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Hiring Hinders Innovation in Higher Ed

The EvoLLLution | Hiring Hinders Innovation in Higher Ed
Higher education institutions cannot hope to innovate, grow or meet the demands of today’s students if they refuse to bring in new ideas and ways of thinking in the hiring process.

The lack of innovation in higher education is at times stunning and at other times stupefying as we fight to cling to old models designed for past eras.

We are always trying to push our students back in time, to when we were in school, since we are so confident that is the only way they can learn. Yet we are inundated with headlines and research reports crying out about lower graduation rates, challenges with accessibility, drop outs, stop outs and other issues, all trying to understand why new, younger students simply cannot learn in the old ways.

This is, of course, very confusing because the old way is the only way to learn. In this world, education technology is nice but unnecessary, online education is for cheaters and those that would really want to come to a building but are not motivated, and the advances in video and communication technology are fancy but lectures still reign supreme.

This all coming from the academy, which considers itself among the greatest engines of creative thought. When did the academy become so enamored of itself and less dedicated to creative learning and new knowledge? Possibly, it could be in how we hire.

Looking through Inside Higher Education’s job site I found the following job descriptions:

For a Dean:

“Minimum 5 years related work experience in student services in higher education, with a minimum of 3 years experience in administrative, supervisory or leadership roles.”

For an Associate Dean in Business

“Five (5) years’ experience in responsible academic program coordination, administration and management”

For a President

“The new president will have extensive experience in the academic enterprise.”

The common thread through all is the desire to be the same. Looking for someone that has experience doing the same things in the same way. What does five years of experience really mean? It could mean the candidate spent five or more years doing what the previous person in that position did for over ten years, which was done exactly the same way by the previous person for another ten years. We seem to have developed a pattern of recruiting experience when innovation is needed. Where have the original leaders in higher education gone? Even our new ideas are old ideas in new clothes. For example, we keep hearing that competency-based education (CBE) is the new way we will change higher education. Really? CBE is not new. The concept of teaching to competencies has been around for over 30 years. What’s more, in many ways grades themselves actually reflected competency until they lost their connection to what they represented. The term CBE is not even new. It simply became more relevant.

Think about the basic operation of a higher education institution and what do you find? Everyone does the same thing in the same way, and tuition continues to rise with little overt connection to costs or response to demand. We build lecture halls when we know students’ attention spans are limited and technology driven. We administer tests like the ones we used to take in the 1960’s. We wonder why students just don’t sit, listen, do their homework and engage. Of course, for those of us above 45, we went to college in a day and time where we had possibly three radio stations and a few TV stations, we had newspapers and the nightly news. We did not access to the information or tools today’s students think of as standard or commonplace. There was no cable, there were no consumer computers (let alone laptop computers), no fax machines, no cell phones, no Wikipedia, no Internet, no social media. The ONLY place we could get new information, new technology, new anything was at the Academy. And we fell in love with the academy because it was the ONLY place that nurtured our desire to learn.

The trouble is that today, students have all of what we did not, and technology has opened doors and access in a way we could never imagine. Students do not wait to learn; they Google the answers to their questions. Want to see learning in action? Watch a group of 10 year olds play what we call video games. They go to the web for answers, they look for “cheats” (not a bad word in game lingo I am told), they tweet for answers, watch YouTube for live demos and while one is playing the game another is on a tablet. We had board games. The point is, you no longer need the buildings and lecture halls of the academy for new research, new ideas, or innovation. Today, all you need is a smartphone, a good search engine and the skills of curious 10-year-old gamers.

Unfortunately, the academy seems to think the only path to providing continued quality is to suggest we all jump into time machines. Online is considered inferior even though today’s students have been learning online since preschool—even adults have been using the Internet heavily for 20-plus years. Research is great but not if it is done quickly with electronic devices. Innovation is needed but only attained in 90-minute lectures delivered twice weekly. Students are now learning faster than the academy can provide learning; they’re simply bored with the pace. It’s time for us to learn how students learn, and starting building off those trends.

Coming back to the operation of the academy, senior leaders seem to think the solution is continuing to hire those that have “experience” in the old ways. Maybe it is time to break the mold and open the doors to new people and new ideas, NON-ACADEMIC ideas, to how we can improve higher education. As noted by Adams, “as we gain knowledge about a domain, we become prisoners of our prototypes.” Are we now the prisoners of our prototypes? We look for five years of experience, ten years in the field, administrative/enrollment expertise. Are these the terms of a prototype that needs to change?

How can higher education improve without opening the door to new ideas from those outside the academy? Short answer is, we cannot. The innovators are not coming from colleges and universities; the old ideas are well embedded there. The new ideas come from those reaching for the exhilaration of new knowledge in new ways.

Hiring should never hinder innovation. Unfortunately, today, it does.

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Career Search, Inside Higher Ed. Accessed at on March 24, 2016

Adam Grant, How Non-Conformists Move the World. Viking (New York, NY). 2016.

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