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Innovating Higher Education and Managing the Politics of “Risk”

The EvoLLLution | Innovating Higher Education and Managing the Politics of “Risk”
Institutional innovation starts with leadership being comfortable with the idea of risk and failure, and demands true commitment to transformation and evolution across the campus.

Institutions of higher education are not organizationally designed to take large risks. They are, in fact, beacons of incremental change.

This is particularly true in public higher education, where the ongoing defunding by the state has left little room for direct investment in new initiatives. Some institutions have responded to their precarious situation by diversifying their sources of revenue—increasing tuition and fees, launching new academic ventures that are based more directly on profit, or reorganizing the institution to create greater “administrative efficiency.” But, the appetite for the next great solution to the crisis in higher education is often poorly received by those who lives are most directly affected by these changes—faculty, students and staff. Appropriately, many are suspicious of new initiatives that are perceived as simply replacing high cost work and experiences with lower cost and less meaningful ones. One need only examine the intense debates around the role of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and the future of online higher education to begin to unpack the tensions that sit at the surface of many higher education institutions today.

Often sitting at the center of these highly contested conversations are administrators who are advocating change. In some cases, broader concerns about administrative direction are quite legitimate, as some administrators try to rationalize systems by eliminating long-term employment leading to the adjunctification of the faculty population. Others are eliminating programs that are increasingly coming under assault by legislators who continue to devalue degree pathways that they believe don’t lead directly to a specific “career.” That said, there are also changes that need to happen, opportunities to reposition institutions of higher education to better engage with the needs and demands of rapidly diversifying student constituencies.

So, in this time of high stakes and high suspicion how does one engage colleagues in open and honest conversations about change when the risks don’t appear worth it? This is not an easy question to answer and I don’t claim to have an answer to it. Rather, in the remainder of this piece, I want to suggest that innovation happens when leadership manages the risk collectively and locates that risk not on the shoulders of the most vulnerable but on the larger collective of the institution.

Put more directly, I would argue that higher education innovation happens in the context of managed risk. When a safety net is in place, faculty, staff and students feel more latitude to create new, dynamic programs. Failure must be possible and the safety net to manage that failure must be born institutionally. This doesn’t mean that institutions should provide unlimited resources for unfettered possibility. Rather, it is to suggest that risks (and their rewards) are only possible when the environment for that risk is effectively managed through leadership, vision and the prioritization of strategic opportunity.

In a practical sense, the University of Arizona has done this as it has moved into the space of online undergraduate education—taking the fiscal risk and managing it centrally so that programs can incentivize colleagues to take on new projects and build courses in ways that will lead to high rates of student success. We have taken on this risk centrally because we are charged institutionally with expanding access to diverse learners, not all of whom can physically come to one of our campuses. Given the overall suspicion about the goals of online education, the institution has had to remove the notion that the risk for providing access to fully-online learners would rest at the local level. This means, of course, that the institution has not taken on all the projects that deans, department heads, school directors, or faculty want to take on. But, when we have, we have committed the resources—the fiscal as well as the faculty and staff—to make the move to online education possible.

This means that innovation happens most often when central investments support the broader human and material infrastructure for that innovation. People are much less likely to take risks if they know that the long-term sustainability of their project is not possible given the constraints of the institution. The strategic planning processes of the institution must therefore match resources to the framework of risk that an institution wants to take. This might mean making decisions to limit choice in some areas—for example, reducing the total number of educational technologies available on the campus—to free up resources to innovate around a more limited suite of tools. Risk also doesn’t happen as often in an environment where people believe they will be nickeled and dimed for every needed resource to make innovation possible. Supporting the needed infrastructure for innovation centrally reduces the friction that happens between local constituencies and central service providers when costs for infrastructure are managed effectively by the institution.

That said, it isn’t easy to plan such infrastructures at many large, public research universities, which are so diverse. Campus leadership is needed to help manage institutional decision-making. The University of Arizona did this recently with a central investment in a number of technologies that will allow faculty and staff to better create and manage its digital assets. This is not to suggest that every single decision should be made centrally; this also has the capacity to limit innovation and quell interest in taking risks. It is a complex balancing game of managing central vision and local autonomy that provides the best chance for innovations to take place.

Finally, then, innovation and the politics of risk must also be articulated within an appropriate ethic of inclusivity, dialogue and debate. Administrators need to take risks as well and learn to lose, or adjust programmatic goals along the way. Having one’s mind changed by debate is not a sign that one lacks conviction or leadership. It demonstrates that, as a leader, you are embedded in a complex community of varying opinions and sometimes an academic or intellectual argument coming from another part of the institution is simply more provocative, bold and creative. Leadership must allow those diverse voices to not only come to the surface but also provide the institutional context for those voices to thrive.

Providing stability and assurance that risk is not only tolerated but encouraged is one way, therefore, to spark innovation and create new possibilities for dynamic and diverse pedagogical futures.

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