Innovating on the Margins: Transforming Higher Education by Working from the Outside In

Co-written with Pam Northrup | Senior Associate Provost and CEO of the Innovation Institute, University of West Florida

The EvoLLLution | Innovating on the Margins: Transforming Higher Education by Working from the Outside In
It can be difficult for institutions to innovate and respond quickly to change, but by creating a unit designed specifically to focus on transformation while operating on the margins, it’s possible to overcome these common challenges.

Colleges and universities across the United States are under great pressure to innovate, improve their service to their local communities and adapt to the changing demographics and demands of today’s student population. However, as is commonly noted by those inside and outside the postsecondary space, innovation can be a challenge for colleges and universities. In this interview, Martha Saunders and Pam Northrup shine a light on the work they are doing to drive institutional transformation at their institution and across Florida, and reflect on what it takes to overcome some of the most severe challenges to innovation in higher education.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is the Innovation Institute?

Martha Saunders (MS) and Pam Northrup (PN): The Innovation Institute at the University of West Florida emerged as a result of academic reorganization and strategic planning. The results have exceeded all expectations.

At the UWF Innovation Institute, much of the work is focused on solving significant educational challenges. Challenges may be in the form of funded projects, campus-based issues and initiatives from the community, legislature or through partnerships with the military and industry. Solutions developed through a design thinking + systems process created at the Institute—the IDEA MethodSM—are typically transformative and may result in a new process or product and possibly require organizational change to implement to its fullest. Projects having a big impact to the landscape of education require innovative thinking, multidisciplinary teams and bold leadership. At the Innovation Institute, we focus on these key principles in producing products, processes and partnerships that have the potential to change educational practice.

Notable examples of Innovation Institute projects include “Complete Florida” as a 15-institution adult degree completion partnership led through the Innovation Institute and the launch of “Florida Shines” at the Florida Virtual Campus (FLVC). Both projects are funded by the Florida legislature to provide a centralized model to support colleges and universities in pursuit of student success. The Institute is also actively working on competency-based education, immersive education, online learning and career education and planning for K-20.

Evo: What was the inspiration behind UWF’s Innovation Institute?

MS: It should come as no surprise that universities typically do not move very fast.  The reflective culture of the traditional campus does not lend itself to quick response or fast decision making. Unfortunately, good opportunities don’t always wait for us to deploy our usual processes and the window for seizing on a great idea or partnering with industry or community can close as quickly as it opens. As chief academic officer, I felt the need for a “flying squad” designed to respond to community needs and challenges through the formation of educational partnerships.  We had talked about forming such a unit for a while, and academic re-organization gave us a prime opportunity. In my mind, the best person to lead the effort was one who had brought us to a number of innovative successes, Pam Northrup.

PN: Although universities do not move quickly, many opportunities exist and in many cases, require a rapid response. These opportunities for collaborative partnership may result in launching new opportunities for the institution, the state and the world. As a former college dean, I found it quite difficult take on these rapid response opportunities, test new ideas and launch new initiatives within the “bubble” of the college. It was difficult to see outside of the regular daily operational activities of managing the teaching, research and service of a college.

Stepping away from that role and adjusting my lens to lead the Innovation Institute provided more opportunities to remove silos, engage partners from across campus, across town or across the world and pitch it to our Innovation Institute team for immediate engagement. The Innovation team, founded around these new principles of extreme collaboration, high energy, deep research, innovative thinking and the drive to cross the finish line is the culture that drives everything we do.

Evo: How does it fit within the university structure?

MS: It made sense to us to house it in the Division of Academic Affairs. This gave us the best access to the faculty and research resources and the corresponding top decision makers. In addition, whenever you are engaging in educational partnerships, the credibility of the academic division and the support of the individual colleges matter.

PN: The alignment to Academic Affairs does make the most sense. Many of the projects include direct alignment to academic affairs serving libraries, student admissions, enrollment, retention and graduation as well as building out innovative programs like competency-based education, accelerated programs, shared programs, concierge coaching and more. This requires the alignment with Academic Affairs leaders at UWF and allows us to fulfill our responsibilities for the entire State University System and State College System.

Evo: Why is it so important for universities to be a presence in their communities?

MS: The days of universities (especially public universities) functioning separately from the communities in which they exist are totally over. The service portion of our mission extends to economic development of the region. In that regard, we need to be responsive to opportunities as they emerge. In my experience, when a company is looking to locate in a community or a local business is thinking of expansion, the ability of the local higher education institution to provide the needed workforce is key to decision making.

PN: Our office is downtown, about ten miles away from the main campus. This “connected adjacency” was something we believed to be important. We are still a part of UWF, but separate enough to allow us to distinguish ourselves as something different.

We are housed in an old warehouse in a revitalization part of the downtown community. We were fortunate enough to design our work environment from a blank canvas of an unfinished building. We designed the entire space around collaboration, brainstorming, sharing and the ability to bring the world to us technologically. On day one, we opened the doors to the community, area businesses, surrounding school districts, the military, military contractors, university and others to use the space for their creative thinking, to collaborate with us on projects and to collectively better understand how to serve the needs of our community.

One of the first projects was to design the framework for a new UWF Center for Cybersecurity. Using our IDEA MethodSM, we engaged the military, IT employers, faculty, the local state college, school districts and others to figure out what this might mean for our community. As a result of a great deal of collaboration, a vibrant Center is now operational on the UWF campus.

Evo: What has the Innovation Institute, with its work with Complete Florida and the Florida Virtual Campus, accomplished for UWF?

MS: Our Innovation Institute has lived up to its promise as a responsive, high-quality part of the university. The work with Complete Florida and the Florida Virtual Campus has brought high-profile recognition of our ability to deliver educational opportunities to the region and state.  In addition, we have the sheer joy of doing what we love to do and what we do extremely well.

PN: Both projects have been quite successful. The Complete Florida program’s challenge was to target the 2.8 million adults in Florida with some college and no degree, bring them back to college to complete and connect to the workforce around high-demand, high-wage jobs. Using the Institute’s IDEA MethodSM, we learned about the needs of returning adults, what their motivations would be to return to college, how to retain them to completion, how to reduce costs and how to connect them to careers. We launched Fall 2014 and now have 15 college and university partners working collaboratively with us to, offering over 70 fully online and accelerated degree programs with concierge-based coaches to guide adults to the finish line. We have graduated 500-plus students to date and have about 600 students actively taking courses, with another 1500 students in the pipeline to admissions and registration.

The Florida Virtual Campus was implemented by the Florida legislature in 2012 as a services-focused organization supporting all 40 colleges and universities in Florida for academic libraries, student services and distance learning. In 2014 it was moved to the Innovation Institute to provide service to the state. We are clarifying roles and doing a deep dive into how we collaborate through our FLVC library organization “Florida Academic Libraries Services Cooperative” to meet the needs of the future. Most recently, we launched the student-facing portion of FLVC, called Florida SHINES, as a Student Hub for INnovative Educational Services in Florida. Included are shared services that institutions (and students) can plug into so that it doesn’t have to be replicated campus by campus. We launched in July 2015 and to date there have been over 725,000 visits to the site for career education planning, transient applications, distance learning state course catalog and more.

Evo: What challenges did you have to overcome to get the Innovation Institute to where it is today?

MS: Creating a new and innovative entity within a traditional university structure takes a lot communication. Not everyone will get it at first.  The usual turf issues have emerged. Our Innovation Institute transcends all the university colleges and draws from programs across the spectrum.  It is important for university leadership to truly buy in to the concept, and then provide support (and shelter) when needed.

PN: Initially, we had a strong vision for where we wanted to go and garnered a great deal of support. What I did not take into account was the significant change leadership that would be required. Innovation is necessary and a lot of fun. However, not everyone wants to change the status quo, even if it is failing.

This has been an ongoing challenge and I had to quickly develop a conscious meter for what was a bridge too far, what would be eventually accepted and how to increase the communications flow and widen the circle of engagement when necessary. Being a completely new entity on a traditional university campus, the whole effort had to be defined and refined so that it was not perceived as a threat.

The other challenge was staffing. An innovative, pioneering, collegial spirit having comfort with the uncertainty of what might unfold, the confidence to follow a path less traveled and the ability to take innovative ideas to execution is not for everyone. When talking with other innovation organizations across industries, the issues are similar and compromise sometimes is the only way to keep the momentum going.

Evo: What advice would you offer to others who might want to launch a similar enterprise?

MS: Any provost or president planning to launch an innovation organization should be very clear about expectations and parameters within which the unit will operate.  Resources must be identified and maintained while the center is growing.  Ideally, projects initiated by our Innovation Institute will ultimately find their way into the traditional institutional structure so that the innovators remain free to, well, innovate.  The trick is knowing when to move a program out of the innovation structure and into the sustainable environment of the university.

PN: There are few innovation organizations within higher education. To launch a similar enterprise, there must be support by senior academic leadership such as the provost to ensure that workflow, new processes and new products are taken seriously and can move the institution forward.

The other, more tactical, advice is to balance detailed project planning with the freedom for innovation teams to work. It is sometimes difficult to plan every task initially, which is why we rely so heavily on our design thinking process. It is important to allow for incubation of ideas, but ensure close monitoring to know when to cut off the new idea generation phase and move into prototyping, development and execution. The leader of this organization should have sufficient experience at a high enough level in the organization to have breadth and depth of knowledge across the academic enterprise.

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Key Takeaways

  • Hosting the Innovation Institute off campus, but still maintaining its ties to the universities through Academic Affairs, was critical to allowing it to grow and respond quickly to changes while ensuring that all projects were of a very high quality.
  • Having support of senior institutional leaders is critical to the success of programs like this that operate on the institutional margins.

Readers Comments

Stella Carroll 2016/01/15 at 9:12 am

This is a great example of problem solving. If the institution won’t move fast enough, create an arm that can. I think it’s also an example of walking that fine line between the freedom of operating on the margins and the security of operating within the fold of the university. In terms of both the individual projects and the overall organization, it’s important to know when to shift operations from one to the other.

Oscar Bishop 2016/01/15 at 1:03 pm

Not everyone has the resources available to initiate a project like this, but I imagine there will be some pretty significant returns eventually. Even just with the completion rates their seeing in some of their initiatives, that’s going to draw more students and turn the heads of more admin.

Andre Barton 2016/01/15 at 3:25 pm

The buy-in from the higher ups can’t be overstated, I think. It’s so important to have support from those who have the experience and the clout to help you see it though the tough times and quell the naysayers. It’s a tough process what these administrators are doing, and I hope their success will spur more schools to take chances on this kind of innovation.

Susan Farber 2016/01/15 at 4:27 pm

Martha Saunders, Pam Northrup and the leaders of teh University of West Florida deserve much praise in their efforts to redesign how some students complete courses to advance their education.
Thank you for sharing a description of the process and the outcome of these completed steps!! Hoping other institutions share their experiences — or — are motivated to initiate such actions!!

Thomas Carey 2016/01/19 at 11:05 pm

Thanks, Pam and Martha, for this very clear explanation of the rationale for giving an innovation incubator some room to breathe…neither wholly outside or wholly inside the more traditional elements of our programming. I just wish I had discovered the UWF Innovation Institute a bit earlier: I could have used your example in a recent Inside Higher Ed blog post asking “Can a Teaching Support Center Also Be an “Innovation Incubator”?
https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-beta/can-teaching-support-center-also-be-“innovation-incubator”

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