Post by Group Founder, Keith Hampson

Aaron D. Anderson, Ph.D is the author of Engaging Resistance: How Ordinary People Successfully Champion Change (Stanford University Press, 2011). The book offers an empirically based explanation that expands our understanding about the nature of resistance to organizational change and the effects of champion behavior. The text presents a new model describing how resistance occurs over time and details what change proponents can do throughout three engagement periods to effectively work with hesitant colleagues. The two organizations studied were Olivet College and Portland State University.

Dr. Anderson is the Acting Executive Director, Graduate Business Programs, San Francisco State University.

KCH: Your research explored the role of “resistance” to change within large organizations. What form did this resistance take?

AA: A fair number of authors describe resistance based on evidence derived from long careers which drive experienced based answers to this question, which are useful in some ways.  One of the big benefits of the book is that I move beyond single organization and anecdotal explanations for resistance that populate numerous publications.  By using proven qualitative methods (Straus & Corbin a la John Creswell), I was able to clearly identify ten different forms of resistance that occurred across the two different case institutions that are empirically valid.  This is not to say that there were only nine forms exhibited across the six different cases illustrated in the book; not at all.  There were about as many reasons to resist the transformations at Olivet College and Portland State University as there were people doing the resisting. However, using strict methodological rules of data analysis and reporting, my findings were limited to reporting only those that triangulated in robust ways.  Readers interested in a full discussion of the nature of resistance are best referred to Chapter 4.

The ten forms of resistance were as follows (page 75):

  1. Attacking champions
  2. Building a case against
  3. Criticizing in the media
  4. Using students (customers) as pawns
  5. Leaving a post or institution
  6. Not participating
  7. Offering contrary alternatives
  8. Sabotage
  9. Voicing Disagreement
  10. Voting in opposition

KCH: The two cases you studied – Olivet College and Portland State University – had their “backs against the wall;” change was a matter of survival. Is this degree of urgency required to ignite real change?

AA: There was a lot going on for players at the institutions in the years leading up to the 1992 instigation of the planing teams.  A better question, which to this day I can’t really answer, might be why did the leaders at both schools decide to transform the general education curricula in response to some very dire fiscal, and organizationally threatening circumstances.  That it takes a crisis to instigate transformation the scale exhibited at both schools is debatable.

While my research didn’t set out to tackle your question directly, the answer here appears to be that it helps but it’s not necessary (remember, “we should not waste a good crisis”).  A burning platform tends to get people super motivated to toss aside the old model, particularly if the survival of the whole operation is at stake.  Even so, if you look at the sweep of the years for the higher education enterprise in the United States and across the different eras, one has to say change is not unfamiliar to schools given that most viable and sustainable operations tend to adapt and change as needed, albeit in painfully, almost glacially slow ways.

KCH: The Washington Post recently ran a special report devoted to the question of leadership and reform in U.S. higher education. One of the claims made in the report was that university leaders are ill-prepared and/or often unwilling to make significant reforms. What did your research tell you about the importance of leadership in higher education?

AA: I read through a number of the different articles in the WaPo “report.” Unfortunately, there isn’t one but many deep, institutionalized problems facing higher education across the board (for which I have composed some non-empirical solutions that may interest your readers).  My research suggests that quality leadership, and more importantly, change champions are critical for solving what ails our enterprise.  And, champions can emerge from any layer of the operation from the rank-and-file on up to the top of the institution.  When it comes to leading change in our institutions, the grass roots are equally important as those occupying the tip of the Ivory Tower (as if that genuinely exists in this day-and-age).

The advice for people who either step up or are thrust forward to champion change or more challenging transformation is that you must think of yourself and your initiatives as the virus threatening the corpus rather than the inoculation necessary to save the institution.  In many respects, if you don’t get resistance, you are not changing. Resistance is like the white blood cells attacking your virus, and a necessary part of the whole functioning organism.   If engaged with the right combination of approaches, resistance and resisters can help strengthen the overall end result by improving both the process and the product.

In the end, champions should come to view resisters and resistance as a healthy, necessary part of the whole change equation, not to be treated like the plague or an anathema to what you are trying to accomplish; although it’s very hard to do this given the caustic nature and visceral reaction people have to the resistance behaviors.  The valence of the champion/resister interaction is very important to understand, and there is risk and danger involved in leading in such counter cultural ways.

What I found was that champions and resisters alike cared deeply about their institutions, but across the board all respondents were happy to tell me what they learned having lived through rather painful and interesting times at their respective schools. At the close of every interview, after I walked each respondent through the protocol, I also asked her or him what lessons they had for those who would find themselves slogging through their own change.  Interested readers are best pointed to chapter 7’s “lessons from the field” for a more advice from those who have gone through it.

KCH: Many commentators are calling for fundamental reform of higher education in the U.S. of a type and quality beyond the types of adjustments you examined at Olivet College and Portland State University. Is it feasible for more radical reform of higher education to be driven by people within the institutions?

AA: I’m not a huge fan of the term “reform.” People have been trying to “reform” public education at all levels for decades with very little positive, transformative results.  What we really need is a complete overhaul of the system (if one can call it that), from the ground up, top down, or middle pushed out to both directions up and down.  Moreover, if we are going to get true radical, functional change that pushes our institutions further into the new millennium with any kind of vim and sustainability, it will have to be driven by people internal to the industry.  Our problems are less about the cold, hard numbers (and test scores in particular) and more about a staid, aged, academic culture that is deeply rooted in every aspect of the operation from who does what to how people are rewarded.  The inertia of the status quo is very strong. It’s very difficult for people from outside of an industry to push cultural change on others – and only the exceptional products and rare exceptions serve to transform culture (see the iPod and the recording industry, for example, and perhaps what the iPad will do for the publishing and/or our industry).

The trouble is that over time, those who wield the most power within our institutions are the most sheltered from the extant pain of the current and crumbling situation facing us.  Even despite massively shrinking public support (in the way of diminished, non-sustaining funding vis-a-vis taxes, as well as university unfriendly policy and law tweaking) for public education across the board, vast numbers of faculty members at many institutions continue to teach the way they have always taught, behave in the ways they have always behaved, insulated from the pain of having to generate new admissions numbers or advising students who are struggling to fund their own educations.

Let me say this more strongly: Not only is it feasible that more radical “reform” of higher education be driven by people within the institutions, it won’t happen with out them.  What we have to do next is insist that we stop sheltering our faculty members from the current malaise, as exposing them to the grim realities may ignite a full blown overhaul of what we do as an industry.  That there will be resistance is almost a 100% certainty. Therein lies the value of my book.  If together we can convert the thinking about resisters from the negative to the positive, we may all get to the same destination with the least amount of collateral damage (of which the worst possible kind is a diminished quality education for all students).

KCH: What’s the key lesson about driving change in higher ed you’d like to share with your readers?

AA: I’ll leave you with the close to my book, which about sums it up. So, if you are reading my book – this is your spoiler alert.  Don’t read this answer if you want to save the end for when you actually get through all that leads up to it.  From page 163 – “It should be evident that all of the resisters and champions portrayed in this book cared deeply about their respective organizations.  As an indication of their personal investment and stakeholder-ship, perhaps we should view those who resist the most fiercely not in a negative light, but as those who care the most.  A champion who deploys the proper combination of engagement approaches may find that her or his most ardent resister becomes the transformation’s strongest supporter.”

That there is way more art than science to this kind of change championship may well be the case.  Also involved will be bravery, valor, integrity, and hopefully transparency, broad inclusion and some serious risks because with out risk there are no rewards.  And, if it is not us who lead ourselves to the next gen of higher education, then whom?


  1. Great article. This makes three points that I see on the ground every day, but see far too little of in the literature:
    1. your main point, which is terrific: resistance is a form of investment in the change process
    2. change can (and should) be led in academia from any level and through any role
    3. academia can and must change from within – both because that is where the spirit and complexities of the endeavor are understood, and because the autonomy of faculty careers makes other change models nearly impossible.
    Looking forward to reading the book!


  2. Diana – Glad you liked the article. And great job of summarizing Aaron’s points.
    I liked the book. It’s not often that I find a text that goes so deeply into the very human issues of change in higher education. And, understanding change (and resistance) has never been more important to the sector, I suspect.


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