Meeting in the Middle: How to Manage Change in Universities

This blog post is rather small, but is quite significant, to me at least.

I’ve been sent the following paper.

Leadership is a critical element in change management in universities and can be viewed alongside management as distinct but complementary elements in the change process (Ramsden, 1998). Leadership, in Ramsden’s view, is about movement and change and has a long and rich history. It refers to individuals or small groups, is largely independent of positions, and relies on the skills of individuals, not formal power relationships.

I always considered management and leadership as synomymous.  However, this idea from Ramsden has really shifted my thinking.  I never really considered myself as a leader, certainly in the context of my role at my institution.  But in combination with my team colleagues, that is what we have become.  So how does one lead from a position of no authority?

On the other hand, management is about ‘doing things right’ and is undertaken by people in formal positions responsible for planning, organizing, staffing, and budgeting. It is a relatively recent concept generated within the contemporary bureaucracy.

‘Doing things right’ just makes me grin. I’d opt for ‘doing things well’ which recognises that there is more than one way to approach things, and there really is no silver bullet in environments of complexity, such as higher education.

Nevertheless, this distinction between leadership and management is quite fascinating.  Rick et. al. continue:

In a similar vein, Kotter (1990) distinguishes between leaders who set direction, align people and groups, and motivate and inspire to create change, and managers who plan and budget, organize and staff, control, and solve problems in order to create order. To many staff, universities have sacrificed leadership in adopting a managerial approach to teaching and learning. In the top-down approach to change management, the leaders are senior management, using their management positions to drive change through organizational policies and restructures.

This is my experience and accepted practice – only leadership can come from someone with a position of authority.  But apparently, this isn’t true.

In the bottom-up approach, leadership comes from individual staff who are personally inspired to make changes and to inspire others to follow their lead.

On reflection, this is something that my colleagues and I have done.  Not intentionally, at least in the beginning, but our working and collaborating with academics at the coalface has generated somewhat of a following.

In the middle-out approach that we have observed at Murdoch University, middle managers became leaders and, through a combination of personal inspiration and policy based on emergent practice, have changed the university environment sufficiently to force both high level policy change and change in practice among teaching staff. Leadership in the middle-out approach is exhibited through problem solving and facilitation – that is, getting the job done and simplifying tasks required of those at the chalkface.

This is quite interesting as it does differ somewhat from my experience.  Certainly, there has been leadership from middle management.  In fact, much of the institutionally impactful work I have been involved in was only possible through the leadership of middle management.  That arose through their insights into what we were doing, and the value it was offering.  They supported us by championing our work at higher levels and attempting to create a facilitative environment for us to scale the work we were doing.  This is where the bottom-up approach often fails – without middle management, it is very difficult to make meaningful contributions beyond small coalface groups.  This is by the very nature of the entrenched SET mindsets of higher education institutions.

The key point in terms of my experience is that the middle management take the lead from the coal-face.  Without the bottom-up initiation, I’m not sure the middle management are any the wiser – they traditionally are still too far removed.  Effective middle management are able to see meaningful contributions made bottom up, and look for opportunities to scale.  Of course, this buts up against the Reusability Paradox – the more you attempt to broaden reach, the less effective it will become.  In this way too, bottom up initiatives can lead, and scale to the levels that make sense.



2 thoughts on “Meeting in the Middle: How to Manage Change in Universities

Add yours

  1. I have yet to see an effective middle manager. This is a very context sensitive subject, but where I work you have engineers, middle managers, senior managers, and department directors. Generally, the engineers can manage things quite well on their own, with senior managers and directors providing policies / direction. Middle managers are in a weird spot where they hire, when given permission, manage trouble ticket queues, flag politically significant tasks as ‘important’ for engineers to work on immediately, and provide status reports to senior management.

    We just went through a reorganization to align with ITIL, cutting out a lot of middle managers.

    I think middle management can be effective where employees are dedicated to projects and the middle manager is the scrum master . In a functional organization, I think middle management is unnecessary.

  2. Interesting information Damo. I too have been a middle manager and it is undeniably the most challenging position to accept in a workplace. Pressure from the bottom and the top, I can equate it to being squeezed like an orange – until one day the juice runs out. The challenge now is how to get upper management to listen to the bottom dwellers?

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