Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff: Academic Innovation in all Shapes and Sizes

To listen as many of us incessantly complain, one would think academe is chronically resistant to change, new ideas and innovative programs. We often hear the smaller the stakes, the greater the petty battles—no opportunity is too minute to stall and impede. Before tenure, junior faculty need to be protected while they build their publications dossier; after tenure, they no longer need to care or demonstrate any institutional commitment or loyalty. Professional schools lag behind their professions rather than provide cutting-edge wisdom for their next generation, as faculty rely on their reservoir of dated materials and perspectives.
Or so we often hear.

I believe we don’t give ourselves enough credit for innovation and creative thinking within higher education. The soap operas of entrenched faculty, factions divided over trivia, professors protecting their sub-disciplines, lengthy and convoluted approval processes, and ongoing acrimony and melodrama all overshadow progress made without fanfare. The longer view of the history of the American college and university clearly demonstrates the responsiveness to changing societal needs and opportunities—with faculty often at the forefront of that change.

If a growing creative class, to use Richard Florida’s term, is the catalyst for our dynamic society, then the university is its temple. Cruise control is anathema to the academic temperament. Academics’ very psyche draws them to tinker rather than stagnate. Faculty are innately restless. Even when they devote their entire adult life to one institution, faculty often reinvent themselves several times over the course of their careers. This is one of the undervalued appeals of the academic life and the malleability of the academic enterprise. Professional lives can change even when titles do not. Faculty can move in and out of various roles. Universities, consequently, have been remarkably adaptable and even protean institutions over the centuries—and very capable of reinvention and delivering new knowledge and value to their expanding constituents. While the list of top corporations changed dramatically over the course of the past century, America’s leading universities have not: far more because of their resilience than their resistance to change.

David Riesman, sympathetic to the impediments that leaders face in higher education, coined the term “faculty veto group” to characterize the negative force faculty play in moving their institutions forward. Faculty block but rarely facilitate; micromanage and second-guess, rather than support their institution’s leadership. Though there is no denying the inherent intransigence in this stereotype, just as often faculty quietly innovate. We look for evidence of blockbuster changes when modest, incremental change is far more common, less detectable, and perhaps much more desirable. By focusing on the challenge of introducing major transformations or innovations, it is easy to overlook the march forward from ideas far more discreet, minute and local, though cumulatively perhaps even more impactful.

I would distinguish between micro- and macro-innovation—one a baby step and the other a major leap, one whispers and the other screams, the first overlooked and the latter overrated. Micro doesn’t mean mini; introducing innovations in the classroom, reinventing course content, developing interesting scholarly projects each pave the way for even larger breakthrough events. We tend to elevate and romanticize vision and self-proclaimed paradigm shifts, as if these are frequent and planned. “If you are having visions,” former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said, “you should see a doctor.” Beware the prophet, but study the plodder. What is micro today can lead to macro tomorrow—with the foundation, reassurance and wisdom that help to ensure success. Lasting innovation benefits as much by slow cooking as stir-frying. So, let’s give a cheer or two to the academics we too often berate for their inertia.

Forecasting the future of various possible actions—or inactions—has inherent false negatives (thinking something looks safe, and it isn’t) and false positives (fearing something bad will occur, and it doesn’t). Potential risk should never paralyze an organization, but there are ways to mitigate that risk: seize concrete opportunities, take trial-and-error steps that minimize large investments or lingering commitments, select options that permit a variety of alternative paths, and avoid dependency on any set outcome. Academic innovators find ways for their institutions to be nimble rather than calcified, and avoid public megafailures. There are few institutions as unforgiving and intolerant of failure as academe.

In my experience, the most successful innovations occurred through steps that wouldn’t have been catastrophic if aborted, and worked out in ways, frankly, no one even predicted or planned. I would modify the popular business cliché “disruptive technology” to suggest that academe benefits most by its disruptive pedagogy. Trying new things causes old habits and assumptions to be revisited. While I am coining new jargon, I would also introduce the phrase “planned serendipity.” Strong academic leaders place themselves in the path of potentially good ideas and capitalize on them.

Chocolatier Willie Wonka morphed Thomas Edison’s famous edict (invention is 99% percent perspiration and 1% inspiration) into a slightly different, more mathematically-challenged formula: “Invention, my dear friends, is ninety-three percent perspiration, six percent electricity, four percent evaporation, and two percent butterscotch ripple.”

Effective academic leaders cleverly bring the butterscotch to the party.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University.


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