Published on 2016/11/03
The EvoLLLution | Five Ways to Promote Innovation in Resource-Constrained Institutions
Innovation is critical for the long-term success of colleges and universities today, but when resources are limited how can leaders ensure their institutions can prepare for the future?

Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”—a classic 1949 film noir celebrated for its plot twists, zither-infused musical theme and atmospheric cinematography—includes a particularly well-known speech by Orson Welles:

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Even if the Swiss Reisläufer were a formidable military presence during the Renaissance—and the cuckoo clock was actually developed in the Black Forest region of Germany—Welles’s wry commentary is indelible, transcending any glib historical inaccuracies. This is because it offers a degree of solace to anyone who has experienced a tumultuous work environment. Out of the maelstrom, perhaps I, too, can effectuate great, enduring achievements!

Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with many faculty, staff, and administrators who maintain a commendable degree of optimism in today’s age of relentless rhetoric about the need for austerity. These individuals see an increasing number of students who are valiantly attempting to complete a college credential while fighting the deleterious effects of poverty. To be clear, the issues faced by many current students go far beyond transportation issues and penny-pinching for overpriced textbooks. According to a recent study, approximately one in every ten students in the California State University system experiences homelessness during the school year, and one in every five students experiences food insecurity.

Anyone who spends a few days at a community college or regional state university, regardless of location, will encounter similarly alarming cases of student hardship. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s recently published book, Paying the Price, rather clearly and definitively demonstrates that our glib policy rhetoric venerating the “ideal student” who never drops a class and assiduously turns in assignments on time is remarkably tone-deaf. To afford the tuition increases of the past two decades, many college students cling to low-end jobs that require overnight shifts, unpredictable hours, and mentally draining labor. We can talk endlessly about the need to link higher education with careers, to develop workforce-ready credentials. Until we provide more holistic forms of support for students, retention and competition rates will remain substandard.

And yet, the sad truth is that, in the midst of this snowballing student poverty, the institutions most in need of state support are being deprived of the very resources that could make a tangible, lasting difference in the lives of thousands of individuals.

As argued by Simon Marginson, state support of higher education will not likely return to the heady days of Clark Kerr’s 1960’s Master Plan for California and the fiscal-social compact that supported a nearly-free college education. For this reason, I propose that resource-constrained institutions need to foster a culture of innovation. However, the research I have published with Bill Tierney at the University of Southern California shows that an innovative environment does not occur spontaneously. It requires careful planning and deliberate action. The following are five suggestions for higher education leaders looking to cultivate innovative thinking within their institutions:

1. Promote both inherent and acquired diversity

Companies that actively promote diverse hiring practices are quite simply more innovative. Nevertheless, our conceptualizations of diversity in higher education are often deeply lacking. They tend to essentialize individuals in ways that exclusively focus on ethnicity or gender and presumptions of like-mindedness based on these inherent characteristics. A more comprehensive view of diversity should not only include inherent characteristics, but also acquired characteristics, such as knowledge of the humanities and significant, prolonged experience with foreign cultures. In particular, multicultural experiences are positively correlated to creative abilities like insight learning, remote association, and idea generation.

2. Avoid an over-reliance on quantitative assessments

Transparent assessments are an essential part of every functioning organization. In today’s higher education environment, however, employees at every level are compelled to waste far too much energy and time on the production and dissemination of meaningless statistics that purportedly justify their existence. When an assessment culture places the fulfillment of a trivial numerical goal over sustained, painstaking work that can have a meaningful outcome, employees will feel cynical about their jobs. To be clear, quantitative assessments are useful as they can provide valuable information about performance. But they should be used sparingly, as they cannot offer a comprehensive picture.

3. Especially avoid performance funding

Once thoroughly discredited by researchers and practitioners, performance funding has reemerged as an instrument of discipline in many states. The most pernicious aspect of performance funding is that it fails to capture institutional complexity and disregards the unique challenges that institutions face in different social and cultural environments. Even worse, innovation is stifled because institutions are understandably wary to test a new idea, lest a single failure ruin subsequent funding. Hence, an overreliance on performance funding encourages cookie-cutter institutions and discourages the kind of innovation necessary to test ideas and improve student outcomes.

4. Greater autonomy is necessary

For innovation to occur, institutions need to tap into the intrinsic motivation of its employees. The best way to do so is through greater autonomy. We need to empower the talented people working within higher education by scheduling fewer meetings, facilitating more unstructured work time, and finding ways to pilot promising ideas.

5. Feedback is vital

When employees have little input in how they are evaluated, they will feel unappreciated, and their work loses meaning. Unfortunately, many state colleges and universities have become hushed, quiescent environments where staff and faculty are afraid to openly disagree with policies or initiatives. This has to change. Even if an institution is populated by talented, diverse individuals, it will be inert if people do not have the ability to offer feedback, vocalize their unique perspectives, and share their expertise.

Innovation is a complex concept that resists easy definition. Nevertheless, by implementing these five suggestions, institutions may be able to commence a new Renaissance of American higher education—even in a contemporary environment marked by fiscal turbulence.

The author would like to thank Shannon Murdock for her perceptive feedback and assistance with this commentary.

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