Reactions to the Inaugural Leading Academic Change Summit

Thoughts on a Gates sponsored gathering.

December 3, 2014
I’ve spent the past two days participating in the Inaugural Leading Academic Change Summit, an event co-hosted by the University System of Maryland’s Center for Academic Innovation (thank you MJ Bishop) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation  (thank you Anne Keehn).
This was a convening for weird academic people.  Those of us who don’t really fit in with traditional organizational structures and lines of authority.  We are a group that is obsessed (perhaps to an unhealthy degree) with wanting to help shape the future of higher education.  The attendees were a diverse group of academics, with roles ranging from members of teaching and learning centers (”the sleeper cells of higher ed change”), vice-provost folks, and those running academic computing and research and assessment units.  
We came from community colleges and R1 research institutions, small private liberal arts colleges and large state systems.  What united us was a common sense of purpose around the need for higher ed change, and a sense that the job titles on our business cards do not quite describe what we do on campus. We are people with big strategic institutional goals, but who largely the authority, prestige (or budgets) of presidents and provosts.   We are a bunch of academic nerds who share non-linear career paths, a lack of tenure, and little formal training in the theories of organizational change. 

Is this the sort of gathering that you are also looking to attend?  Are you also an academic misfit?  

It was honestly pretty wonderful to spend time with peers who are doing similar work and who are facing similar challenges.  The real bonus to this convening, and the reason that this convening is different from the those that I usually attend, is the diversity of institutions represented and the shared goals around change.  
My sense is that cross-institutional gatherings to talk through big picture strategic issues usually involve the highest levels of campus leadership.  The presidents and the provosts and the VPs.  This meeting was different.
What has occurred in the last few years has been the collision of new pressures (public disinvestment, rising costs), new models (blended learning, flipped classrooms, and open online education at scale), and a growing excitement around learning science (learning analytics and advances in cognitive science and learning theory).  This collision has opened up space for a new group of non-traditional and non-faculty academics to engage in more robust and productive collaborations with faculty and campus leadership.  We are seeing a growth of learning and learning research related positions in teaching and leaning centers, academic computing departments, digital learning units, and institutional research units.  Every institution is struggling with how to shift organizational structures, reporting lines, resources and personnel closer to teaching, learning and student success.  
Three of the questions that were discussed at this Leading Academic Change Summit were: 
  • Are we seeing the emergence of a new discipline within higher ed (the weird people discipline - please help me with a better name)?
  • What are the skills, knowledge, and frameworks around organizational change that these not-very-powerful but very passionate academic geeks need to learn?
  • If there is really something to this, if we are seeing an emergence of a new group of academics with strategic aspirations but without traditional organizational levers, how can this emergent group form a community?   
Like any good gathering, the group of us that got together over these past two days Maryland had many more questions than answers.  We got some help in thinking through these questions from Peter Senge, Candace Thille, and Peter Eckel (3 inspired choices to lead discussions of academic transformation - and 3 of the people who should be top on your list to visit your campus!).   These speakers and facilitators were as good as one could get, but the real value of the convening was the chance to share stories, roadblocks, successes, frustrations, inspirations, and learnings with peers.  
My hope is that The Gates Foundation follows up on this convening by making similar investments in higher ed people.  When folks in higher ed think of the Gates Foundation it is usually in terms of grants.  My sense is that the real power of Gates is in the foundation’s ability to convene. 
It will be interesting going forward to see if this oddball and curious academic folks who gathered for 2 days in December in Maryland will be able to build a community.  
It will be interesting to see what other sorts of academic communities devoted to higher ed change that Gates and other foundations choose to invest in.  
It will be interesting to observe (and maybe play a part in shaping) how higher ed responds to the collision of digital disruption, new delivery and accreditation models, and rising costs.  It will be interesting to witness course design and teaching methods move from a set of hidden practices driven by gut feelings, to a visible enterprise that is informed by cognitive science and data. 
Do you also find yourself working across established organizational structures, working for change in traditional academic structures that were not originally designed to promote innovation and risk taking?
What would you like to know about this Gates co-sponsored Leading Academic Change Summit?
What gatherings have you attended, and that you would recommend, that bring together a similar group of people?
Where do you think that the Gates Foundation should target investment around goals of academic change to catalyze improved access, lower costs, and better learning outcomes?


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