Innovation and the Changing Culture of Higher Education
The following interview is with Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Hrabowski gave the keynote address during this year’s University Professional and Continuing Education Association annual conference in Miami, focusing on the theme of innovation in higher education. In this interview, Hrabowski — named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012 — sheds some light on how innovation can become central to higher education institutions and discusses the critical importance of this transformation.
1. Why are universities typically so resistant to change?
People in general are often resistant to change.
When it comes to universities, it depends on the part of the university. There are certain parts of different institutions that are interested in looking at different ways of doing things and there are others, quite frankly, that may be not as willing to change because things are going well for them.
The people who typically want change are those who are dissatisfied with the status quo; people … for whom the status quo works well typically don’t want change. And so, groups that have not been included in higher education — for example, women in a number of disciplines — might be the first to say, “We need to look at a different way of doing things.”
2. Why is innovation so critical to the ongoing success and growth of higher education institutions?
The most creative places — those that are seen as innovative — are the ones constantly looking for ways of being better. If we are simply satisfied with things as they are, we not only don’t get better, we tend to become even weaker, because people and even institutions never remain the same. They either get better or they go backwards.
Innovation, to me, has everything to do with looking at oneself and suggesting the world of today can be changed so that the world of tomorrow is very different. In other words, innovation should mean people are saying we can be much better if we look squarely at ourselves and determine ways of making a difference.
3. What do you think is going to happen to institutions that continue to resist change?
If we know we’re not getting additional revenues from the public in the way we have been fortunate to receive in recent years, we know that the economy is such that people are tightening their belts and we simply do things the way we’ve always done them, we will find we can’t be as effective or as efficient, that we cannot get as much done or be as supportive of students.
What we’ve done here at UMBC is find ways of redesigning courses to give support to people for professional development and to make sure we’re making the best use of the resources, but also to make sure we’re taking advantage of everything we’re learning about technology, collaborative learning, reaching out to the corporate sector, finding ways of strengthening our work, not just in science and engineering but across disciplines.
It takes a willingness to try new things and a willingness to be honest about the shortcomings or weaknesses of a situation in order to make the situation much better.
4. How important is finding new marketplaces to institutional success?
For most of us, it would be very important to continue to broaden the markets we are focusing on. For example, over 50 million Americans began college and did not complete degrees. Those are people who have been raising children and working and sometimes moving jobs; who have had all kinds of experience in life.
When people say to me, “I’m not sure if I should come back to college because I’m 40 years old,” I always say this: “If you have been raising children, you can do anything.” There are skills associated with raising kids that are transferrable: the ability to organize oneself, the ability to be committed to a goal, to have a passion to get the work done, to be able to think critically — these are things we learn as we get older.
Colleges and universities are well served when they take the time to attract people of that type back to those institutions because they make a big difference. Whether they are returning veterans or women or people who have lost their jobs, they can add substantially to the environment and, quite frankly, they tend to be far more mature and capable of succeeding.
5. Is there a need for government bodies to become involved in pushing higher education to evolve?
I always believe universities want to do the best job they can and there are ways in which the federal government can be supportive of institutions in supporting students.
The idea of asking good questions, for example, and giving our colleges and universities an opportunity to explain what they do to the public, or to have [prospective students] understanding what the graduation rate is and how students are doing, or the level of loans they will take out in order to have an education — these are things the public deserves and that people really want to know about. …
It will all depend on how these ideas are presented, and I know that the President and others are very interested in supporting institutions and supporting students. We all have to keep using this as an iterative process to find the best way to do that.
6. Is there anything you’d like to add about change and innovation in higher education and the importance of change to continuing success?
When I think about innovation in higher education, I think about the individual. There’s a term I use – ‘neoteny’ – which comes from the book “Geeks and Geezers.” It’s the quality of being forever young; it’s the idea that we’re constantly working to discover what’s new and keeping an optimistic attitude. My colleagues and I at UMBC are determined to remain young as an institution and as people, meaning we don’t have time to be cynical or negative, because people who are cynical and negative rarely accomplish a great deal.
The people who will be most innovative and creative are those who remember those qualities we had when we were very young. It is this idea that we will get it done. And that’s what America needs now, that’s what American education needs now, more than ever.
Author Perspective: Administrator