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Embracing a culture of change

Report from the 10th annual Best Practices Forum

EVANSTON - Northwestern University’s efforts to create a highly innovative culture dependent upon collaboration were on display last week during a forum featuring several case studies illustrating what transformative change looks like at the University.

Reflecting deliberate, collaborative and hard-won efforts across multiple departments, the case studies were highlighted during the 10th annual Best Practices Forum, presented by the Office of Change Management.

A record 239 attendees filled the Louis Room for the forum. The dozen sessions and the keynote panel delved into the hows, whys and best practices for affecting change.

“The Best Practices Forum was created to give senior staff from across the University the opportunity to get together to learn from each other, to share their successes and discuss innovative ways to address challenges,” said Jake Julia, associate vice president for the Office of Change Management and associate provost of academic initiatives.

Setting the stage in his opening remarks, Northwestern Executive Vice President Nim Chinniah stressed the obligation to implement change. “The distinctive nature of Northwestern is its collaborative culture, a trait that is essential to the University’s strategic goals,” he said.

“Northwestern is committed to recruiting and retaining the best faculty, students and staff, improving accessibility and affordability for students, fostering a campus that is truly inclusive and establishing a resounding presence across the globe.

“It is our people that define our University. I hope you feel challenged, inspired and energized by your peers, and that you feel both a deep sense of connection to this great University and a sense of purpose in the work that you do. To make our University even better, we must share a commitment to continually elevate our performance, taking pride in our work and pushing both ourselves and each other to be excellent. There is power in collaboration – none of us are as strong alone as we are together,” Chinniah said.

Keynote panel: leading transformational change

Moderated by Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer, the keynote panelists included Lisa Corrin, Ellen Philips Katz Director, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art; Michael Mills, associate provost for Undergraduate Enrollment; Todd Murphey, associate professor, department of mechanical engineering, McCormick School of Engineering; and Laurie Wakschlag, professor and vice chair for scientific and faculty development, department of medical social sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and director, Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences.

Provost Linzer explained that the composition of the panel was selected to highlight four areas that are central to Northwestern’s mission: collaborative research (Wakschlag, developmental science); innovative teaching (Murphey, engineering); enrollment (Mills, admission); and the arts (Corrin, Block Museum). 

In this Best Practices Forum video clip, panelists Corrin and Murphey share their thoughts about how staff can get through the challenges of change by embracing the idealism and purpose that originally brought them to their work.   

Among the highlights of their presentations:

• Murphey is an innovator in digital learning at the University. In his flipped classroom, introductory engineering students view his video lectures before class, so that class time can be devoted to exercises, projects and discussions. Unlike books, teaching videos and other forms of digital content lend themselves to frequent updates, allowing the instructor to address learning gaps and keep students more engaged.

• Over 125 social and biomedical developmental scientists are working together to find linkages across fields and establish a common language for collaborating on innovative science focused on health promotion, early learning and the prevention of disease beginning even before birth, with an emphasis on leveraging discovery in the early-life period to improve lifecourse health, learning and well-being, which Wakschlag envisions will position Northwestern as a nationally recognized center of excellence in transdisciplinary developmental sciences.   

• The Block Museum is following an ambitious new teaching mission to become an essential meeting place for art and ideas, which is being recognized internationally. A recent collaboration with the University Library, which houses the archives of pioneering performance artist and curator Charlotte Moorman, “The Topless Cellist,” led to a major exhibition at the Block Museum, that traveled to art museums in New York and Salzburg, Austria and garnered media coverage in The New York Times and other national and international news outlets.

• Northwestern has enjoyed transformative success attracting top students who identify Northwestern as their top choice, while at the same time expanding the diversity of the student body by all standards: race, economics and international status. Mills said this data shows Northwestern is a radically different institution than it was in 2005 and points to its growing reputation.

“What I hoped for in the panel, and what I think the panel achieved, was to demonstrate that very positive change happens across the University in a reasonable time frame and that the key ingredients for positive change are the same no matter the area: energy and enthusiasm of the leaders, engagement and communication with the University community, putting resources to effective use, and follow-through on good ideas,” Linzer said.

Case study: rebuilding student health insurance

The transformation of the student health insurance system was brought home in a session titled “Working Across Units and Using Data to Solve Complex Problems.” Attendees heard from the team responsible for doing that: Luke Figora, assistant vice president for risk management and environmental health and safety; Ann Dronen, director, Student Enterprise Systems, University Enrollment; and Marcy Hochberg, student insurance program manager, Risk Management.  

The exceptional teamwork exemplified ways to address problems, align purposes, envision new missions and expand and promote the University’s reputation.

The problem: medical needs were not being adequately covered by insurance plans because of limitations in the current enrollment system. The challenges of the project were numerous, as were the number of University department stakeholders affected by changing the system.  

The team decided to start fresh by building a new system from the ground up that would give students an opportunity to review and renew their health insurance options annually. Initially 14,000 undergraduates were enrolled in the new system. The team built an online forum for adjustments in status and coverage and added an additional 2,000 students as part of phase one. They created a punch list of items to address for the next phase.

“Computer systems need logic to be programmed to variable scenarios, and we had to start with students on the standard quarter system and keep the old system for the first year to handle the smaller group of international and trimester calendar students,” Dronen explained. “We had to communicate with our group teams that the system wouldn’t be perfect but it would be better, and we would learn and adapt from the data collected from the first year.”

Be brave and build support

Chinniah closed the day stressing how much can be achieved from putting hearts and minds to the task of change.

“Be brave,” Chinniah said. “It takes courage to move the ship and change direction. This is not a kayak, it’s an aircraft carrier. We have to do it. But have fun. Get to know each other, and build a support network around you. Find the commonalities.”

Associate Vice President Julia commented about the attendees taking advantage of the forum reception to trade ideas, ask more questions and get to know their peers.

“It’s exciting to hear so many of those attending discussing what they learned from the sessions they just attended, and perhaps most importantly, the new connections they have made with colleagues,” Julia said.

View a recap of the day in the Best Practices Forum photo gallery

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