A Playbook for Innovation in Higher Education

By William G. Tierney and Michael Lanford November 14, 2022 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Sharp declines in student enrollment. Reduced state funding. Departures of key staff who hold decades of institutional knowledge. Questions about the relevance of faculty scholarship. Demoralized faculty leaving for jobs in the private sector. Ongoing debates about the value of a college diploma in today’s labor market.

A series of headwinds are bedeviling higher education today. As a result, many in higher education—including governing boards and other administrative bodies—are justifiably concerned. It appears that if higher education does not nurture innovative programs, innovative teaching methods, and innovative research agendas, a number of colleges and universities will not only lose legitimacy in the eyes of the general public, they may struggle to survive. Some even argue that complete disruption of the status quo is necessary for survival.

As researchers who have written about the organizational cultures and innovative activities of colleges and universities for several years, we wholeheartedly agree that innovation is vital in today’s environment. In fact, we recently published a book entitled Creating a Culture of Mindful Innovation in Higher Education (State University of New York Press, 2022) that serves as an introduction to the vast literature on institutional innovation and a clarion call for colleges and universities to nurture innovative cultures.

Nevertheless, we are consistently disappointed at the lack of innovative ideas and initiatives currently being developed and implemented in higher education. Too many contemporary ideas and initiatives recycle discredited practices and ignore empirical research on the factors that support innovation.

In this blog, we underscore this point by first identifying one policy and one prevailing belief that are currently killing innovation in colleges and universities. Then, after highlighting systemic problems that impede innovative thinking, we provide a playbook that can promote innovation in higher education. Fundamental to our argument is that a cultural shift is necessary for innovation to thrive in higher education—and our governing boards need to lead the charge.

Killing Innovation through Performance Funding

Forty-one states have adopted performance funding policies, partly under the misguided perception that external incentives are a viable way to stimulate innovation. These policies seemingly ignore decades of scholarship, dating back to the 1980s, that categorically illustrate how performance funding exacerbates existing institutional inequities and particularly hurts students from low-income and minoritized backgrounds. Moreover, we know that performance funding distracts institutions from their mission statements, warps institutional priorities, and even kills institutional innovation by preventing new ideas from being tested and undermining the intrinsic motivation of employees.

Put a different way, we have 41 coaches who have decided it is better to reward a handful of the team’s most talented players with special resources while telling the rest of the team to “make due” on their own. Once the glaring weaknesses of such a team were exposed, any coach who behaved in such a fashion would be swiftly fired. Nevertheless, we have 41 states that have essentially decided to penalize resource-starved colleges for the crimes of helping underserved populations, rather than practicing selective admissions policies that improve performance funding metrics. Performance funding is not innovation; it is shortsighted favoritism that rewards statistical manipulation.

Killing Innovation through Competition

Equally damaging is the belief that competition inevitably breeds innovation. Some competition is good in an environment in which individuals have the resources necessary to test, iterate, refine, and implement new ideas. However, the same resource-starved colleges in our first example are currently wasting millions of dollars—and untold hours of staff time—on untested software platforms, virtual chatbots, and online program management systems with questionable curricular rigor. The reasons for this waste are at least twofold: 1) a manufactured competition for student enrollment in the absence of nuanced and equitable state funding models and 2) an obsession with full-time student retention. This second issue is particularly damaging at a time when adult learners and low-income students need greater flexibility in their educational trajectories for full-time work, family caregiving responsibilities, and student debt mitigation. As a consequence, many of the staff and faculty who witness the consistently negative impacts these policies and initiatives have on students’ health and well-being—especially in the wake of the pandemic—are leaving higher education in droves, disappointed by their involvement in a system that prioritizes a handful of blunt statistical measures over human lives.

And for those who remain employed by colleges and universities, innovation is openly ridiculed as an empty buzzword.

Diagnosing the Problem

Our diagnosis of this lack of innovative thinking is simple. Too many initiatives are the brainchild of individuals and insular groups who are viewed, even occasionally revered, as “thought leaders” or “visionaries.” As we carefully demonstrate in our book, neither artistic inspiration nor societal innovation have ever magically transpired because a lone innovator laboring in seclusion, rebuffing vital feedback from experienced contemporaries. Higher education is full of individuals who can provide important insights into ways in which an

initiative is failing to have its intended impact. Creativity and innovation occur because individuals interact, share ideas, seek out the wisdom of experts in diverse fields, take steps to understand their audience as fully as possible, and carefully consider alternative options while refining their ideas. Similarly, we believe innovative cultures can be cultivated within higher education institutions, but only if elements of the following playbook for innovation are employed.

A Playbook for Innovation

1. Encourage Resource Sharing, not Resource Monopolization

For innovation to thrive, state-level policies and grants should encourage cooperation, rather than competition, so that institutional resources and ideas are openly shared. We are entering a dangerous period in higher education when universities and private companies reflexively patent and monetize every innovation that might facilitate student success. As a result, inevitable failures that could negatively impact thousands of students are rarely discussed in a marketplace of ideas, much less acknowledged. Promising innovations are rarely improved because our understanding of their limitations and their impact on different groups of students and different types of institutions is restricted by nondisclosure agreements. An overemphasis on competition and resource monopolization merely exacerbates existing inequities by rewarding individuals and institutions that already have the ample resources to test new ideas and the time to improve them.

2. Facilitate Consultation, not Isolation

It is a common maxim that the person who truly runs a university is the administrative assistant to a powerful administrator, as such individuals often have the most comprehensive understanding of their institutions. In a similar vein, the individuals who best understand the constantly evolving factors that impact student success can be found in the math labs, writing

centers, libraries, and classrooms of a university. In recent years, however, state policies have been developed and implemented without feedback or consultation from these exceptionally important individuals. This lack of respect for institutional knowledge is causing experienced staff and faculty to leave higher education in droves. Feedback loops are singularly crucial for institutional innovation. We cannot allow our universities to become isolated due to broken lines of communication and top-down directives that are tone-deaf to a higher education environment permanently altered by the pandemic.

3. Support Interdisciplinary Research, not Siloed Knowledge

At the outbreak of the recent Ukrainian conflict, scholars in Slavic and Russian studies were in high demand. And yet, both the government and the general public quickly realized that years of cuts to foreign language and cultural studies programs meant that few such experts were even available; some areas of the country lack them entirely.

If the United States is to meet the challenges of the 21st century, its universities cannot simply consist of a motley collection of grant-funded science labs, alumni-funded business schools, and media-funded football programs. Institutional innovation requires multidisciplinary expertise in areas of the arts, humanities, and social sciences that may not be profit centers but can certainly pay for themselves—and have done so for years. The innovative universities of tomorrow need to be places where the full spectrum of human existence is represented and celebrated—and individual expertise is recognized and given an opportunity for full expression.

4. Incentivize Intrinsic Motivation, not Predetermined Goals

As mentioned in our review of performance funding, the literature that explores the relationship between innovation and motivation is clear: Intrinsic motivation is far more powerful for innovation than extrinsic reward systems. When people endeavor to meet an externally imposed goal, they usually find the easiest and least rigorous way to produce the

necessary outcomes. A statistical improvement can be great as a media soundbite, but disastrous for students who need meaningful, lasting programs that treat their financial, emotional, and intellectual needs in a comprehensive manner. Truly innovative institutions develop their own goals, tailored to their mission statements and student populations, and they find a way to incentivize the intrinsic motivation of staff and faculty who are best informed to craft innovative programs of lasting impact.

5. Create Laboratories for Experimentation, not Policies for Disruption

To develop innovative programs, however, institutions must resist the temptation to disrupt successful departments and programs simply because they do not fit an external blueprint for success. Our most recent research indicates that some newly hired presidents are causing grave damage to their institutions by quickly eliminating successful programs, without any understanding of local and regional needs, under the mantra that “disruption is coming.” Efficiency is necessary, but an attitude of austerity can destroy existing community relationships, exile valuable expertise, and alienate students and alumni. Every university has impactful programs, dedicated faculty and staff, and community ties that should be nurtured and given the opportunity to experiment with new ideas. This impressive accumulation of talent, as well as the unique disciplinary and community perspectives they offer, must be leveraged if higher education is to develop innovative solutions for seemingly intractable problems.

Concluding Thoughts

Our goal with this blog is ultimately twofold: to change the conversations about how innovations are cultivated and to encourage governing boards and administrators to promote impactful cultures of innovation. We do not believe that innovation comes about magically through a series of organizational revolutions; nor does it emerge, like a phoenix, from Joseph Schumpeter’s fires of creative destruction. Instead, innovations require planning, and spaces for

innovative thinking should be strategically built into today’s colleges and universities. Through such careful planning and implementation, the current age of disorientation and distress can be viewed as an opportunity for higher education’s continued growth.

William G. Tierney, PhD, is a university professor emeritus and the founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. He has written widely on governance, decision-making, democracy, and equity in higher education and will speak during the opening plenary session of the 2023 AGB National Conference on Trusteeship, “Govern Strategically: Boards as Consequential Thought Partners.”

Michael Lanford, PhD, is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Georgia. His research explores the social dimensions of education, with specific attention to globalization, institutional innovation, and organizational culture.

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