Initiating and Sustaining Campus Change Initiatives

During my visit to Fresno State, I met with the Fresno Red Balloon Steering Committee.  They are a wonderful group, filled with thoughtful, passionate, and committed individuals.  We had a great set of conversations, one when I got to campus, and one after the launch event on Friday morning.  

They asked some very thoughtful questions that I’m not sure I answered very well on the spot.  So in a slightly more reflective moment, I’ll try to respond again.

The first question was: “How do you launch and sustain an initiative like this?” (in a subsequent blog, I’ll focus on a second question) For this, as for much of the Red Balloon, I draw on our experience with the American Democracy Project (ADP), a civic engagement initiative involving nearly 230 institutions that has lasted for more than 8 years now, with no external funding.   Here are some quick thoughts:

1. Leadership
Clearly campus efforts start with leadership, and that comes in many different ways.  What’s critical is that there is a top down, bottom up model.  Every campus with a successful ADP program has a provost or other senior leader playing a key role.  Yet those same successful campuses also have strong faculty leadership (as we see in the Fresno State Committee).  The launch activity at Fresno demonstrated a keen understanding of leadership.  The president opened the event, signaling his commitment.  The launch also included students, faculty, and various administrators from multiple parts of campus. 

2. Focus
A second feature is focus.  A campus has a lot of things going on at once.  How many of those could be designated as Red Balloon activities?  In ADP, we urged campuses to start with an inventory of existing programs, as a way of identifying potential allies and leaders, and also understanding what is already in place.  As new projects develop, could they be designated as Red Balloon projects?  Another dimension to focus was our urging, in ADP, that campuses not take on too much, but work to make whatever they take on successful.  In that regard, I think an early win is really helpful.

3. Ownership
We gave away our logo, and urged campuses to have local variation for ADP activities.  We didn’t limit what campuses did (it’s hard to insist on certain activities when you don’t have any money to pay for them).  There was no orthodoxy; and we saw a huge range of events, from volunteering to political activism.  What we noticed was that the more people felt ownership, that this was THEIR project, the more they invested in it.  They liked being connected to a national effort, but understandably, they also liked 

4.  Scholarly Approach
Faculty in particular seemed to want, at least in the American Democracy Project, a chance to think about the work in collaboration with others.  So we urged campuses to start campus conversations, using Anne Colby and Tom Ehrlich’s book that came out about that time.  One campus, Western Kentucky University, ordered one of their books for every faculty member, and then hosted a series of conversations (with food, of course).  So is there a book or two that could form the basis for a set of campus conversations?  I’d urge people to read one of the books in the Red Balloon paper.  One of the most interesting, at least to me, is Anya Kamenetz’s book, DIY-U.  For a review of this book go here. There are a number of other books that could be good candidates as well.  

5. Publicity
Fresno seems to have this concept well developed with their elaborate and well thought out efforts to launch this project.  But publicity is helpful not only at the beginning but as the initiative develops.  What are events and activities that can be publicized to help the university community understand the purpose of the project?  How can the publicity garner greater enthusiasm, more participants, and possible even more resources?  Fresno used red balloons in their launch activities, including red balloons on individual name tags.  You also need to celebrate accomplishments, and publicly recognize individuals for their work.

6. Substance
In the end, of course, nothing succeeds like success.  You have to have substantive accomplishments in order to have credibility.  In this regard, early wins are critical.  So are strategic partners, like the Faculty Senate.

In conclusion, these are but a few of the ways that campuses can start and sustain an initiative.  At the heart of this work, of course, is passion.  Finding people with passion about change, and putting them in positions where they can make a difference, and making sure lots of leaders have ownership of the project, are key ways, I think, of creating and sustaining change initiatives on college campuses.  

I welcome your thoughts about additional strategies for creating succcessful change initiatives on college campuses.

As the Red Balloon project continues, watch for more ideas about launching and sustaining change initiatives.  Ginny Horvath, provost at SUNY Fredonia, is organizing a group of provosts to develop a rich collection of ideas about this work.  We’ll make that available as it develops.


About George L Mehaffy

Vice President, Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).
This entry was posted in George's Campus and Conference Visits, Red Balloon General Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Initiating and Sustaining Campus Change Initiatives

  1. MarlonB says:


    I’m wondering a few things. First, why aren’t comments allowed for most of these posts? That doesn’t seem like a free-exchange of ideas to me.

    Secondly, Anya Kamenetz’s book, DIY-U, endorses a two-tiered educational system. The gist of her argument is that elite (read “rich”) students like herself will continue to go to traditional schools, while the rest of the population will have to have the kind of piece-meal, distant learning, adjunct heavy, tenured faculty light education endorsed by her, Twigg, Smith, et al.

    Finally, as you and your fellow Provosts and VPs bask in the Florida sunshine on state dimes in times of great budget crises this week, I have to ask what do the sessions titled, “From Provost to President,” (there’s one in a few days in FL and there was one last summer as well) have to do with the Red Balloon Project? It seems like much of the Red Balloon idea is a way for Provosts to earn reputations for slashing budgets so they can make the transition to President and a much bigger salary. Meanwhile, adjuncts are making $1,000 per credit hour if they’re lucky. Burck Smith pays his Smar-thinking Tutors a whopping $11.00, which translates to roughly $23,000/year for a 40 hour work week, no benefits of course. Then one wonders why faculty have unions.


    Adjunct Faculty

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