MN colleges — Are we done with this transformative-change thing already?


When I read that teacher and author Roxanna Elden had listed the expression transformational change as one of the “5 catchiest (and most annoying) reform phrases,” I had a flashback to last fall and winter.

That’s when “transformational” and “transform” seemed to be on the lips of everyone involved in the hiring of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system Chancellor Steven Rosenstone and University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, as well as those caught up in the latest round of budget cuts.

(If my ears don’t deceive me, one member of the state Senate higher education committee, after hearing the term bandied about during a meeting earlier this year, quipped that he was still trying to figure out what exactly the term meant.)

I think Elden was writing about transformation as it applies to the rhetoric used in K-12 education reform, but I think it applies to higher education as well.

Here’s how she lists her pet peeve:

“We need transformational change!” 

Bashing the status quo is so 2010. This year, the issue is transformational, disruptive change (cue applause) vs. incremental change (eeewwww). In 2011, reformers delivering gleeful knockout punches to anyone who disagrees with them have drowned out their more reasonable colleagues. This leaves teachers uneasy. After all, history (and the history of education, according to Rick’s most recent book) is filled with examples showing that good ideas, taken to extremes, become bad ideas, and that change can bring unintended consequences. Teachers have a huge interest in curing education’s ills, but we can only be open to reformers’ prescriptions if we know reformers are willing to address the side effects.

How was it used here?

Former U President Robert Bruininks used the expression in his State of the University speech in March, and used “transform” to describe Rosenstone’s achievements at the U. Rosenstone used “transformation” here during his MnSCU interview and here during an MPR interview, and the word was used during interviews with his rival, William Sederberg, here. The Star-Tribune echoed the sentiment of MnSCU trustees’ desire for transformation here.

Those are just a few examples. (Reporters hear buzzwords much more often than their articles let on. After a while, we tend to tune them out. But it’s tough to forget something pounded into your head day after day.)

Does it really matter? Probably not. I’m sort of chuckling as I write this.

But I think Elden has a point about the danger of inflating goals and expectations. After all, Star Tribune reader “VantBHof” commented under a blog post about Kaler’s inauguration:

Why would we need to transform the University to be one of the best in the nation? So we’ve only been receiving so-so education up to now? I’d like my money back since I was told I was receiving an education from one of the top schools in the nation.