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Building a Culture of Innovation to Break from the Status Quo

The EvoLLLution | Building a Culture of Innovation to Break from the Status Quo
External pressures—financial, demographic and market-driven—are elevating innovation from an option to a priority in higher education, but it’s important for institutions to support innovation as a cultural practice rather than a growth exercise.
Innovation is an often-used—sometimes even over-used—word in strategic plans and company cultures, but as Cathy Sandeen points out, innovation is crucial for colleges and universities looking to overcome external pressures and grow enrollments. In this interview, Sandeen advocates for a firmer understanding of innovation on university campuses, and points to concrete ways in which an institution can build innovation into its culture.

Evo: Why are continuous improvement and innovation so important to the health of a postsecondary institution?

Cathy Sandeen (CS): Continuous improvement and innovation are important for any organization, whether you’re in the academic sphere or not. We all need to focus on how to do things better and find innovative ways to improve. This is particularly important in the postsecondary industry right now due to several external pressures.

The first is financial. In the United States, postsecondary education has become very expensive, so there’s a lot of talk about debt and affordability. This puts pressure on us to become more efficient.

The second is demographic. People are migrating away from certain regions of the country for economic opportunity, so there are fewer “traditional” customers for higher education in those parts. There’s a similar pattern in Canada, where the eastern provinces are losing their high-school-aged population to the west.

Finally, there’s a growing demand from the labor market for college credentials. In the US, we still have high demand for attainment, but attainment is really viewed as bachelor-level degrees and non-degree certificates. We’re forced to be more accountable and look at our outcomes.

These factors are driving the need to look at continuous improvement and innovation, both in terms of program delivery, but also in terms of student and administrative services. Innovation is a pressing priority because we are expected to do more as demand grows. We need to be able to serve more people, more efficiently.

Evo: When it comes to delivering a high-quality, personalized experience to students at scale, how important is it to effectively leverage available technologies and tools?

CS: We need to be able to use technology in smart and resourceful ways.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently though about open-access institutions, which serve a lot of first-generation and non-traditional college students. A lot of these students are working or have kids; often, they’re veterans. Their educational needs, especially at the start of their program, are very high-touch. For me, it’s important to think about how to serve different populations of non-traditional students, and parse out the degree to which they need a personal touch.

The technological question feeds into this. We want these students to become independent, but a lot of them need the face-to-face interaction to acclimatize to higher education. For example, we’ve envisioned a structure wherein some of our smaller campuses could become distance learning hubs where students could gain the tools they need to be successful studying at a collegiate level. There, students could undertake developmental education in a face-to-face setting, with tutors and coaches and faculty at their disposal. They could go through their first online program in a computer lab, with other students and coaches to help them. This is an effective way to deploy technology in a way that’s more high-touch and provides students with the support network they might need at the beginning of their educational arc. From there, we could stream them into more technology-based learning, by moving them into a traditional asynchronous online course.

I should note that one size does not fit all. We need to look at our diverse student populations and analyze how best to serve them. Technology is a palate of different tools that we can draw from to assist more students in getting through effectively.

Evo: One of the knocks on higher education as an industry is that there isn’t a lot of success in changing how things are done. What are a few of the reasons behind this tendency for higher education to cling to the status quo?

CS: Firstly, we might be branching out from the more traditional four-year residential program for traditional-age students, but we’ve been talking about non-traditional students and online education for about three decades. It still seems like we have to start from the beginning whenever we have these conversations, as if somehow administrators don’t recognize that non-traditional students and teaching methods are here to stay. On the one hand, we are innovating and branching out from the status quo, but on the other, we’re still trying to justify the importance of doing so.

Secondly, higher education is very status-oriented. We have our Carnegie classifications and a distinct pecking order. Personally, my mission is to make sure that access-oriented institutions are focused on social justice and equity–that we are educating people so that they can better participate in society and in the economy. I think we are at a tipping point in higher education where we are drawing in people who aren’t interested in education because of the status anymore. We’re drawing people into our industry who are interested in helping people gain social and economic mobility. The more we draw the best and the brightest into this sector, the more we’re going to see innovative practices.

The way to achieve innovation is to focus on our mission and our outcomes. Are we doing what we set out to do? Are we helping more people earn degrees? Once we start doing that, more people will be interested in the “how.” We have the what; we have the why; but not the how. The how is where innovation takes place.

Evo: What are a few of the strategies that senior leaders can put in place to create the space staff and faculty need to innovate?

CS: There are a few tactical techniques that I tend to use.

First, you have to hire the right people. When you have the opportunity to fill positions, you need to emphasize innovation in the job description and the employee search.

Second, you need to consider the institution’s incentive structure. If it’s a part of the institutional mission to enhance results through innovative techniques and tools, then you need to incorporate that into the incentive structure for faculty in terms of their retention, promotion and tenure. How is innovation rewarded? At most institutions it’s not up to the chancellor to determine this—it’s up to the faculty leadership. You can also incentivize innovation through performance evaluations by including an element that touches on innovation and participation in new initiatives.

Another technique I’ve seen at other institutions is to have a separate unit devoted entirely to innovation. The University of Wisconsin Extension is one of those departments. It’s a home to a variety of online collaborative degree programs that serve workforce needs and meet the needs of non-traditional students. This includes the UW Flexible Option degree program, which is one of the nation’s first competency-based programs. Arizona State University’s EdPlus division is another. It can be very effective to have a place where people are focused on innovations that can spread through the rest of the organization.

Evo: What advice would you share with those working within an institution to try to create a space for innovation when the structure of the university can be so constricting?

CS: For me, it’s about having a small number of high-impact goals and being accountable for results. Another thing that we’ve done in the past is to implement innovation grant programs. That’s a high-visibility way to get people thinking about innovation and change.

You have to communicate the results of innovative processes to make them part of the institution’s every-day conversation and identity. Celebrating success and talking about the institution as being on the cutting edge can really help to shift the culture towards that change. We’re not changing embedding innovation into an organization just because it’s the cool thing to do. We’re doing it because it’s helping us achieve our goals.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes for an institution to break away from the status quo and consciously focus on efforts around continuous improvement and innovation?

CS: First, I’d like to say that there’s a lot of good in the status quo. I think a big part of our job is to draw on the wisdom of the status quo: what makes sense, and what can make sense for the future. I’m not one for throwing things away just because they’re traditional—there’s a lot of wisdom in tradition.

That said, there are a lot of negative perceptions about higher education right now. I worry that students are either delaying or deciding not to participate in postsecondary education altogether. We need to confront our part in contributing to those negative perceptions and figure out ways to counteract them. The more we talk about new ways of doing things–and old ways, as long as they work–while staying focused on the mission, the more we can grow.

I also have some advice for staff and faculty that are interested in pursuing innovation at more traditional institutions.

First, find your advocates. There are great administrators, deans, vice-presidents and vice-chancellors who would love to know about faculty and staff who have new ideas.

Second, find a circle of like-minded people who are also innovators. When I arrived at the University of Wisconsin System, a small group of people headed by one of the deans at UW Madison had formed an informal “blue sky” group. We got together on a quarterly basis to talk about new and exciting innovations in higher ed. That was a great way to foster a culture of innovation.

Third, attend conferences and learn from people at other institutions. It’s a tremendous way to open up your mind and find new people you might want to collaborate with.

Finally, going back to what I said at the start, we aren’t innovating for innovation’s sake. We’re innovating for a specific purpose: In our case, it’s to help more people achieve degrees and credentials. If new ways of doing things can help us get there, I’m all for them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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