How Campus Innovation Happens

Since institutional transformation rarely comes top down and seldom results from deliberate design, senior administrators need create opportunities for faculty and staff to innovate.

July 7, 2022

Colleges and universities have changed profoundly over the past quarter century, but not in the ways that innovators predicted.

To be sure, some of the disruptors’ dreams have been realized, at least in part.

  • Lower-cost degree options have expanded, mainly due to the efforts of the mega-online non-profit providers like Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors Universities that have unbundled the traditional college experience and adopted new staffing models.
  • Synchronous and asynchronous online learning has expanded, especially at the Master’s level.
  • Alternate providers have proliferated, including the MOOC distributors, including Coursera and edX, tech firms like Amazon and Microsoft, and museums and institutes, sometimes in partnership with degree-granting institutions.
  • Faster, cheaper degree alternatives – certificates and non-degree certifications and apprenticeships – have multiplied.

But the biggest changes have occurred elsewhere.

  1. The organizational structure of colleges and universities has grown much more complex
  2. Colleges have become hubs for service provision.  
  3. Graduate and professional education has greatly expanded.
  4. Research, grants, and contracts loom much larger than in the past.
  5. Ancillary income from a host of money-making programs (including summer camps and campus rentals) has become much more important to sustaining campuses financially.

This list underscores an essential but underrecognized fact:  Significant changes in higher education generally occur unnoticed if they fail to fit the established narratives.

The issue I want to investigate today is how innovation takes place in higher ed.  

  • Does innovation flow from the top down?  Or from the bottom up?  Is it a byproduct of external pressures? Or from shifts in the zeitgeist?  
  • Are administrators the drivers of innovation?  Or are faculty, students, accreditors, foundations, professional societies, policy advocates, or government agencies?  
  • Is the major force driving innovation the quest for revenue and reputation?  Fear of litigation or protest?  Or are the forces for institutional transformation more idealistic?

In a 1997 review of David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia, the classic 1995 history of a century of public school reform, Seymour Papert, the mathematician, founder of MIT’s Media Lab, and one of the pioneers in developing Constructivist learning theory, offered a series of reflections on the process of educational innovation and institutional transformation.  

Papert, who was convinced that technology was poised to transform education much as it was already upended other sectors of the economy, was initially concerned that Tyack and Cuban were arguing that a series of impediments – bureaucratic inflexibility, for example, or a stubborn commitment to tradition or resistance from teachers, parents, unions, and others -- made educational innovation virtually impossible.  

But as he pondered the book’s arguments more closely, he became convinced that the authors in fact offered new ways of thinking about how educational innovation takes place – not by deliberate design, but, rather, through a Darwinian process of evolution.  This was a process in which institutions adapt, usually incrementally, but sometimes more rapidly, as a result of environmental pressures, experimentation, mimicry, and competition.

According to Papert, the key to understanding why some novel developments thrive and others flail lies in a distinction between innovation and the actual process of institutional change.

Educational innovations are intentional, purposeful efforts to alter fundamental aspects of the educational experience, such as the department structure, the academic calendar, the credit hour,  curricula, pedagogy, instructional staffing, student support, or assessment.

But Papert argued that institutional change is rarely the product of deliberate design.  Many of the most profound and long-lasting changes in education occur in other ways.  For example, many changes in institutions:

  • Emerge in response to an external development: enactment of a law, rulemaking by a regulatory agency, a court decision or simply the threat of litigation, activist pressure, a highly successful model for emulation, or a wholly unexpected development like the pandemic and reckoning with race and equity and the mental health issues it spawned.
  • Arise in reaction to a perceived threat or opportunity.
  • Are driven by individual faculty members pursuing their own agenda.

Also, an innovation’s effects are often unintended.  Take, for example, the introduction of computers. Innovators envisioned computers overturning the status quo, by making learning more active, interactive, collaborative, and, above all, more personalized.  Computers, early adopters believed, could customize pace, content, activities, assessments, and each student’s learning trajectory.  

That wasn’t to be.  Computers were quickly assimilated into the existing state of affairs, used to deliver readings and worksheets and facilitate drilling and quizzing.  Insofar as computers did ease the research process, these devices, ironically, also made it nearly effortless for students to cut, paste, and plagiarize.

Innovations often fail, Papert, like Tyack and Cuban, argues, not because faculty are lazy or uninterested, but due to the sociology of bureaucratic organizations.  Misguided incentives, inadequate supports and training, and organizational structures, rules, and procedures that don’t easily enable innovation discourage many of the most far-sighted, creative, and inventive faculty members from launching educational initiatives that extend outside their own classrooms. 

Also impeding innovation is a conformist bias toward the conventional.  Any deviations from standard practice, or what Tyack and Cuban called the grammar of schooling, are inherently risky.  Just as it used to be said that no one ever got fired for buying from IBM, no one is likely to be criticized for following normal practice, time-honored conventions, and established procedures. Innovations are held to a high standard, and junior faculty innovate at their own risk.

At the heart of Papert’s argument is a Darwinian-informed understanding of how institutions evolve. According to the great British naturalist, the evolution of species is not a product of a guiding hand, nor is it centrally directed, nor does it reflect a preexisting developmental plan.  Evolution results from the interplay of such factors as environments that favor certain living forms and disfavor others; random mutations, some of which thrive while others falter; and diversity, which maximizes the possibilities for evolutionary change. 

A similar process can be found at educational institutions.  Despite the claim that such institutions are notoriously resistant to innovation, colleges and universities regularly undergo change.  Sometimes these changes reflect ideas, especially those ideas backed by foundation dollars or encouraged by accreditors or popularized by the higher ed press.  Sometimes these innovations are products of necessity, as institutions pursue cost efficiencies or try to tap new student markets. At times, these innovations emerge in response to student pressure. And more often than not, these innovations are championed by associate deans or associate provosts seeking to make their reputation or by visionary faculty members whose motives are highly idealistic.

The best-known theories of innovation, like John F. Kotter’s 8 step process of organizational change, are top down.  Senior leadership not only defines a strategic vision, but creates a sense of urgency, builds a guiding coalition, communicates a vision of institutional change, removes barriers, generates short- term wins, cultivates buy-in, and anchors change in the institution’s culture.

Sure, there are a very few university presidents who succeed in imprinting their vision on an entire institution.  Think Arizona State’s Michael Crow or Southern New Hampshire’s Paul LeBlanc or Western Governors’s Scott Pulsipher.  

Then there are some presidents who make highly strategic use of donor dollars to develop distinctive areas of campus strength.  Hunter College’s Jennifer Raab’s creation of honors scholars cohorts in the visual and performing arts, computer science, humanities, nursing, public policy, and the natural sciences, the Cooperman Business Center, the Dolciani Mathematics Learning Center, the Zankel Arts Hub, and Presidential Student Engagement Initiative offer a striking model of how external fundraising can be used purposefully shape a campus’ identity.  

But in the instances I am most familiar with, many of higher ed’s most vaunted innovations started small and were the work of a small number of extraordinarily committed faculty visionaries, like my UT colleague David Laude, who spearheaded the development of UTeach, a teacher preparation program that prepares STEM teachers, the Freshman Research Initiative, which engages more than 900 first-year students annually in mentored research, and student success initiatives that include the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan and the University Leadership Network, which offer academic support and experiential learning and career readiness opportunities. 

Or take the example of my Hunter College colleague Michael Steiper.  An evolutionary anthropologist, he created a multidisciplinary program in human biology with tracks in body, mind and health, human evolution and variation, and human organizations that quickly grew to become the campus’ third largest degree program. 

So what, then, are some proven ways to drive innovation?

1. Campus leadership should work closely with faculty and staff to Identify areas of need and opportunity.
Encourage entrepreneurial faculty to tackle existing campus problems or to pursue emerging opportunities.  Perhaps your campus has a particular problem with sustaining students’ academic momentum in year 2 or advising students who are closed out of their first choice major or ensuring that transfer students aren’t closed out of required courses.  Encourage faculty and staff to generate and implement solutions – then recognize and reward them for their efforts.

Also, make sure faculty know about relevant opportunities.  For example, embolden faculty members to apply for institutional grants.  

2. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Since innovation only rarely comes top-down, create a environment in which faculty and staff feel encouraged to innovate.  Make sure that innovators get the resources, time, and support they need to bring ideas to fruition.  Recognize, reward, support, showcase, and scale successful innovations.  Don’t let inspiring success stories go untold.

3. Create islands of innovation where experimentation can flourish.
Test beds, innovation hubs, incubators, and accelerators are all the rage in the tech world.  These are physical spaces where researchers, innovators, and startups can transform ideas into innovative products and services.  Higher education already has something somewhat similar:  maker spaces, collaborative workspaces where students and faculty can ideate, brainstorm, iterate, and engage in rapid prototyping.

But our campuses also need another kind of space, where alternatives to standard practice in teaching and learning can be tested, free from many existing institutional constraints.

4. Construct a culture of innovation.
Organize campus conversations.  Stage innovation showcases.  Create a system of rewards for innovations that solve campus problems, or that capitalize on an opportunity.  We reward research and teaching, but we also need to do more to acknowledge and value those faculty who dedicate themselves to making the campus a warmer, more welcoming, more vital place.

Higher education today talks an awful lot about leadership.  The nation’s most selective campuses pride themselves on their ability to identify, enroll, and nurture this nation’s future leaders, not just its future political leaders, but leaders in medicine, science, technology, and other fields as well.   More and more campuses offer leadership skills development workshops, where undergraduates learn how to take initiative, delegate responsibilities, handle conflict, and manage and motivate others.

In academic environments, a leader’s most important skill is not to direct, drive, or spearhead change.  Rather, leadership’s biggest responsibility is to work with faculty and staff to identify and define campus priorities, increase and appropriately invest campus resources, collect and share data, align incentives with campus goals, and showcase and reward success.

The most successful campus leaders are highly effective fundraisers, but that is not enough.  They must also motivate, inspire, and empower faculty and staff.  That requires senior leadership to listen effectively, share responsibility, and award credit where credit is due.  Unfortunately, those leadership skills are, I fear, as rare as a hen’s tooth.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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