The Innovation Imperative

By AGB    //    Volume 25,  Number 5   //    September/October 2017

Innovation is the watchword in higher education today, the antidote for what ails a sector confronting one of the most disruptive eras in memory. But what, exactly, is innovation? How does an industry that derives its very substance from careful study and contemplative judgment find the wherewithal to respond quickly to change?

AGB has been exploring the topic for more than a year, and this fall is issuing a Board of Directors’ Statement on Innovation in Higher Education that seeks to advise leadership about making change. The task force advising the Board’s statement encourages the development of both a commitment to and “a culture of innovation [that] prizes and rewards creative thinking…. It even rewards failures to motivate the continued effort to develop new ideas.”

To be sure, innovation rarely emerges ex nihilo. This issue of Trusteeship takes a look back—to last spring’s National Conference on Trusteeship where a panel of innovative leaders gathered to discuss the meaning and practice of innovation in higher education. Excerpts from the discussion follow.

Claudio Sanchez: Operational excellence, strategic sourcing, innovative curricula, sustainability, holistic education, inclusive global community and global engagement, embeddedness, innovative partnerships, community, sweeping reform. What does all this mean?

Rebecca Chopp: These are challenging times, but they’re incredibly exciting times. I think we’re privileged to be able to transform higher education in the midst of them. We’re redesigning the academic experience to be hands-on experiential. At the same time, we’re looking at what students need. Some need financial literacy skills. All need things like emotional intelligence and problem solving. The student experience is also focusing on career achievements.

The second transformation is knowledge. Knowledge in the 20th century was discrete, stackable. You had legal knowledge; you had religious knowledge; you had math. In the 21st century, it’s about how to use knowledge—knowledge that is attainable at our fingertips, thanks to technology. So we’re building an interstate highway system across our university and into the city and the region to use our knowledge to solve the big issues of the day.

Third is the university itself. Universities have been silos. They’ve been ivory towers. They’ve been walled off from their communities. We believe that the university of the future is simply a hub, a station. Its real campus is global—and urban. So we are increasingly bringing people to our campus, neighborhoods, communities— opening our doors, giving our space away for free. And we’re engaging in real and vital partnerships. We don’t expect our faculty to have all the answers.

Finally, the institution itself. We’re now trying to create a porous network that can be agile and change. We’re trying to create degrees that we don’t expect will stay for 20 years. We’re trying to develop badges and concentrations and certificates that can address both who the students are and what the market needs.

Angel Mendez: At Lafayette, our board has taken on a very strong and aggressive strategic plan that begins with growing the student body by 500, the first time we’ve done much by way of growth since going coed in 1974, and achieving need-blind status in six years or less. We believe there is a huge opportunity to reach an audience of leaders that the world needs.

To innovate around our facilities, we’re building a fairly sizeable science center to provide the physical facilities for integrating our engineering programs and liberal-arts programs; increase innovation and entrepreneurship; and again deliver the leadership that we hope lets us continue for many, many more years.

Michael Crow: I think the most important thing for us was to recognize that so many universities and colleges spend their time—even to some extent waste their time—thinking their success or their failure is dependent upon their measurement against another institution [rather than] the impact they’re having within whatever niche they’re operating in.

We decided to establish a goal for which innovation was the only way to attain it. We said we will be a failure until our student body is completely representative of the entire socioeconomic diversity of our society. That meant at a public institution like ours, unless we had 20 percent of our student body from families at or below the poverty line, we were not a successful institution.

The innovation for us was to set a truly public objective where we no longer worried about what other people thought about us. That led to cultural innovation within the institution, structural innovation, and technological innovation, such that not only do we have a student body that is representative of the entirety of that socioeconomic diversity, but at the same time, through those innovations, we’ve been able in the past few years to increase the number of graduates per year from 8,000 to 24,000. The innovation was to begin thinking differently.

Carlton Brown: Probably since my early entry into higher education administration, I have been pushing general education reform, pushing the notion of tying the capability of students to earn [with what they] learn inside of institutions because the number of families and students that can actually afford a four-year education has continued to diminish. [This reform becomes] essential as it coincides with the moves of the federal government and others to reduce their contribution to higher education.

For institutions to support their students at a higher level, they have to begin to extend and diversify their own revenue, moving into even more nontraditional populations— those who have stepped out, who have been pushed out of higher education, who have not completed their degree for one reason or another—and finding the roads for their reentry into institutions. It won’t be in the same ways they were in before. Hybrid work, online work, and continuing education must become a part of the DNA of institutions.

We’re trying to engineer change internally but also making sure that we work directly with presidents and board chairs. Because what we’re finding is that innovation requires board-level comprehension and the understanding that board activity—board work—has to change for innovation to take place.

Nancy Zimpher: For eight years, the previous [presidential] administration, along with Lumina and Gates and every other foundation devoted to [college] completion, said we need to raise the number of educated adults in this country to at least 60 to 65 percent. According to a Lumina study, in six years we raised it 2 percent. We have not moved the collective dial.

Part of the explanation is that we don’t really know how to innovate—that we have a problem we’re trying to solve, but we’ve come up short on strategy. Knowing exactly what’s going on in our enterprise—selecting the most effective evidence-based strategies to move the dial and then getting our investors to believe that we can move the dial— would restore the public trust so that we can grow the population of educated citizens.

Job one in thinking about innovative practice is that our boundaries have to change, our goals have to be translated into data and into evidence; we have to get people investing in what works and then we have to take what works to scale. That’s a theory of action that could be applied to our work in research, our work in entrepreneurship, and every other innovation we’re trying to develop.

Crow: I don’t think it’s that we don’t know how to innovate in higher education. I think it’s that we don’t want to innovate, and we don’t want to innovate largely at the board and senior management level. I used to be a trustee of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. I was the deputy provost at Columbia University for many years and worked with our board. Innovation is not what we talked about. We talked about beating the two or three other schools that we thought were somehow inappropriately perceived as better than us.

If we talked about anything, it was the opposite of innovation. We talked about replication, adoration of tradition, and the maintenance of the process by which we could find better faculty. So it was a process in which innovation was absent from the equation.

Chopp: I think the vast majority of higher education [institutions] are well aware that they’ve got to innovate. I think we’ve crossed that gap. Some years ago, Dan Weiss, then president of Lafayette, and I wrote a book. We took it on the road. Once we got away from the very wealthy, endowed schools, what we were seeing was tons of innovation. I don’t think there’s going to be one model. I think we’re going to see lots of models. There’s a ton of experimentation going on. In McPherson, Kansas, there’s a liberal-arts college where you can get a degree on auto restoration and art history or general management. Students are flocking.

Mendez: I think if one studies organizations that sustain innovation—not just invent one thing one year, but on a continual basis seem to be able to disrupt themselves before someone else does and keep up a pace of change that’s truly value-added—you’ll find some common ingredients. People know what they want to be about; they don’t apologize for what they want to be about. They frame their destination, their brand, and their position in a very describable, actionable way. Then you have to believe that you can “unsilo” the institution. If we’re good at one thing in higher education, it’s in constructing and cementing silos. You’ve got to increase the clock speed of the place. You’ve got to figure out a way to allow experimentation.

Brown: The other part of the problem is that we keep trying to innovate by doing everything in the same ways we’ve always done it. I think too many institutions are so set on protecting what they perceive to be their primary tradition that they don’t even recognize their own history of innovation, that part of how they got where they are is a past innovation.

Sanchez: The buzzwords have become corporatization, privatization, competition, and transformation versus the status quo. What is the status quo? Obsolete cost structures, obsolete governance, teaching disconnected from the real world. So you have this drumbeat that has created the perception that higher education is out of touch. That it’s just not delivering.

Crow: Our enterprise of higher education certainly has its flaws and its problems, but it’s engaging broader sections of our society. It’s producing more graduates from a broader [range of ] families, and working in ways that it’s never been asked to work before.

What boards haven’t done to some extent is focus on holding their own institutions accountable for the real problem in the United States, which is college completion. It’s not college access. Issues of debt and finance are very different if you actually have a diploma. Half the recipients of Pell Grants since 1980 do not have a diploma. So the real problem for all of us in the room is, how do we make our system perform better?

Zimpher: I think this is where higher education has its greatest opportunity. I feel like we’re still remote from the lives of many lower-income people in this country—we look expensive, we look exclusive, whether we are or not. When we cite 85 percent high school graduation rates and we don’t look at how many people three months later actually go to college, we’re kidding ourselves that we’ve found the solution.

Chopp: I think many presidents are having a very difficult time with innovation. I see the innovation coming from deans. I see it coming from faculty. But most of the presidents in America are over 65, so I think the real question is where the next presidents are coming from. What are we doing to develop them? I’m not on a board of a college or university right now. If I were, that’s the question I’d focus on.

Brown: I think we’re complicit with other institutions in creating some greater divides. Increasing numbers of students are going to college with college credit already, just as there are increasing numbers of people trying to get into college who [aren’t as] well prepared. And those divisions are, to a significant extent, class-based.

We’ve also maintained some separations between our traditional student populations and other populations of students who have an equally strong need for higher education. We don’t understand, for example, that the student in the online program who is struggling is not getting some of the things that a traditional student gets by being on a college campus. That’s a class-based issue, too.

Mendez: I think the call to action for boards and for presidents is to remember the product. Anybody can walk out and just learn how to code and get a job right away. We are preparing students for a life of learning and development, not just to get a job.

Sanchez: What is one way trustees can best prepare to ask the strategic questions that allow innovative ideas to come to the forefront?

Crow: One thing that trustees can do to alter behavior is to set very, very, very challenging goals. And you shape the questions around those goals.

Chopp: I would say taking the time to be generative. I think sometimes trustees come in from the outside and they want to be strategic, they want to begin with their answer. We take an annual retreat where we go for several days, and we engage a sector, a question. We don’t rush to the answers, we give lots of information. We may bring in outside consultants. I think that you can’t be creative in an hour and a half or three hours, which is what most board members’ meetings are.

Brown: Innovation requires partnership. That external partner has resources that can be brought to bear on a particular innovation through a creative partnership.

Mendez: I think our sector, by and large, is very cooperative. And there are pockets of great collaboration amongst institutions. But we don’t necessarily partner very well. We tend to be in our cohorts. And within cohorts, we find home and a common set of interests. I think it’s inevitable, given where costs have been going and the goals of accessibility, that more and more institutions are going to have to learn to truly partner—to exchange real revenue, to exchange real business models—if they’re going to be successful.

Zimpher: But the investment matters. The fact that you’re willing to say I can support that idea, even at a small level.

Sanchez: Is higher education still struggling with being all vocational colleges versus giving an education for the sake of an education? Is it either/or? That’s the tension that seems to exist out there. Do we train people for jobs or do we train people for life?

Brown: During a period of heightened change like we’re going through right now, all the boundaries get blurred and shaken up. So we’re talking about some things now that 20 years ago we wouldn’t have talked about too much, such as practical training and whether or not we should be developing discrete, salable skills in our students at every level.

Chopp: I think there certainly has been that kind of either/or. [At the] University of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin had a vision that all education has to be extremely practical. All education has to be about the deep questions of life, the solving of problems, the innovation. In a way, I think we’ve returned to Franklin’s idea…. What I find is faculty really love the hands-on learning. Some may do it three days a week, some may do it three times, some may do it in a short-term experience of going somewhere, but I don’t think that means classroom learning or laboratory learning is displaced. I think it’s a combination because I think it’s a vision. Fifty percent of the knowledge that the professions are using today is not going to be used in 10 years. So the notion that you can train to specific skills is just a ridiculous one. You’ve got to train to continually problem-solve and innovate.

Zimpher: I think the model of early college high schools could very well be the future of the high school. You gain college credit while you’re in high school through some kind of dual enrollment. You have some kind of internship—you’re working with business and industry—and you still have the opportunity to enter college as a sophomore. Those very fluid lines [have] to be our future. We’re too boxed in to old buckets of education that don’t apply anymore.

A Culture of Innovation

A culture of innovation at a college or university begins with an understanding that the status quo is not sufficient for continued success or viability. While the institution’s mission may still have value, the new environment for higher education requires fresh approaches for delivering that mission.

In this new setting, a culture of innovation prizes and rewards creative thinking. It empowers constituents—staff, faculty, administration, students, and community members—to think creatively about solutions and to implement them. It also embraces risk and failure as integral aspects of innovation. It even rewards failures following good attempts—“shots on goal”—to motivate the continued effort to develop new ideas. Many institutional innovations begin at the grassroots level as compelling ideas that gain traction and are then scaled to create sustainable innovation throughout the institution. In a culture of innovation, governing boards and presidents recognize the power of these grassroots ideas and seek to support the good work on innovation that is occurring in all areas of the campus community. They also look externally for connections in the local community or region to leverage these innovations.

A culture of innovation requires boards and chief executives to work and think together about opportunities and risks. The governing board, as the ultimate fiduciary in any institution or system, must demonstrate leadership by conveying trust in its institution’s leaders in spite of the inherent risks associated with innovation. The board should show a willingness to be nimble, add value to both strategy and supportive policies, offer recognition, and ensure appropriate investments—both large and small—in support of change. —From AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Innovation in Higher Education (2017)

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