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Does effective institutional identity require authentic institutional memory?


I surprised myself today by asking this question during an interview with a community college leader in Washington State.

Below is the thought process driving the question.

During the interview it was revealed that among the 20+ top leaders of the college, only a few deans had been there more than 3 years, everyone else was newer, all from different institutions and several from out of state. The college is 50+ years old.

Due to the regular turnover of leadership at nearly every level in many community colleges, there is deep and widespread erosion of institutional memory. All (most) the people who know the college’s backstory are gone.

When viewed by long-term community stakeholders, the college has an identity that is grounded in decades of history. However the people steering the college with strategic visions and plans have no understanding of that history because they’ve only been there for a few years.

Without the memory there can be no authentic understanding of the college’s historic identity in the community. Additionally, some college leaders are focused on their careers and will move on to another college before their plans are fully implemented and their vision is attained.

In the not-so-distant past community colleges had long-term leaders who climbed their way to the top within the institution, effectively serving as the institution’s memory and providing authenticity to its identity. That dynamic is increasingly rare.

It’s unclear if the erosion of institutional memory is a barrier to a community college’s ability to deliver its community-centric mission. Too much turnover can cause chaos, stress, and frustration internally and for the community. However, turnover can jumpstart innovation, introduce needed change, and create new opportunities.

If indeed there’s a downside to eroded memory, what can be done and by whom?