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Putting the Shine Back on the Academic Innovation Apple

The EvoLLLution | Putting the Shine Back on the Academic Innovation Apple
While innovation is seen as a side project at many postsecondary institutions, it’s critical to increase the investment in institutional transformation and to provide units charged with experimenting the time and space necessary to take their “moonshots.”
This month marks five years since I gave up my tenured faculty position to become the inaugural director of the University System of Maryland’s (USM) William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation. That was June of 2013, shortly after The New York Times declared 2012 as “ The Year of the MOOC”—when the discourse around disruption was at peak and academic leaders were predicting that “ a tsunami” was coming with respect to technology’s impact on higher education.

While maybe not a tsunami, there was, in fact, a lot going on at that time. Shortly after I started in my position I learned that each of our 12 USM institutions was hiring or appointing people into academic innovation leadership positions. Maryland was not alone in this. By the end of 2013, many institutions across the country were exploring organizational changes intended to advance student success through improved teaching and learning and other academic innovations. In 2014, the Kirwan Center was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study this development nationally. Among the changes we observed:

  • The emergence of a new academic innovation leadership role reporting to the Provost or President.
  • Infrastructure reorganizations that took “teaching and learning centers” out of library or IT-focused units of the institution and moved them into academic affairs.
  • Efforts to move well respected, senior faculty into academic innovation leadership roles in the Provost’s office with direct reports like instructional technology and learner analytics.
  • Tighter alignment and collaboration with what were previously called “student success” programs and initiatives in Student Affairs.[1]

It appeared we were seeing a shift in thinking about the role academic affairs could and should play in institutional efforts to increase effectiveness and affordability, particularly in relation to student success. Further, those efforts were taking on a highly collaborative tone, bridging traditional higher education silos and—in some cases—even bringing multiple units together under one “umbrella” position.

This has been an exciting time to be part of leading the academic innovation discussion and I still believe that I have one of the best jobs in higher education. But, fast-forward five years to now: I am also thinking that a bit of the shine has started to come off the academic innovation apple.

Here’s why.

Public higher education budgets in many states continue to be slashed or, as is the case in Maryland, enhancement monies that were once dedicated to expanding academic innovation initiatives have not been continued. Unfortunately, this has resulted in academic innovation offices, which were under-resourced to start, either not growing or being cut. Therefore, while the infrastructure exists, the efforts remain underfunded, forcing professionals in these positions to rely heavily on externally funded projects that are often not sustainable.

Additionally, our institutional leaders’ emphasis on academic innovation has given way to other, equally critical conversations on topics such as diversity and inclusion, sexual harassment, civic engagement, and free speech. And, while faculty are key in helping advance this work, they are not always entirely aware of the pressures on the institution to change, and the academic innovation leaders are not always in a position to influence their thinking.

Generally speaking, we are finding this work is hard and takes time, and that change is not about inserting technologies and hoping something will stick, but rather about creating a culture of innovation and continuous quality improvement, which doesn’t happen quickly. The Kirwan Center foreshadowed some of these issues in the conclusion of our 2014 report to the Gates Foundation:

Given their background and expertise, the individuals charged with leading academic change appear to be respected if, perhaps, somewhat isolated advocates. Their biggest challenge is changing the institutional culture, but they may not be particularly well trained for the task or well supported in that role. In addition to lacking the evidence they need to demonstrate benefits to faculty for innovations, they face the continuing challenge of building strong alliances with academic departments.

So, lately, as I think about the future of academic innovation and continuous quality improvement, I have been giving a lot of thought to things like “sustainability,” “business models,” “return on investment,” and “research and development.” Heretical concepts in higher education, I know. But, it is difficult not to wonder why it is that, at a time when we should be investing resources in understanding how to adapt to the external pressures on our current business model, we are, instead, isolating and under-resourcing the very units within our institutions that can help to guide our future. Instead of being viewed as “mission critical,” these academic innovation units are viewed as “nice to haves,” “peripheral,” and/or “expendable.”

Contrast this with the 15 to 25 percent of revenue that other major industries—such as the automobile, computing/electronics, and healthcare industries—spend annually on research and development as part of an integrated, continuous quality improvement cycle and investment in future capabilities. These organizations know that innovation is crucial to their growth and survival in a competitive marketplace.

Like these other industries, higher education also needs to make a similar investment of resources and commitment to innovating to address the economic, demographic and political pressures coming from its external environment. The potential for disruption still looms on the horizon. Doing nothing—allowing apples’ shine to dull further—appears to be riskier than taking bigger chances on the innovation units many of our institutions have already stood up.

Academic innovation units should be charged with identifying, understanding, and solving problems associated with academic excellence and student success. They should be using data analytics and systematic evaluation to identify areas for improvement, exploring the efficacy/feasibility of innovations, ensuring design fidelity through quality assurance reviews, and assessing interventions through design-based pilots and rigorous quantitative and qualitative educational research. Those interventions proven to enhance student success should then also be analyzed for their return on investment so that a strong case can be made to the institution’s chief business officer for reinvesting and assimilating the innovation into the institutions’ business model.

These units should be sufficiently resourced and staffed by experts in the newest developments in learning and student success, data analysis, quality assurance, and applied research. The leaders of these units should be empowered members of the provost’s senior leadership team who partner closely with the other vice provosts and deans on strategic decision making and standing up processes that will lead to continuous quality improvement.

That should help put some of the shine back on the academic innovation apple.

– – – – Footnotes

[1] You can find the full report of from the Kirwan Center’s Leading Academic Change Project, done in collaboration with Anne Keehn, President and CEO of Quantum Thinking, at

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