High-Impact Practices for Regional Reform in Utah

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Faculty Collaborative’s initiative’s charge to create sustainable networks for innovation across state systems invites the development of a new genre of higher education reform literature, a body of work directed toward high-impact practices that are systemic, regional in scope, and sustainable. This article contributes to this charge by proposing four high-impact reform practices. Contrary to prevailing contemporary trends that rely on digital tools, the Utah faculty fellows found optimal transformation strategies in interpersonal communication and intergroup networking. Rather than investing time and resources in software platforms, websites, and social media initiatives, the Utah contingent focused its energy on grassroots relationship-building, slow-moving development of contextual understanding, and coordinated problem-solving. At the center of these relational efforts was an interest in building a climate of equity and inclusivity for students and for the professionals that serve them.

Mid-Level Strata Coordination

Although deans, provosts, and commissioners of higher education seem the obvious choices for mobilizing systemic change, the Utah faculty fellows found that a diverse team of faculty, hybrid faculty-administrators, and mid-level officers of commissioners’ offices were better situated to effect change locally and regionally. The freedom of these individuals to network up and down the hierarchies of their local organizations and laterally across institutions enabled them to build regional networks with high degrees of social trust and stability. The faculty fellows facilitated listening sessions and workshops and organized conferences with members of eight Utah institutions. These events involved upper-level administrators, faculty-administrators, tenure-track faculty, adjunct faculty, and part-time employees. It is unlikely that upper-level administrators alone, limited by constant institutional demands, or part-time or lower-level contract employees, disempowered by workforce insecurity and financial marginalization, would have had the same degree of lateral mobility to forge successful change networks across institutions.

Design Studio Strategies

The Faculty Collaboratives project encouraged faculty fellows from the outset to view their work as experimental and innovative. As such, the group chose to structure the project using design studio strategies. Instead of starting with the end goal (increasing, for example, the number of professors engaging in high-impact practices), the fellows initiated the project with a problem—while teaching the majority of courses in many institutions, contingent faculty often have difficulty obtaining the training and materials needed to engage in high-impact practices. Second, the team gathered information and tested assumptions on teacher training and contingent faculty needs through workshops and questionnaires across Utah’s institutions. Based on the received information, Utah’s fellows generated multiple options for intervention as opposed to a predetermined course of action, noting that one-size-fits-all solutions would not be effective for the different institutions. The group then fine-tuned the solutions that seemed most promising. The design studio process allows for innovation and site-specific solutions, as particular outcomes are not championed from the start but evolve through the process. The mid-level faculty/administrative composition of the team became an asset to the implementation of these solutions. Spotting similar functions among varied structures across campuses led the fellows to conclude that existing entities could be repurposed, supported, and networked.

Deep Listening

The notion of “deep listening” springs from a reminder by an advisory group, Public Agenda: “Begin where people are, not where you want them to be” (Kadlec and Friedman 2010). Rather than assuming an audience has the same background, interest, and passion about a reform project, recognize that the assembled group might be unaware, skeptical, or hostile to the suggestions that some committed activists raise. Understanding this critical facet, the Utah Faculty Collaborative asked colleagues what they desired in terms of support. Fellows also spoke about reform suggestions in clear and accessible language, avoiding the “stacking” of reform initiatives on top of one another in a fragmented pile of acronyms. They understood that care had to be taken in implementing the reforms, not simply introducing them. Finally, the group needed to tie initiatives together, clarify how they communicate with and reinforce one another, and keep conversations focused on student learning and educational quality.

Interinstitutional Network Generation

Our Utah Faculty Collaborative group capitalized on preexisting interinstitutional structures and networks to enhance linkages and leverage systemic change. First, they engaged the Utah Regents’ General Education Task Force and Utah System of Higher Education’s Utah Teaching Technologies Council networks. Structural differences within Utah campuses showed a lack of communication and collaboration between their Teaching Technology Directors and campus Centers for Teaching and Learning. The fellows realized that an official system-sanctioned working group could be instrumental in preparing faculty across the Utah system to incorporate the insights of LEAP, DQP, Tuning, and other reform initiatives. Utah’s team was delighted to find that some campuses were already using tools like badging and social media to prepare their full and part-time faculty for more effective teaching. It was obvious that these centers understood the unique challenges facing the faculty and that they also already had the mechanisms and structures to deploy AAC&U’s resources.

The organic solution was for the task force to create and connect to a working group of teaching and learning center directors. Advising the regents on general education, transfer, and articulation, the task force has also written LEAP outcomes into Regents’ Policy R470, defining Utah’s postsecondary general education mission. Thereby LEAP entered the mission of the newly established teaching and learning center network. These stable, policy-inscribed networks, with shared nodes of contact for communication (in effect mobilizing networks of networks), promise significant sustainable returns. The new working group is charged with creating a charter that specifies the outcomes of their combined work.

Building Sustainable Change Systems

Unlike most Faculty Collaborative state teams, who pursued web-based solutions early in the initiative, the Utah Faculty Collaborative intentionally eschewed digital solutions in order to focus on interpersonal communication strategies. The faculty fellows used deep listening as part of a design studio strategy to understand how campuses each had unique needs and that negotiating those needs required intimate relational work. The team of commissioners and mid-level faculty and administrators were well-situated to network across institutional lines and transcend competition to build sustainable change systems. As Utah shifts focus toward developing the new general education working group to coordinate teaching, learning, and technology efforts within the frame of system-wide outcomes, the Utah Faculty Collaborative group is grateful to AAC&U for supporting solutions that address higher education’s most pressing challenges through coordination and coalition building.


Kadlec, Alison, and Will Friedman. 2010. Changing the Conversation about Productivity: Strategies for Engaging Faculty and Institutional Leaders. New York: Public Agenda.

Matthew Morin, Director of Adult Education and High School Partnerships, Chaffey College; John R. Taylor, Assistant Dean for Integrative Learning, School of Integrative & Engaged Learning, and Associate Professor of Biology, Southern Utah University; Jennifer Peeples, Professor, Communication Studies, Utah State University; Dan McInerney, Professor, Department of History, Utah State University; Norm Jones, Professor, Department of History, Utah State University; Phyllis Safman, Assistant Commissioner for Academic Affairs, Utah State Board of Regents; and  Marianne McKnight, Associate Dean of History, Anthropology, and Political Science, Salt Lake Community College

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