On Institutional Change

By Jeff Grabill, Director of MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

The Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology has an ambitious mission. The bar-napkin version of the mission is “to help the university reinvent itself as a learning institution.” Some people roll their eyes at language like this (but some people always roll their eyes). Others correctly note changing an institution like MSU is, well, “challenging.” Still others think it is probably impossible. I would agree that it might be impossible, but I think it can happen. In fact, I have been thinking about institutional change for my entire career, and in small ways and now bigger ways, I’ve been a part of changing institutions my entire career. My colleagues and I have had lots of practice.

The Hub was imagined as a change agent, as an internal design consultancy with the university as its object of attention. The Hub is not a resource center, not a technology incubator, not an internal grants agency, and not (precisely) a center for teaching and learning. We are set up to be a design group working in partnership with our colleagues in programs, departments, and colleges. This stance has a great deal to do with how we are configured. That is, it is clear to us that “innovations” or the ideas that lead to something we might call an “innovation” come from students and faculty, and at the end of the day, any new approach to learning must be sustained and cared for by students and faculty at the locations in the curriculum and on campus where these new approaches live and function. We knew we needed to build some centralized capacity to support and partner with ideas bubbling up all over campus. So in our first 20 months, that is precisely what we have done, and the ideas have bubbled up all over the place. As we knew they would.

But what does it mean to change an institution? Nearly 20 years ago now, some colleagues and I began thinking and writing about this in earnest, and it has remained part of my work ever since (see Porter, James E.; Sullivan, Patricia; Blythe, Stuart; Grabill, Jeffrey T.; Miles, Libby: Institutional critique: A rhetorical methodology for change College Composition and Communication (51:4) [Jun 2000]). We took a rhetorical approach to institutional change, which means that since institutions are fundamentally rhetorical entities, rhetoric can be used to make them different sorts of places. We argued for “institutional critique,” which for us constitutes “a method that insists that institutions, as unchangeable as they may seem (and, indeed, often are), do contain spaces for reflection, resistance, revision, and productive action. This method insists that sometimes individuals (writing teachers, researchers, writers, students, citizens) can rewrite institutions through rhetorical action.”

In the article we name a number of methods that work to identify places where change is possible (in addition to place, there is also an essential element of time, or kairos, that signals timeliness and appropriateness of action). Methods include forms of spatial thinking to explore social, disciplinary and institutional relationships, and in relation to that, boundary interrogation. My favorite–and these methods work together–is the identification and use of “zones of ambiguity.” These “zones,” we argued,


can often (but not always) be found within the processes of decision making (people acting through institutions). Again, these processes (rhetorical systems) are the very structure of the institution itself. It is within these processes that people within an institutional space talk, listen, act, and confront differences. We suggest that not only do institutions orchestrate semiotic systems, but that semiotic systems (rhetoric) orchestrate institutions. Thus, institutions are both material and rhetorical spaces, and our definition of them must encompass these elements as well as our sense of spatial scales–our location of institutions at both macro and micro levels. In our case, we seek to change institutions through acts that constitute a critical rhetoric of institutional design.


Thinking such as this has shaped my entire career, and it has had a significant impact on how we conceptualized, designed, and practice the Hub. The Hub is a “third space” within the institution, both physically and rhetorically. It is designed to be ambiguous in terms of where it fits within MSU’s organizational chart, with regard to its (non?) disciplinarity, and with regard to how we work. Positioning such as this carries tremendous risk–we are, for example, at constant risk of being unintelligible. We are at the edges of any number of boundaries, and that give us a certain amount of rhetorical agency within the institution.

Beyond the Hub itself, the institutional critique framework is useful for why some of our specific projects seem to be working to push the institution, and just as importantly, why we choose to work on certain projects and not others. The simple math for us is this: the right project portfolio + execution = a changed institution. “Right” means that the project has significant impact, is an exciting model for campus, or aligns with the priorities of the Provost or of Deans. But “right” also means that the project changes key processes of decision making and institutional practice such that the students, faculty, departments, or the programs who own and must sustain the project (once executed) will not be the same again. There isn’t much bling or glory in this stance. It isn’t about “innovative” or “transformative” technologies. Institutional change is simply hard work, animated by imagination, but driven by careful rhetorical practice.