You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Universities are on the cutting edge of knowledge and technological advancement -- with faculty and researchers not simply staying current in a wide range of fields, but leading the charge. And yet higher education itself is surprisingly resistant to change.

It’s all too easy to see university leaders as overly comfortable in their ivory towers, ignoring the world as it changes around them. But resistance by another name is resilience. Higher education’s ability to stay fundamentally the same amid monumental change is not a flaw in the system, but rather a feature that has served it well for centuries.

As Clark Kerr, the renowned former president of the University of California System, memorably said, “About 85 institutions in the western world established by 1520 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and unbroken histories … and 70 of them are universities.”

That’s an astonishing record of resilience. American universities are much younger, of course, but they too have proved adept at adapting slowly while remaining the same at their core. But the pace of change is far greater today than at any time in the past. Institutions can no longer adapt on 20- or 30-year timelines, but rather are facing change cycles of two and three years.

Today’s students are far more diverse -- racially, economically and socially -- than ever before. And the job market colleges are expected to prepare them for is changing rapidly amid globalization, automation and other technological advances. Slow, steady evolution is now a luxury few higher education institutions can afford.

If institutions hope to survive and thrive in the future, they will need to adapt new methods for change -- whether programmatic innovation, advances in student supports or improvements in business processes. In particular, they will need to create mechanisms, tactics and safe spaces for rapid experimentation.

That philosophy is at the core of innovation labs popping up on campuses across the country -- as the most forward-thinking colleges and universities turn their long-standing R&D capacity toward their own institutional design. More than 200 institutions now have chief innovation officers or similar senior roles, and another 200 have online learning roles that are connected to broader academic innovation efforts, according to Entangled Solutions research in 2018. And more are hiring.

But while thoughtful institutions realize they must innovate, they often don’t have a clear picture of what kind of experimentation they are after. As with any new initiative, it’s important to understand how it fits within your existing mission and operations. Institutions should consider whether they want to start a new initiative that is a vast departure from its current mission (transformational), one that pushes in a new direction but is closely related to current operations (adjacent) or one that would iterate on the existing institutional foundation (core).

Even if institutions choose to focus on a combination of all three horizons, they need to be clear about how. Much as they would manage an investment portfolio, institutions should create an innovation portfolio to guide resource allocation in accordance to risk tolerance, available resources, adaptability, capabilities and objectives. Colleges and universities also need to be clear about the scope of the portfolio. Institutions too often see every problem as one to be solved by “innovation.” In reality, an innovation office needs a defined role and scope. There are four models -- each with different structures and staffing -- that institutions should consider.

Moon-Shot Lab

The moon-shot lab, well, shoots for the moon. This is a highly ambitious approach that aims to create an entirely new model for a part of the higher education market -- to do what hasn’t been done before. This type of innovation office is led by and staffed with people who operate like entrepreneurs. They have a high tolerance for uncertainty, test ideas fast and often, are skilled at diagnosing what works and what doesn’t, and are comfortable killing nine of every 10 ideas.

The team that developed Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America is a prime example of the moon-shot lab. That team was tasked with dreaming up entirely new approaches to education that would serve a widely different student body from its parent institution. They ultimately landed on creating a separate entity that would offer competency-based degree programs for older, returning adults. It wasn’t just a new brand, but a new provider altogether. The California Community Colleges’ move to create a new stand-alone online college is another example of the moon-shot play.

This kind of approach requires visionary leadership, both from the institution’s president and from the person leading the innovation lab. It also requires a high tolerance for risk and patience to wait an extended period to see returns on investment and impact. You will both need to be comfortable with ideas that look very different from business as usual and be willing to invest substantial resources without knowing exactly where it will lead. In other words, it’s not for everybody -- and that’s OK.

But higher education leaders should be mindful that this is a space entrepreneurs and investors are comfortable in. If they cede this space, colleges and universities are giving up the chance to shape the innovations that may come to define their future. If they do not create new program models themselves, they may soon be facing them as competitors.


An R&D approach to innovation takes aspects of the moon-shot approach -- including the focus on building the truly novel -- but focuses it more on the initiative or product level, rather than shooting for a wholesale new model for higher education. This form of innovation is mission adjacent.

The EdPlus team at Arizona State University follows this approach. It has a portfolio of projects from a partnership with the Mayo Clinic to rethink medical education to collaborating with Starbucks to create an online degree plan that enables its employees to pursue work-relevant bachelor’s degrees.

Internal Consultancy

The internal consultancy approach is just what it sounds like. It brings together a team of internal experts to work on challenges that lie at the core of the existing institutional mission. A consultancy focuses on problems that bubble up, rather than developing idea wholesale.

This type of lab creates a home for staff with expertise that is otherwise scarce at most institutions. The best internal consultants are often former consultants themselves or have deep practical experience in areas like business analytics, design thinking and operations and program design. They build relationships across the institutions, identify opportunities to partner on projects and coach departments and teams in methodologies for innovation.

The objective in an internal consultancy is to provide leverage and guidance to accelerate existing ideas. Projects can come from institutional leadership, but many institutions also have a mechanism for departments or individual faculty, staff and students to raise challenges. These types of labs are able to take an idea that otherwise would have sat in committee for a year and provide sufficient guidance to make that decision in one to two months. Well-established, high-performing institutions often benefit most from this approach.


The accelerator is a familiar model when it comes to academic research, but it’s also gaining traction as a model for addressing challenges to institutions’ core missions. If a department, division or even an individual faculty member has a nascent approach, such as using a particular type of technology to improve teaching, the accelerator will give the experimenter the tools needed to accelerate the idea.

The Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan takes this approach. One of the academic innovation team's current projects is developing a data visualization tool, dubbed ART 2.0, that will help administrators, faculty members and students make more informed decisions. Instructors, for example, will be able to find out what majors their students in a particular course are pursuing, or which courses those students have already taken. This will allow them to better tailor the learning process. The academic innovation unit has also helped develop an online coach that provides personalized assistance in large classes, a tool that uses gaming to enhance student motivation and learning and a writing-to-learn tool.

In some cases these models exist in isolation of one another, but it is often the case that institutions design primarily for one model but incorporate aspects of other models to meet their specific needs. Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox, for example, incorporates aspects of moon shot, R&D and internal consultancy. And Arizona State has multiple labs, from EdPlus to University Initiatives to ASU Enterprise Partners, each serving a distinct function and service.

Labs are rapidly becoming the key tool for the most innovative institutions. They offer a way to navigate uncertainty -- whether a college or university must build new revenue streams to survive, is embarking on an audacious growth plan or is well positioned but knows it needs to stay relevant. Innovation labs, done well, help institutions prepare for -- and better yet, create -- the future.

Next Story

More from Views