1 D e fi n e 2 Q u e s t i o n s 3 H y p o t h e s i s 4 R e s e a r c h 5 A n s w e r 6 C o n c l u d e


What is institutional transformation?

Higher education scholars Adrianna Kezar and Peter Eckel argue that institutional transformation: (a) alters the culture of the institution by changing select underlying assumptions and institutional behaviors, processes, and products, (b) is deep and pervasive, affecting the whole institution, (c) is intentional, and (d) occurs over time.

Through support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Frontier Set engaged a diverse group of intermediary partners to help understand the process of institutional transformation in real time. Building upon academic research, this initiative defined institutional transformation as realignment of an institution’s structures, culture, and business model to create a student experience that results in dramatic and equitable increases in outcomes and educational value.

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The University Innovation Alliance engaged three UIA member institutions (Arizona State University, the University of Central Florida, and Georgia State University) in the Frontier Set initiative. Intermediary partners involved in the Frontier Set identified learning questions designed to advance the field's understanding of institutional transformation. Over six years of collaboration with these institutions, evaluation partners, and the Frontier Set network, we are presenting our learning in response to two broad questions:

UIA is well suited to address these questions because:

  1. UIA presidents have played visionary roles leading institutional transformation at these institutions, and each has organized and operationalized transformation differently.
  2. UIA institutions have employed distinct tools and strategies to drive transformation.
  3. The distinct state contexts in Florida, Arizona, and Georgia and the unique culture at each institution offer insights into the conditions in which these tools and strategies can be effective.

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The Frontier Set initiative was designed on the premise that investing in key capacity areas (institutional research, information technology, and leadership & culture), integrating multiple solutions areas (advising, digital learning, and degree pathways), and accounting for contextual factors can accelerate transformation as reflected in key performance indicators over time.

UIA's work as part of the Frontier Set revealed the following capacity areas were particularly important for sustainable institutional transformation:

  • Leadership & Culture

    • Institutional commitment to equity
    • Commitment to innovation and the freedom to experiment
    • Faculty engagement in student success
    • Professionalization of advisors
  • Institutional Research

    • Use of data by frontline staff and middle managers to drive success and advise senior leadership
  • Institutional Policy

    • Students' feedback and perspective inform decision-making, policies, and procedures
    • The institution has a vision for equity on their campus and plans for how to achieve it
  • Information Technology

    • Faculty and staff are equipped and empowered to use technology solutions to support student success and improve the effectiveness of their work

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As part of the UIA's contributions through the Frontier Set, we focused on the following sub-questions related to the role of people and tools in driving transformation:

  1. What are the structures, processes, methods, and relationships that enable transformation across large and highly decentralized organizations?
  2. What are the structures, processes, tools, methods, resources, and relationships that operationalize innovation in ways that meaningfully advance student success and institutional transformation?
  3. What are the structures, processes, tools, methods, resources, and relationships that enable the collection, synthesis, and incorporation of students' feedback, perspectives, and lived experiences within decision-making, policies, procedures, and initiatives?
  4. What are the processes, tools, resources, and relationships that result in faculty, advisors, and other staff members' ability to use technology and data tools to effectively implement solutions?
  5. In what roles and through what structures and processes are mid-level leaders and faculty most effective in contributing to transformation?

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In brief: We found several key ways in which people and tools catalyze and enable transformational change at 4-year institutions (like those in our network):

  • Executives clearly and consistently communicate an inspiring, clear vision with flexible goals
  • The senior leadership team is fully engaged and collaborative in large-scale change efforts, and the institution hires personnel based on their commitment to drive progress
  • Accountability for student success is centralized to break down silos, often combining student success, advising, student affairs, and enrollment management into a single division
  • The institution invests in analytical tools and operational infrastructure to enable data-driven decision-making and accountability
  • Change efforts are aligned to the culture and identity of the research university context by engaging faculty and elevating the research facet of the institution
  • The institution operationalizes innovation at the macro and micro levels
  • Leaders set the tone for problem solving and creativity by modeling innovation at the macro level and creating space for innovation at the micro level among departments and units

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We learned that people best contribute to transformation in the following ways:

  • Senior Leadership

    • Modeling a willingness to redefine the "research university" identity that expands access
    • Setting up and participating in cross-functional meetings, committees, and initiatives
    • Seeking connections directly with students
    • Setting the standard for using data to guide strategy, day-to-day decisions and action, reporting, and continuous improvement
  • Mid-Level Leaders

    • Sensemaking, translating, and strategizing, serving as the connection point between senior leaders and staff working directly with students
    • Leverage the expertise and structures at research universities to advance student success (i.e., using research expertise to inform or evaluate initiatives)
  • Faculty

    • Sharing their knowledge and expertise
    • Incorporating student success into the tenure and promotion process
  • Students

    • Their voices, experiences, and lived expertise direct shape strategy, planning, practice, and evaluation of activities
    • Senior leaders hear directly from students to understand their experiences and needs

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University Innovation Alliance
Arizona State University
Georgia State University
University of Central Florida

About UIA

The University Innovation Alliance is the leading national coalition of public research universities committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States.

University Innovation Alliance

Arizona State University, Georgia State University, and the University of Central Florida participated in the Frontier Set initiative with nearly 30 other colleges, universities, and systems across the country. As part of this initiative, they engaged in recurring reflection activities, data sharing, and network convenings designed to learn from and accelerate their progress.


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The UIA and our member institutions gratefully acknowledge the generous support and partnership of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose commitment to equity and institutional transformation have made this work possible.

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