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How Change Leadership Propelled University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Journey to Equity

September 11, 2023 , By Tom Sugar, Vice President, Partnerships

Change leadership acts as a vital bridge between intent and action. What does effective change leadership look like in practice? In this post, we’ll take you inside an initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) to illustrate how their Associate Vice Chancellor Dr. Phyllis King used the change leadership principles leveraged by EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity to create sustainable transformation on campus.

How can you lead change?

Change leadership goes beyond the mechanics of managing a change; it’s leadership beyond execution. This means guiding your organization through significant transformations by inspiring and influencing people to embrace new ways of thinking, behaving, and working. Higher education institutions have intricate structures that are inherently difficult to change, and having a framework in place empowers these large institutions to effectively steer through complexities, embrace innovation, and align with shifting educational demands. Dr. King and her team have accomplished truly exciting transformation at UWM. But in the face of major projects and initiatives, it can be hard to know where to start.

Many useful frameworks exist for change leadership; in this example, we will apply Kotter’s 8-Step Model to UWM’s story:

Kotter's 8 steps:

1. Create a sense of urgency

UWM recognized the pressing need to address equity gaps in student success. By understanding the urgency of the situation, they motivated stakeholders across the campus to join the cause and make a collective commitment to effect change.

2. Form a powerful guiding coalition

Dr. King assembled a diverse and powerful coalition of individuals from various departments and disciplines, including academic staff, faculty, administrators, and students, all working together towards a common goal—improving retention and graduation rates for minoritized students.

3. Develop a strategic vision

UWM crafted a clear and strategic vision for closing equity gaps. Their vision focused on student success, inclusion, and a commitment to providing equitable opportunities for all students to thrive in their academic pursuits.

4. Communicate the vision

To ensure everyone on campus understood and embraced the vision, UWM communicated it extensively through various channels. They held regular presentations, workshops, and town hall meetings to engage with stakeholders and gain their support.

5. Remove obstacles to vision

UWM identified the financial barriers faced by marginalized students and took decisive action to address them. Through completion grants and hold reform, they removed the obstacles that hindered students’ progress and enabled them to succeed.

6. Generate quick wins

By piloting completion grants and initiating hold reform, UWM achieved quick wins that demonstrated the effectiveness of their approach. These early successes provided momentum and inspired others to get involved in the change efforts.

7. Don't declare success too early

While UWM celebrated their initial achievements, they understood that the journey towards equity was ongoing. They continued to analyze data, assess progress, and identify areas for further improvement, recognizing that sustained efforts were crucial.

8. Anchor changes in culture

UWM focused on embedding the changes in their institutional culture. They integrated equity-minded practices into routine processes, policies, and decision-making, ensuring that the transformation was ingrained in the fabric of the university.

How UWM addressed financial gaps that pose large barriers to student success

Case study: Paving the path to equity through completion grants and hold reform

Like many other institutions, leaders at UWM realized that financial barriers often hindered the progress of first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented minority students. These students faced difficulties in re-enrolling due to small registration-preventing balances, creating a significant obstacle in their academic journey. To address these challenges, UWM joined EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity with the aim of closing equity gaps in their student outcomes. So far, their work has produced two major initiatives, detailed below.

Initiative 1: Completion grants

Completion grants provide one-time financial assistance to eligible students, allowing them to address their outstanding balances and clear the path for re-enrollment. By removing these financial holds, students are better equipped to continue their education without unnecessary roadblocks. The results were nothing short of remarkable. Among the grant recipient group, underrepresented minority students graduated or were retained at a rate 1.7 percentage points higher than non-URM students, a drastic improvement when compared to the control group where URM students graduated or were retained at a rate 14 percentage points lower than non-URM students.

The results of this pilot program showed that completion grants effectively closed the equity gap, allowing students from marginalized backgrounds to overcome financial obstacles and continue their education.

Listen to our podcast with UWM on retention grants

Initiative 2: Hold reform

In a groundbreaking move, UWM’s leadership also initiated a comprehensive hold reform initiative. Previously, UWM had several “legacy holds” that remained on the books without scrutiny, hindering students’ progress without a clear rationale. These holds included everything from library fees to overdue sports equipment, and their cumulative impact was disproportionately felt by marginalized students: BIPOC students represent 34% of campus, but 46.7% of the population with financial holds. To address this issue, a diverse stakeholder group at UWM embarked on a transformative journey to audit and reform the existing holds. This group comprised individuals from various departments, including advising, financial aid, multicultural centers, and the dean of students’ office. Over the course of five intense months, they meticulously examined and reevaluated holds that were no longer relevant or had an unjust impact on student success, resulting in 74 holds reformed and 38 holds removed all together.

The results of the hold reform were both inspiring and heartening. By removing or reforming specific holds, UWM witnessed a surge in student re-enrollment by an astounding 500 additional students. The hold reform initiative not only enhanced student success rates but also contributed to a more inclusive and equitable campus environment.

Catalyze transformation

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s journey exemplifies the potential of bold change leadership in higher education. By aligning completion grant programs with hold resolution initiatives, breaking down silos, and utilizing data to drive decisions, UWM has made commendable progress in closing equity gaps. Through continued commitment to change leadership principles and a shared vision for the future, higher education institutions can follow UWM’s example to make progress toward ensuring every student has an equal opportunity to succeed.

Tom Sugar

Tom Sugar is the Vice-President for Partnerships.  He joined EAB after co-founding and helping to lead Complete College America for nearly nine years, ultimately serving as its president.  Prior to that, Tom served for eleven years as chief of staff to a US Senator and as chief of staff and in other positions over six years for a US Representative in Congress.  Tom has also served as director of planning and communications for a Governor, in addition to managing statewide, regional and metro-level campaigns. 

Leveraging EAB’s technology and research, Tom is applying his years of leadership in higher education advocacy and reform to accelerate and strengthen the scaling and sustainability of critical changes in policy and practice to eliminate achievement gaps for underrepresented populations.  With equity as his north star, Tom believes that essential educational partnerships must be forged across regions and metro areas between government, philanthropy, K-12, higher education, business, labor and social justice institutions with a singular and shared mission: the lifelong talent development of all people – especially those most often left behind. 

Tom feels very lucky to be husband to Nancy and father to Jackson and Carter.  He has come to learn that the things we experience together are far more important than the things we own together.  That’s why you’ll often find Tom and his family climbing mountains, hiking forests, canoeing rivers and sharing other adventures, often with their local Boy Scout troop. 

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