Critical competencies for leading major institutional restructuring in higher education (aka Big Scary Change)

Insights Report

After 55 years of consistent growth, higher education enrollment started dropping in 2013, shifting institutions' underlying economic driver and creating the need for leaders to completely rethink how they have traditionally operated.


Given the magnitude of change across academia, the safe solutions that have long guided institutional growth are no longer sufficient. What was unthinkable only 15 years ago—the closure of established institutions—is becoming increasingly commonplace, forcing leaders to consider major operational restructuring (what the authors call "Big Scary Change") in response. This paper outlines the competencies required of those who lead such efforts.

Key Insights

  • Declining enrollment, loss of public confidence and the devaluation of higher education, as well as viable alternatives to college degrees, will continue to put financial pressure on the majority of institutions for decades to come.
  • Strategies that may allow, in some manner, continuation of the mission, heritage, and identity of many institutions include finding strategic partners and undertaking major institutional restructuring (e.g., mergers).
  • Successfully implementing dramatic and unfamiliar change requires leadership behaviors that are qualitatively different from otherwise successful and nurturing leadership in "normal" times.
  • Leaders must be selected and trained for the skills and qualities needed to lead major institutional restructuring, and be provided protection and support in the face of inevitable and often passionate opposition.

Successfully managing restructuring for the betterment of the institution and its students requires a type of leadership that’s uncommon across the traditional higher education sector.


Based on firsthand experience leading major institutional restructuring, as well as research on other institutional mergers, the authors set forth essential leadership competencies necessary for successful institutional restructuring.

University and college enrollment: 1957-2021


Ricardo Azziz

University at Albany, SUNY and University of Alabama at Birmingham

Guilbert C. Hentschke

University of Southern California

Lloyd Jacobs

University of Toledo and University of Michigan

Richard Katzman

Foundation for Research and Education Excellence

Bonita Jacobs

University of North Georgia

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