Distinctive Excellence in Polytechnic Universities

Strategic and inclusive.


July 20, 2015

My prior post in this Higher Ed Beta column took a look backwards look at the historical development of Polytechnic Universities and a look forward to some new ways for strategically repositioning our evolving polytechnic universities as a special kind of university with their own distinctive excellence. I suggested that the direction of most interest for an evolving polytechnic university was to become ‘more poly’ rather than ‘more technic’. 

The ‘specialness’ in the distinctive excellence we seek has to be strategic in its focus: “enabling the institutions to differentiate themselves from competitors [and] accelerate growth of excellence”. At the same time we are looking for a ‘specialness’ that does not result in a diminished kind of university, e.g., one concerned solely with technological domains and their characteristic ways of knowing. (There may be a place for the latter as new institutions in the changing ecology of higher education, but it would be a ‘you can’t get there from here’ scenario for an existing, more comprehensive institution to pursue.) 

So to reposition an institution around an evolving direction as a polytechnic university – or to offer an innovative polytechnic education that leverages the full resources within a broader university, as in the Purdue example –we will want to find focal points that are inclusive as well as strategic. I think one way to do this is to build a focus on clusters of knowledge practices, rather than knowledge domains. 

Distinctive institutional excellence in particular knowledge practices
For example, we might choose to focus our attention – and whatever limited new investments we may be able to make –largely around positioning ourselves as “a wholly innovative university”, with that signature characteristic to be brought to life across the full range of our activities in teaching and scholarship. That doesn’t mean that everything we do is going to be innovative; but it does mean that we expect to stand out through the exemplary value added by innovative activities in each of our mission areas and each of our disciplines, and by preparing students to do the same in their own professional careers and in their broader roles as community members and global citizens. 

Another illustration of exploring a new focal point for distinctive excellence (used in yesterday’s post) would reposition a polytechnic university as excelling at the intersection of different ways of knowing – with equal respect being granted to diverse ways of knowing and to their different roles in the institution: A polytechnic university education develops, integrates and values a full range of knowledge and ways of knowing, within a subject domain and about ourselves. A direction like this lets us acknowledge excellence in areas of historical importance for a polytechnic while at the same time incorporating a broader spectrum of knowledge: craft and skill, ‘the wisdom of practice’ in professional communities and evidence from research and scholarly inquiry. 

I want to pursue this example further to see what some of the implications would be for a university to develop and sustain excellence in this way, via a special emphasis on a particular cluster of knowledge practices. How would such a conception change our teaching and learning environments, our scholarship and our scholarly service contributing to economic and social development in our regions and our society (which in Europe has begun to be addressed under the label of Third Mission activity). 

Impacts on teaching and learning
In thinking about how to establish a distinctive excellence in developing students’ capabilities in particular knowledge practices, I am reminded of the principle that How we teach is a key part of what we teach (which I first heard from Parker Palmer some years ago in an address to faculty leaders and which he later adapted into his much-loved book The Courage to Teach). In the context of a strategic 

position of distinctive excellence, I think we would want to add another phrase at the end: How we teach is a key part of what we teach and who we are. 

One implication is that if we are going to develop student capabilities in a particular cluster of knowledge practices, such as capability to engage with innovation or to integrate different forms of knowledge to improve work performance, we need to live this out in our teaching and learning environment. These capabilities are as much about values as about knowledge and skills; the environment in which students are immersed must embody these values and their learning experiences must demonstrate that value and those capabilities. 

That wouldn’t imply that all our teachers will take up this strategic aspect of the institutional directions, much less that our teaching approaches will start to converge onto a single approach. It would mean that we will aim to be exemplary for the quality and quantity of student learning experiences in which our teachers do exhibit and nurture these values and capabilities in their classes. For example, at the Design School of one evolving polytechnic university, a faculty project is exploring how the practice of team teaching in studio courses can have more direct impact as an exemplar for student development of teamwork skills. 

That project is bringing together skills developed by the teachers from past experience, the collective wisdom from their professional teaching community and evidence from research beyond their own discipline. Down the road, members of the faculty team want to explore how to more effectively share their own integration of craft, professional and scholarly knowledge to improve teaching practice, as a model for students’ integration of different types of knowledge in their own design practice. 

Another impact on teaching and learning in this context is likely to involve the integration of practitioner-academics as full partners in the educational and scholarly enterprise. A polytechnic university committed to developing, integrating and valuing different forms of knowledge ‒ craft knowledge, the professional wisdom of practitioner communities and evidence from research ‒ can also provide a particularly welcoming environment for those faculty transitioning into academia from professional practice (and those “in two camps” who maintain a professional practice in parallel with their academic career). 

Impacts on scholarship
How might scholarly activity in such a polytechnic university begin to evolve toward a distinctive excellence which reflects and supports the theme of integrating different knowledge practices? Again, we wouldn’t expect all faculty scholarship to fall within a particular strategic theme. It would be natural, though, for some kinds of scholarship to have more synergies with the overall approach. For example, a polytechnic university with the values and strategic direction sketched above would be well-positioned to host academic disciplines that study craft and professional knowledge in rigorous ways. 

As an example from one of my own academic domains, the study of design and design knowledge as an academic discipline does not imply that we are thinking of design itself as a science. There are distinctive “designerly ways of knowing” that we can study in disciplined ways; the challenge for an academic discipline of Design is to understand and apply designerly ways of knowing in the inquiry process itself. 

I first came across the “designerly knowing” phrase in a seminal article by Nigel Cross that talks about valuing and integrating diverse ways of knowing within the academic discipline of Design, and what that approach to scholarship can add to Design as both a craft and profession: 

“Many researchers in the design world have been realizing that design practice does indeed have its own strong and appropriate intellectual culture, and that we must avoid swamping our design research with different cultures imported either from the sciences or the arts…We need to draw upon those histories and traditions where appropriate, while building…our own standards of rigor”. 

If we replaced ‘design’ in these sentences with other disciplines at the intersection of craft and profession – try ‘Dance’, for example, a discipline that came up in the University of Akron discussion – then this kind of emphasis could be welcomed across departments as polytechnic universities evolve, as an acknowledgement of their distinctive academic disciplines and the way faculty scholarship interacts with the craft knowledge of practitioners and the collective wisdom of their professional communities. 

Impacts on faculty roles
All evolving institutions will likely have to reconsider how their structures for recognizing and rewarding exemplary work. We have already seen some of this in institutions adding professional programs into a traditional liberal arts environment, where the notion of the “holistic department” is one of the approaches by which the traditional faculty paradigm could be rethought. 

For example, a polytechnic university committed to developing, integrating and valuing different forms of knowledge ‒ craft knowledge, the professional wisdom of practitioner communities and evidence from research ‒ can provide a particularly welcoming environment for part-time practitioner-teachers, for faculty transitioning into academia from professional practice, and those “in two camps” who maintain a professional practice in parallel with their academic career. 

While we may particularly value the contribution of practitioners to our teaching mission, fully valuing their knowledge and relationships also entails rethinking the nature of our scholarly mission as well. The growing emphasis on knowledge mobilization ‒ from scholarly communities into practice ‒ by research sponsors has highlighted how non-traditional scholarly roles can complement other scholarship. 

In the case of an evolving polytechnic university, this could involve our practitioner faculty more deeply in community-engaged scholarship, by including our professional and vocational communities amongst those with whom we engage in “the creation, design, implementation and use of research to meet their needs” (with appropriate standards for assessing the quality and impact of such work, and distinguishing contributions as exemplary practitioners from contributions as practitioner scholars). 

A final note
The first quote in the initial paragraph of this post comes from some provocative work by Lloyd Armstrong on a business model view of changing times in higher education, which argued that it will be inherently difficult for an institution to simultaneously excel in different aspects of its mission which require different “business models”, such as teaching and research. I think a somewhat similar point has emerged in some of the ‘Third Mission’ work, around “supportive structures and mechanisms” as a precondition for “a university to achieve its potential in this kind of activity”. I’ve argued in this post that an evolving institution can become exemplary across different mission aspects if the distinctive excellence is founded on excellence in a common set of exemplary capabilities. 


Thomas Carey is a Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Institute for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada (where a number of colleagues have collaborated on elaborating these ideas). Earlier iterations of these concepts also benefited from interactions with colleagues at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. 



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