Organisational development in universities; A case study on CUT’s repositioning of its Welkom campus provides invaluable lessons

Published On: 29 November 2022|

The Central University of Technology (CUT) in the Free State is changing the perceived stepchild status of its Welkom campus to an integral part of the institution’s strategic plan, Dr Gary Paul, CUT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Resources and Operations, recently told a higher education audience.

The University is now “re-imagining this campus into what it could be, so that it can become what it should be”. And that’s about enhancing its infrastructure, staffing and resources.

He was presenting CUT’s repositioning of its Welkom campus as a case study in a session on Leading and Managing Change in Universities at the three-day Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Virtual Summit that ended on 17 November.

HELM is one of universities’ support programmes at Universities South Africa (USAf), founded in 2002 to develop leadership and management capacity in universities’ middle managers. The programme is mainly funded from the Department of Higher Education and Training’s University Capacity Development Programme.

Dr Randhir Auluck, Head of the School of Organisations, Economy and Society (SOES) at the Westminster Business School of the University of Westminster in London was the other organisational change expert on the panel. Professor Patrick FitzGerald, an independent consultant in Higher Education and Public Management, and a HELM Programme Leader, facilitated the session.

Dr Paul (left) said the stepchild syndrome is not uncommon in organisations that operate from geographically separate locations, a situation that arose from the merger of the former Free State Technikon in Bloemfontein with the Welkom-based Vista University. That is how the resultant CUT acquired the two campuses.

The University is now transforming the Welkom campus to optimise its capacity and capabilities for increased academic impact. This was part of the CUT’s broader transformation to identify Welkom’s niche areas and so help blur the lines, at least operationally, between the two campuses.

The process followed the Carpenter’s Rule

The project required astute leadership and management, Dr Paul said they learned, over time. He outlined the steps they took:

  • Setting a benchmark by conducting a desktop study to look at other multicampus institutions in South Africa and abroad;
  • Choosing the methodology, which he described as being based on the Carpenter’s Rule of ‘measure twice and cut once,’ as opposed to fiddling around. He does accept, though, that things are never black and white, in and out, right or wrong in higher education institutions.
  • Establishing a task team which he initially chaired, followed by two external experts;
  • Pivoting this team into an implementation team;
  • Engaging extensively both horizontally and vertically;
  • Juggling back and forth as various concerns were raised, and effectively addressed, a re-engagement which strengthened the process and enhanced trust; and
  • Presenting the proposed repositioning plan and organisational structure for the Welkom campus, at the CUT Council meeting at the end of November.

Challenges in the process

Professor FitzGerald had earlier mentioned the new environment universities have been plunged into, of a “post-modernist disruptive, ‘post truth, post knowledge, or at least post the conventions of knowledge’ world.” This is “the world of entirely different possibilities, driven by the digital possibilities of how a university works, both within real or virtual spaces, or in some combination” and “greatly exacerbated by the epic expanding mandate expected of universities to achieve on behalf of society”. Dr Paul agreed that the hiccups they encountered in the Welkom process symbolised the world Professor FitzGerald described.

This “messiness”, said Dr Paul, hit the task team which he initially chaired but later withdrew from, feeling uncomfortable because the Welkom campus reports to him. However, certain stakeholders had problems with the first external expert they had appointed, and the person was soon replaced with another external expert. This helped the process gain traction and take shape.

Success factors

He said authentic stakeholder engagement was critical to the success of the project. This entailed engaging organised labour at both the Welkom and Bloemfontein campuses. They also engaged with the University’s executive as well as the next layer of management. The deans played a vital role in looking at the Programme and Qualification Mix (PQM), and how they could deal with those courses presently offered at the Bloemfontein campus yet not supported in the way they should be at Welkom. The SRC was also a very important stakeholder in the mix, he said.

“Of course, people want to see their names in boxes: ‘Why is my name not in that box?’ But we dealt with that by saying we first need to figure out the strategy. Form follows function, and we could provide clarity but not absolute certainty regarding who’s going to do what, on what level, and when. As the process evolved, clarity emerged,” Dr Paul said.

An important learning about the pace of change

CUT learned a lot from the process. “Everybody wants things to happen fast and furiously,” he said. But, for example, getting new academic programmes to be offered uniquely from the Welkom campus meant they first had to be developed, and then put through the accreditation processes. Only thereafter could they appoint an additional Dean, Deputy Dean, HOD, etc. “It was, and still is, a significant learning opportunity,” he said.

Engagement also entailed managing stakeholder expectations including those of the current incumbents in positions that might be repurposed and possibly seniorised. “We’ve done a good job of that, so far,” he said.

How change impacts OD in universities

As a general principle, job purposes dating back three years, change, over time. They had to identify those changes, including the skills required for the changing jobs, from an OD perspective. He added that CUT had, since CoViD, changed in ways he did not think they fully understood yet.

“Of course, the inevitable companion of change is resistance. It is referred to as a continuum of change that does not happen in a linear fashion but vacillates between active, passive, indifference, and back to active.”

Key takeaways from the process

A key lesson was the need to manage stakeholders, “to watch out for politically induced interest” and secure project support from all management levels. “The main thing is to constantly check in with the ‘why (the reason for the development) and make sure that the ‘why’ continues to occupy centre stage.” They had to be open minded and be agile in their thinking, anticipating being confronted by factors they had not considered necessary.

He said although additional cost was inevitable, these costs were not limited to acquiring new things; it was about calculating the total cost of ownership, known as lifecycle costing.

“You must create the planning platform, inspire your people, share the vision, share the why, explain the benefits, be strategic, tactical, and operational and invite and encourage your people to co-lead the change. If you do that, you will empower people and that, to me, is the ultimate embodiment of leadership,” said Dr Paul.

Improving student experience is fundamental

Setting the scene ahead of her input, Dr Randhir Auluck (right) said the UK has 170 higher education institutes with about 2.6 million students, fulltime and parttime. A lot of institutions’ decisions are informed by findings of the annual National Student Survey, completed by about half a million final-year students who give feedback on their courses and institutions by answering 27 core questions.

“What keeps the leadership up at night? It would be student numbers, student fees, financial viability, and how we’re faring in terms of league tables,” she said.

There is no single way OD is structured in the UK. The University of Westminster, for example, has a small separate OD function linked to Human Resources, and reporting to the Vice-Chancellor. At one point it was deleted but has since been reconstructed. “So, it’s ebbed and flowed,” she said. It has a role in ensuring alignment between the institution’s strategic direction and practice. It has a broader purpose than the typical understanding of OD’s contribution in terms of learning and leadership development.

Dr Auluck also mentioned the 2022 Advance HE Leadership Survey in the UK, that looks at how they might enhance OD in English universities, what tools and approaches they use, how they see their role, and the initiatives they are planning. That study revealed that improving student experience is rated highest, followed by improvements to leadership and management, and then teaching and learning provision, with changing culture ranked fourth.

The survey’s overarching conclusion was that each institution needs to find and adapt approaches specifically rooted in its context and its unique features. “It’s really about understanding how we bring together OD, leadership, leadership development, the organisation, and the kinds of things we need to achieve.”

She wondered if developing leaders to be facilitators of change was teachable. Or could it “perhaps be better achieved by the kind of process we’re engaged in today, which is hearing about how others have done it and tried it?

“I think a lot of us who were thrust into leadership roles have taken that trial-and-error approach and then enhanced that by talking toothers who have trodden similar paths,” she said, acknowledging the importance of the HELM summit as a platform for such sharing. She said that hearing Dr Paul’s approach in terms of bringing about change had been truly helpful.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.