A man runs up stairs in pursuit of excellence in higher education.

Advancing quality and excellence in higher education

Challenges abound today, but many leaders are focusing on ensuring innovation and excellence in higher education

There is no shortage of challenges facing institutions of higher education. A cursory scan of higher education news outlets provides a snapshot of the financial, reputational, operational, and at times, existential issues on the minds of leaders in higher education. There is a growing recognition of the need for more dedicated professional development in the areas of leadership, change management, organizational performance, and innovation. The Network for Change and Continuous Innovation (NCCI) has been on the front lines of this pursuit for organizational excellence in higher education.

It began as a small group of like-minded higher education professionals focused on embracing total quality principles in colleges and universities across the United States. NCCI’s membership, mission and value has expanded over the past two decades. The association now has nearly 100 member institutions, ranging from smaller community colleges to large research 1 universities—all of whom share an interest in working collaboratively to employ innovative methods to advance academic and administrative excellence in higher education.

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In response to the dizzying and overwhelming set of issues facing colleges and universities, there exists the need for collaborative solutions that transcend institutional type, geographic location, traditional academic and administrative silos and roles, and primary mission areas.

NCCI continues to provide a relevant infrastructure for the collective exchange of strategies, tools, and best practices for enhancing organizational cultures to embrace quality, improvement, and innovation.

Ron Coley, one of NCCI’s founders and former vice chancellor for business and administrative services at the University of California Riverside, describes necessity as the catalyst for the creation of NCCI.

In 1998, several major corporations mentored and inspired a handful of higher education institutions in the United States to embrace total quality principles. Coley recounts, “after the final Total Quality Forum a small group of university quality adherents asked ourselves ‘now what?’

It became immediately obvious that those who cared most about ‘total quality’ in higher education were the ones best equipped to embark on a search for an alternative approach to stay connected and embrace the principles corporations had sought to inspire and nurture.” With that vision, NCCI was born.

The first generation of quality improvement advocates in higher education came from diverse faculty and staff positions—an executive director of budgeting and planning, a vice chancellor for business and administrative services, a director of a doctoral program, a special assistant to a president, a director of HR development programs, and others. According to Brent Ruben, founder and executive director of the Rutgers University Center for Organizational Leadership, “we did not have much in common in our backgrounds or our training, but we shared a vision that higher education institutions should aspire to more—to be models of excellence in all that we do—in academics, administration, and service.”

Ruben describes the founders as having a common vision, along with a few basic organizational improvement tools adopted and adapted from other sectors. “Most valuable was a dedicated core of colleagues with whom to collaborate and commiserate.”

The opportunities for networking and idea-sharing have been central to the NCCI experience from its very origin. Maury Cotter, another NCCI founder and former director of the Office of Quality Improvement (now Office of Strategic Consulting) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, describes the importance of the NCCI network: “In the beginning, each of us was relatively isolated in our institutions, piloting a radical approach in a culture of skeptics, so NCCI colleagues were like the person in your boxing corner, ready to revive us and nudge us back into the ring. As we evolved, those connections became rich with content, experiences, materials, partnerships, and friendships. It was always helpful when introducing a new approach to be able to say that some of our peers were doing it. I doubt that our efforts at UW-Madison would have survived without the knowledge and support of our NCCI peers.”

Through communities of practice, virtual webinars, peer learning labs, monthly e-newsletters, and an annual conference, today’s network of academic and administrative change leaders represent nearly 100 NCCI member institutions from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and beyond. The focus of the network has evolved beyond total quality, but remains connected by a shared interest in organizational excellence in higher education. The faculty and staff who participate in NCCI programming are as diverse today as they were 20 years ago. “The rich diversity of our membership coupled with a generous spirit of sharing are some of the aspects that make NCCI unique,” shares NCCI President Cindy Taylor, AVP for human resources from Carleton University.

Despite the evolution of higher education and the expansion of tools, readings, and strategies associated with change, leadership, and organizational quality and improvement, the challenges continue today–and so too does the relevance of NCCI. In response to declining funding, rising costs and expectations, increased competition, and lifelong learning demands, higher education needs to be more strategic, efficient, innovative, and effective than ever.

This sentiment is shared by David Ward, president emeritus of the American Council on Education and chancellor emeritus for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who acknowledged the following at a recent NCCI conference: “Higher education is good at innovation. We have pockets of excellence everywhere. What we are not good at is scaling change.”

Change and innovation remain as important today as they did 20 years ago when this unique higher education association was founded. NCCI helps leverage and scale change in higher education. Across institutions, states, and nations, the association provides an infrastructure to share experiences, explore best practices, and partner in developing new approaches. The scope and scale of changes our members are making in their institutions now is exponentially larger than even a few years ago, as is the impact of those changes.

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