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Higher Ed’s Toughest Nut to Crack: Implementing Innovation

How to make student success happen.

November 18, 2019
 
 

The primary challenge facing educational innovators is not what to do. The answers are widely known: these include effective onboarding of new students, a curriculum that students find relevant, exposure to active-learning pedagogies and high-impact practices, data-informed advising, and wraparound support services.

The key challenge is implementation: how to focus, motivate and incentivize the multiple stakeholders who will actually execute any proposed innovations.

In my last post, I described eight pillars of student success. But how do we implement these initiatives? Who’s responsible? Is it academic affairs and student affairs administrators? Faculty? Teaching and learning labs? The answer certainly varies by institution. But the key is that groups of faculty, staff and administrators need to identify and tackle one or more challenges in their own area.

Much of the advice about how best to promote innovation tends to be highly abstract. John Kotter’s popular model of institutional change -- creating a sense of urgency, a powerful guiding coalition and a vision of change, and achieving short-term wins -- is certainly attractive. After all, it provides a step-by-step template that innovators might follow. But it also contains certain flaws.

  • It doesn’t sufficiently recognize the barriers to change.
    Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and institutional constraints, past failures and initiative fatigue combine to make many stakeholders skeptical or cynical about the possibilities or desirability of change. Hyperbolic talk of crises leaves faculty and staff immune to claims that a problem requires urgent action.
  • It presupposes a level of cooperation, coordination and central direction that rarely occurs in the academy.
    No small, powerful group can drive change within colleges or universities. Top-down direction is anathema to many higher ed stakeholders. Autonomy at the college, department and faculty level is highly prized, and any attempts to circumvent normal governance procedures will almost certainly prompt resistance. The alternative is a loosely knit coalition of the willing: faculty and staff members who promote change apart from, but in alignment with, administrators.
  • It’s a model designed for a very different environment.
    A model designed for the business world, where stakeholders receive immediate feedback in terms of profitability, stock prices and market share, is not directly applicable to nonprofit higher ed institutions, where the key performance measures -- retention and graduation rates, number and qualification of applicants, admissions yield, discount rates, alumni donations, and institutional rankings -- are long term rather than short term.
  • It’s excessively linear.
    Change in universities is anything but sequential. It tends to be highly uneven and often involves reversals, relapses and shifts in direction.
  • The model fails to specify goals and opportunities.
    Benefits to the institution as a whole or to students are generally insufficient to prompt action. Without incentives, a culture supportive of innovation, a sense of agency and clear, focused and achievable goals, innovations are likely to bog down.

What, then, is to be done?

It is essential, first, to recognize that innovation is context specific. What’s possible at one institution may not be achievable or even desirable at another. Second, radical transformation is, not surprisingly, viewed with suspicion.

What’s most likely to succeed are incremental changes that build on existing successes.

Third, campus governance largely determines what can and cannot be achieved. Opportunities for change can come or go along with shifts in membership of the university senate or board of trustees.

Then what?

1. Be radically transparent.
If first-year retention is a big problem, lay out the evidence. If an even bigger problem is transfer student success, let faculty know. If your institution lags behind its peers in specific areas, for example, in measures of student engagement or opportunities for experiential learning, make others on campus aware of the problem. Or if career readiness is an issue, offer evidence that demonstrates that this is in fact the case.

2. Relationship building is crucial.
Data, no matter how telling, don’t speak for themselves. Engage in conversations with colleagues and brainstorm. If a colleague suggests a potentially fruitful idea, do everything you can to support it. Remember, institutional change is not a one-person job. It’s a team sport.

3. Do everything you can to empower those with good ideas, lots of energy and a track record of success.
The most successful innovations aggregate many more focused innovations, involving advising, pedagogy and course and curriculum design. If you are a higher-level administrator, offer support, incentives and assistance to those who will do the heavy lifting.

4. Borrow from the best.
The academy overflows with exciting innovations and role models. Keep abreast of what’s going on elsewhere, and figure out what’s relevant or suggestive for your institution. How do other institutions scale faculty-mentored research or study abroad? What models can other colleges and universities offer regarding first-year or capstone experiences?

5. Seize opportunities.
Perhaps your institution needs to draft a strategic plan or conduct a self-study. These can provide the occasion for resetting institutional priorities. Use the findings of a NSSE report or student exit surveys or annual institutional research findings to prompt discussion of key challenges facing the institution. Take advantage of the exit of an important individual to rethink that person’s role, responsibilities and expertise. Also, be opportunistic in other ways. External funding can give outside validation to a particular issue or strategy.

6. Don’t claim credit.
John F. Kennedy was correct: success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan. Success hinges on a variety of individuals who need to receive credit for their own individual accomplishments. Celebrate their successes.

7. Remember your role.
No one wants their toes stepped on. Colleges and universities are complex organizations with specialists in diverse areas. You can’t and shouldn’t try to do someone else’s job. But in instances where no one is responsible for a task, step in.

8. Be prepared to pivot.
Some good ideas will certainly fail to gain traction or face insurmountable obstacles. There’s no reason to fight futile battles.

9. No innovations are permanent.
All successes are short-lived. As time passes, priorities shift, student demographics change and institutional needs evolve. Inevitably, the time will come for new leadership with fresh ideas. Indeed, much of the dynamism of the academy lies in the emergence of new leadership with a novel vision.

Ultimately, colleges and universities are talent-laden institutions that constantly replenish their human capital. Successful institutions don’t rely on a small coterie of leaders, but, rather, recruit and encourage new innovators.

Steven Mintz is special adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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