“The history of American higher education is well supplied with reform movements that have gone nowhere.” (Zemsky 2009)
The DAT model was developed to address the persistent challenge that despite significant investments of time and resources, change efforts in higher education rarely have a lasting positive impact. Typical approaches to supporting change in departments have focused on working with individual faculty members and/or courses, without regard to the departmental context in which these people and courses are embedded.
The DAT model is rooted in the idea that the locus of change in academia is the department and that changes must attend to issues such as sustainability, culture, and continuous improvement from the outset of the change effort. Thus, rather than simply “solving a problem,” a DAT aims to create new structures and processes in a department and to facilitate a cultural shift within the department to support the achievement of their goals.
Our team’s work is supported by an in-depth study of the literature on organizational change. Part of our research includes adapting the lessons from this body of literature, which originated in the field of business, to the context of higher education.
Structure and Facilitation
A DAT consists of a self-selected group of about 6 to 10 members, ideally representing various groups in the department (e.g., tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and staff). The focus of a DAT is typically chosen by participants after its formation, based on shared interests and the needs of their department. Thus, DAT participants have agency over both their participation in the DAT and the work that the DAT engages in.
External and internal facilitators play critical roles for DATs. These facilitators may bring expertise in educational research, institutional change, and supporting collaborative groups. They focus on creating an environment in which DAT participants are likely to achieve success, by focusing on the DAT’s process in addition to its projects. In practice, this means doing things like helping the group create a shared vision and set goals, using appropriate evidence to guide decision-making, highlighting early wins, attending to power imbalances and interpersonal tensions, and introducing collaborative norms to help the group function effectively. An explicit focus on process serves the additional function of teaching DAT participants new skills that they can use when transitioning to internal facilitation or to in other contexts in their department. This unique feature of the DAT model increases the department’s overall capacity for creating functional teams and sustainable change in the future.
DAT participation is incentivized in various ways. Department chairs typically grant service credit for faculty and include DAT participation in performance reviews for staff. Past grant funding as well as chairs have provided stipends for students and snacks for everyone at DAT meetings.
Participants meet regularly every two weeks for two or more semesters. Between meetings, participants assign their own “homework,” determining what needs to be done and how much time they will commit to it.
Goals and Products
Goals of past DATs include:
- Developing a new major for the undergraduate program
- Developing an assessment plan to inform curricula and teaching
- Building a sense of inclusion and community for undergraduate students
- Increasing diversity in the department and supporting students from marginalized groups
- Supporting student engagement in the program
Products of past DATs include:
- Monthly seminars on diversity, equity, and inclusion
- A multi-year undergraduate skills assessment
- Program-level student learning outcomes
- Ongoing study of student experiences for the purposes of improving the undergraduate program
- Implementation of a peer mentoring program
Starting a DAT at Your Institution
We have developed many resources to support the establishment of new DATs. Our book, Facilitating Change in Higher Education: The Departmental Action Team Model, provides step-by-step guidance for gaining support to implement a DAT, facilitating a DAT in its departmental change effort, and supporting a DAT in developing internal facilitation. The book is supplemented by our Digital Toolkit, free resources to support change efforts. We have also given several recorded webinars on the DAT model that are available for viewing.
We are also working on developing online facilitator networks for those interested in starting DATs or other departmental change efforts. Please fill out our contact form and we will keep you updated about these networks.
Finally, if you are interested in more personalized support, our team member Courtney Ngai offers consultations. Please reach out to her directly if you are interested in hearing more about how she can support you and your change effort!