Multiframe Thinking & Lasting Change

By James Beattie, PhD
Associate Director, ASUN Center for Student Engagement

Higher education stakeholders are increasingly demanding efficiency gains in the form of measurable outcomes from Colleges and Universities.  In fact, Robst (2001) indicated, “Government officials suggest that using performance measures and limiting state appropriations for higher education will control higher education costs and force institutions to provide an education more efficiently.” (p. 730).  The changing landscape of higher education and the United States economy has resulted in decreasing financial support for institutions of higher education at both the federal and state levels, and as such, has compelled higher education administrators to strategically implement policy designed to create measurable efficiencies.  One trend of efficiencies under scrutiny on a national scale are graduation rates; both in terms of percentages and timeframes.  Attewell and Monaghan (2016) stated, “Low completion rates and increased time to degree at U.S. colleges are a widespread concern for policymakers and academic leaders.” (p. 682).

The creation of positive and lasting change in retention and graduation on college campuses is an amorphous challenge that requires an adaptable holistic view encompassing students, administrators, and organizational culture and must be addressed from all four frameworks of Bolman and Deal—Political, Structural, Symbolic, and Human Resource.  If higher education administrators fail to address all four frameworks, they will have a limited view and will miss vital information that could facilitate positive and lasting change for retention and graduation rates.

Take for example the Nevada System of Higher Education initiative to move to a 30 to complete model.  In order to create positive and lasting change administrators need to address all four of the following frameworks.

1) Structural – from this framework administrators focus on the structural needs of the organization. Take for example the increased strain on enrollment services and the feasibility for a majority of students enrolling in classes to complete in four years.

Administrators might ask:

  • What fundamental processes need to be evaluated for students to enroll in 30 credits a year?
  • Are there sufficient classes and infrastructure to facilitate the increased student credit loads?

2) Human Resources –from this framework administrators focus on providing faculty and staff what they need to successfully assist in the facilitation of change.

Administrators might ask:

  • What information do we need to share with faculty about how this policy will impact their activities?
  • What research and information should we provide faculty and staff to create buy in?

3) Political – from this framework administrators address the political climate and prepare to diffuse misinformation and barriers to change.

Administrators might ask:

  • Who will be most affected by this policy and how do we anticipate their needs?
  • What research and data do we gather to diffuse the unsubstantiated belief that working students do not have the time to enroll in 30 credits a year?

4) Symbolic – from this framework administrators focus on traditions, rituals, and ceremonies to facilitate lasting change.

Administrators might ask:

  • How can we celebrate students in a special way that graduate in four years?
  • How can we include graduating in four years into every aspect of orientation in order to infuse it into the culture of the university with parents and students at the very beginning?

Bolman and Deal (2008) argued that without multiframe thinking, organizations can expect, at best, to excel in one of four identified organizational frameworks. Indeed, Bolman and Deal argued that single dimensional thinking could lead to “self-destructive intelligence syndrome” or “the curse of cluelessness.”  They stated, “The wise manager, like a skilled carpenter, wants at hand a diverse collection of high-quality implements.  Experienced managers also understand the difference between possessing a tool and knowing when and how to use it” (p. 14). With ever-decreasing state funding in higher education, pressure from the public and industry to produce graduates, and institutions of higher education moving towards business modeled systems thinking; higher education administrators need to find purposeful and lasting ways to increase retention and graduation rates.

In the state of Nevada, system funding requirements changed to reflect this culture of efficiency gains in retention and graduation rates.  Institutions of higher education no longer receive funding purely on an enrollment basis, but rather on credit enrollment and completion rates.  As such, administrators need to address the credit load and completion enrollment culture. Administrators will face many barriers while implementing strategies designed to increase the average credit enrollment on campus.  With the ever-increasing pressures from higher education stakeholders on administrators to increase retention and graduation results, it is imperative that higher education administrators utilize frameworks that facilitate the development of the skills, knowledge, and understandings required to meet these challenges.  Bolman and Deal’s (2008) Reframing Organizations is such a framework.


Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Robst, J. (2001). Cost efficiency in public higher education institutions. The Journal of Higher Education, 72(6), 730-750. 
Attewell, P., & Monaghan, D. (2016). How Many Credits Should an Undergraduate Take?. Research in Higher Education, 57(6), 682-713.