Can Colleges Be More Innovative? (And if so, why?)

It seems that everyone is calling for colleges to be more innovative. You’ve probably heard something like this: “Colleges are resistant to innovation. How many institutions have remained unchanged for 500 years? Only the Catholic church and the college. A student from 400 years ago would be right at home on today’s campus.” et cetera… This lack of innovation seems strange, because colleges are filled with innovation: research professors generate breakthrough research, engineering professors invent new technologies, and medical professors invent new drugs and surgery procedures.

I just read a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reports on a provocative article in the Washington Monthly, an attack on colleges for their lack of innovation. The article also describes a panel at the Washington think tank “New America” with three award-winning college innovators. Here’s a summary of the conversation.

First, most of the lack of innovation isn’t really the college’s fault. If the incentives that colleges work with don’t change, then why should they change? Incentives like public rankings, student demand and application numbers, total tuition revenue.

Second, innovation implies that you have to be the first person to ever do something. But some of the most important changes happen when a college borrows and adapts something that’s already been proven elsewhere. The pressure to innovate often leads university administrators to do something new just because it’s new, when they could get more mileage out of borrowing, adapting, and tweaking (see “incentives”–they aren’t rewarded for borrowing something that already works).

Third, many are calling for innovations in how to provide more flexibility for students. But flexibility can lead to fraud and abuse. Colleges have many legal requirements and constraints that block changes.

Fourth, when institutions change, some students benefit but others suffer. That’s why so many university administrators are cautious–they want to protect and help their students. It’s easier to get fired for doing something new that visibly hurts a student, than it is to get fired for continuing to do the same thing.

Most of what colleges call “innovation” are incremental changes, not breakthrough reinventions of the institution: things like modifying a degree requirements, or adding a new computer technology to the classroom. So, what sort of innovation do we want from colleges? What sort do we think they really need?

Finally, be suspicious when politicians call for innovation in higher education. What they usually mean is, we’re going to cut your budget. And if you complain about it, you’re just not being innovative.

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