu: Connecting Educational Theory to Practice. https://reformingedu.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/critical-issues-facing-college-faculty/
Lumby, J. (2019). Leadership and power in higher education. Studies in Higher Education 44(9), 1619-1629. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1458221
National Center for Education Statistics (April 2020). Undergraduate retention and graduation rates. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/ bacacountycolorado
U.S. Census Bureau (2019). Quick Facts. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/bacacountycolorado
About the Authors
Erin Hutchinson is the Associate Director for Academic Resource Analysis in the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Erin has over fourteen years of experience in the areas of higher education administration, budget, and finance and is in the second year doctor of education degree (leadership for equity in higher education) at CU Denver.
Karen Jaramillo is a doctoral student at University of Colorado, Denver studying Educational Leadership and Equity, Higher Education. She is Affiliate Faculty at Metropolitan State University, Denver within the Department of Chicana/o Studies. Additionally, Karen is dedicated to the work of equity in leadership and education by serving on the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s Equity Champions Coalition and President of the Doctoral Students of Color at UC Denver
Samantha Kalinowski is the Director of Institutional Research & Business Intelligence at the Colorado Community College System. Samantha has over 15 years of research and data analytics experience, 11 years of which has been spent in the higher education field. She is in the second year of a Doctor of Education degree, with an emphasis on leadership for equity in higher education, at CU Denver.
Kevin Lobdell currently serves as the senior director of alumni engagement and donor relations in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. He has degrees from Clarkson University and the University of Connecticut and is currently pursuing an EdD from the University of Colorado Denver.