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A wooden cube has a subtraction sign on one face and a subtraction sign on another. A hand flips the cube away from the addition sign in favor of the subtraction sign.

Dilok Klaisataporn/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Not long ago, I was chatting with a friend who is a university provost about the challenges her institution was facing in standing up a new weeklong program on campus to build community and school spirit. Despite initial enthusiasm and the best of intentions, launching the program was proving to be a nearly impossible task. The team charged with executing the spirit week was overwhelmed and, yes, dispirited.

“Why don’t you start with a day instead of a week?” I offered.

What may seem like such a simple suggestion served as an illuminating moment for me. As higher education leaders, we are filled with hope and excitement. We believe in what is possible for our students through education and opportunity, and we believe in what is possible for society through the discovery and innovation taking place on our campuses. We have every reason to be energized.

Yet, as leaders, we have also seen dramatic shifts in higher education over the past decade—such as increasing competition, rising inflationary pressures and growing mental health support needs—and these changes were exacerbated by the pandemic. We are all exhausted. Our students, faculty and staff are tired.

To address this, we need to consciously rethink what we are doing and why we are doing it. We have all heard people say, “We have always done it this way,” as an explanation for actions. In fact, when met with a challenge, our natural tendency is often to do more. We regularly add new programs. Instead, we can start effecting change by doing less.

Addition by Subtraction

The idea of subtraction as a powerful way to increase value is not new. But it’s also often not what we reach for.

This concept is well documented and the subject of a 2021 Nature article describing the fundamental human bias for addition as a problem-solving strategy.

Through observational studies and a series of experiments, Gabrielle S. Adams et al. repeatedly demonstrate that when trying to solve a problem, we tend to focus on what we might add to solve the problem and rarely focus on what we might subtract. In one of Adams et al.’s examples, an incoming university president requested input on changes that would allow the university to better serve its students and community. Only 8 percent of the responses were subtractive—that is, they involved removing elements or resources from the university—while 70 percent were additive and 21 percent were neither additive nor subtractive.

As university communities, we need to change our belief that more equals better. Many times, more just equals more. The workforce has changed, and demands are increasing while our resources are often decreasing.

I have met very few higher education leaders who aren't seeing this problem on some scale on their campuses. On our campus, we have agreed that we want our programs, events and activities to be outstanding and meaningful. We have promised to do fewer things better. So, if we have to add something, we try to assess what we can end to free resources—human and otherwise—for the new initiative.

A LESSon in Innovation

Research by Jacob Goldenberg et al. identifying five fundamental templates for inventing new products finds that subtraction is a powerful concept in innovation. For example, rather than trying to improve a product by adding new features, they describe how inventors may remove features or components, including those deemed to be among the most desirable, to create new products: removing a car roof, in one example they cite, yields a convertible.

How often do we find ourselves deciding to add one more thing because we think it will be the feature that sends it over the top, making our program, product or experience even more appealing? Instead, let’s focus on scaling back so we can scale up. We can make sure our program’s initial offerings have the necessary components to produce the intended impact, but also give our programs and plans room to grow. There will be additional information gained in the first semester and the first year of a new program, and evaluating that information will offer new insights and direction.

Let’s challenge our tendency to do everything at the start. We can unveil improvements over time as needed. Doing so provides the opportunity to continue to keep a program top of mind and count our successes over time to show true, transformational impact. Additionally, the breathing room we gain is an act of compassion for all those around us.

Say No to Think and Create More

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” historian Cyril Parkinson wrote. In life and work, and in higher education particularly, Parkinson’s law can reign if unchecked. On a vibrant, thriving campus, there are always committees to participate in, projects to support, events to attend and discoveries to be made. We also are never far from our inbox and to-do list, thanks to the screens we have with us at all times.

College and university campuses are full of smart, earnest individuals who want not only to do something well, but to challenge themselves to improve upon their first effort. In doing so, we naturally tend to tinker, revise and update until we are out of time—or worse, overdue and overextended. This can lead to detrimental effects on our creativity and productivity.

Our default response of “yes” allows obligations and distractions to fill up all available time and space. By allowing ourselves to say no, we will give ourselves and others the freedom to think, to innovate and to create a future where all can flourish.

I end as I began, with great optimism for the future of higher education and a recognition of the changing landscape. I recently asked the senior leaders at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to assess our go-forward actions, and I call on my colleagues at other universities to do the same: Will we meet challenges in the same ways we always have, or will we make necessary subtractions, challenge the status quo and create a safe space for our faculty and staff to do the same?

“Fewer.” “Less.” “No.” They can be powerful words for change—if we allow them to be.

Sharon L. Gaber is the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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