• August 30, 2015

For Innovation to Occur, Colleges Need a Big Push, Scholars Say

A diverse array of scholars gathered here on Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute for a conference on "Reinventing the American University: The Promise of Innovation in Higher Education." There is, of course, no shortage of material on that theme, but the speakers at Thursday's meeting gamely tried to say something new.

The structural incentives within higher education "seem to push against innovation," said Dominic J. Brewer, an associate dean and professor of urban leadership and education at the University of Southern California. "They seem to push toward mimicry."

That theme ran through the conference's first two panels: The structure of higher education makes it difficult to improve the quality of teaching. But the speakers did not always agree about which structural factors are to blame for the purported institutional sclerosis. Some pointed fingers at faculty-governance systems, which they said slowed down the pace of change. Others blamed regional accreditors for being too inflexible about, for example, standard models of credit hours.

Missing Incentives

In a draft paper written with William G. Tierney, director of Southern California's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, Mr. Brewer argued that because most government subsidies for higher education are tied to enrollments, there is little incentive for colleges and universities to improve their graduation rates or other student outcomes.

William F. Massy, a former vice president of Stanford University who now works as a consultant, said that colleges need to become much more sophisticated about measuring the teaching productivity of their departments and the quality of student learning. (In his own conference paper, he sketches a proposal for how to do that.)

"The key thing at the systems level is that top-level people need to insist that campuses make these changes a high priority," Mr. Massy said. "I don't mean 'encourage.' I mean 'insist.' It's only when presidents and provosts start talking about this at every stage within the institution that we'll get it done."

Mr. Massy singled out for praise the new health-sciences program at the University of Minnesota at Rochester. (He has served as a consultant there.)

"What they have done is to turn the box upside down," Mr. Massy said. He praised that program for embracing instructional models that are based on cognitive-science research, and for structuring its faculty in a way that rewards teaching more than disciplinary research.

But the Rochester program is also old-fashioned in some ways: Its students all live on the campus. They are expected to form intense bonds with one another and to follow a fixed curriculum for two years, as in a traditional liberal-arts program. In those respects, the Rochester campus is at odds with the enthusiasm for distance education and for radical redefinitions of the credit hour that was sometimes voiced at Thursday's conference.

A Less-Educated Faculty

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a professor of economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, offered a rather gloomy analysis of changes in the faculty profession.

Outside of elite research universities and liberal-arts colleges, Mr. Ehrenberg said, most institutions of higher education are likely to see a "de-skilling" of faculty jobs in the coming years, as fewer instructors will have Ph.D.'s.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that the quality of education will go down, if there's more effort put into the selection, evaluation, and training of instructors," he said. "But it will have an adverse effect on the research that undergraduate students get to do."

Two speakers dissented, in part, from the basic premise that there is too little innovation in higher education. Jack H. Schuster, a professor emeritus of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate University, said there is plenty of experimentation at American colleges; he expects higher education to be substantially transformed within the next decade.

And Candace Thille, director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, said the problem is not a lack of innovation but a failure to carefully study the experiments that do take place. Thousands of college instructors make good-faith efforts to improve their teaching, she said, but there are usually no resources for evaluating or replicating those innovations.

The conference was organized by Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector (and a columnist for The Chronicle); Andrew P. Kelly, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and Ben Wildavsky, a senior fellow in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. It was supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1. clementj - June 04, 2010 at 10:29 am

The deskilling of instructors is just a mirror of what is happening in the pre-college schools as a result of the high stakes testing.

There are models for good teaching available in the sciences and math. The Modeling program at ASU is an example. The work of Eric Mazur at Harvard, "Peer Instruction", has resulted in better teaching and learning. But since this all came from physics it is practically invisible. The ADAPT program at Lincoln, Neb was very successful in bringing up low leve students. CMU has Ron Thornton who has done good work and has influenced curriculum. There is a long list of reforms under the name PER (Physics Education Research) which have been promoted at many large and small schools.

But until younger instructors buy into the reforms, and are rewarded for them, the pace of reform will be slow. Also there is the problem of "conservative" educators who refuse to look at the research, and are actively opposing it. The one thing that has not been shown to be effective is distance education, and all of the reforms I mentioned have so far been in "traditonal" classroom settings, but with distinctly untraditional methods.

2. trendisnotdestiny - June 04, 2010 at 11:29 am

This discussion needs some context. Our economic shift in recent decades provides some institutional understanding here for people experiencing the day to day phenomena of the corporate model in universities and colleges. Whether it is the trend to an online model of education, impetus for educators' to pay for themselves, tenure or a systematic de-skilling of teacher-student experience, we know that large corporations are running our universities...

So to have the AEI referenced here as an authority on the topic diminishes its credibility where its true intention of shaping free-market education is cleverly hidden in the encouragement to resemble (U of Minn at Rochester) and discipline readerzs to conform to corporate models. There is no free luch according to Massey...

"I don't mean 'encourage.' I mean 'insist.' It's only when presidents and provosts start talking about this at every stage within the institution that we'll get it done."

However, what is lost in translation has been the historical process and effort by government and private industry to de-leverage or reconfigure their responsibilities (entitlement programs: social security, medicare and medicaid) (Pensions - defined contribution plans replacing defined benefit) (Welfare and Poverty programs for the least among us) (Pushing debt onto young college students).... All of these processes attempt to get out from under the social contracts signed previously which makes tenure one of the last social fragments to de-lever for the pro-business community... It is truly as Ehrenreich says a battle of: YOYO vs. WITT (You're On Your Own versus We're In This Together).... But, during crisis is when the system acts most covertly to implement what would otherwise be extremely unpopular...

The professorate has become more malleable as fewer tenure track jobs are available. Also, there are a whole new set of super star researchers wanted to push 'the entitled' tenured group to work more and carry a bigger load. Include the changes in criteria needed to get tenure, the shifting of departmental work onto junior faculty (service) and the competitively toxic environment of smart people arguing over turf and now you can see how the corporate model has divided and conquered through: (The favored son and black sheep family model of education)

1) Limiting resources for some to create incentive while lavishing it on others (emulation and competition)
2) Increase the standards for tenure, limit it to fewer people as you slowly gut the system (but you will fracture relations among the haves and have nots)
3) Push younger more malleable entrants in academe towards: prestige, funding and publishing while simultaneously encouraging older faculty to help out their bretheren to achieve
4) Mangerial positions become toxic resevoirs of triangulation

But it wasn't always this way...

There has been very little discussion about how money has been wasted, gutted and debased during some of the largest bull markets in world history... The DJII was at 2500 in 1990 and by 2000 was near 10,500 (32% Rate of reurn).... Wars, pet congressional projects that go up in flames while whole communities throughout our manufacturing belt went to hell in a handbasket... Roosevelt suggested (1932) to take paternity for the good periods, you have to stand up and own the bad ones as well (Instead we see the risks of doing business being shifted onto families and indiviudals most stressed by the free-market)

Henry Giroux's work here is important when 'critically' understanding how the funding sources have been co-opted by the private sector while the spicket of public funding has been diverted and re-routed to align with business interests: in the forms of national tax cuts, externalities and rising costs of a competitive insitutional arms race fueled by debt (student, consumer, state and local) by wannabe/privileged colleges... all fostering a trend towards institutions, families, and individuals who are more malleable and dependent upon entrepreneurialship...

This 30 year process has taken on an economic name (neoliberalism) which stands for a series of economic principles that encourage free-market policies of privatization, de-regulation and the cutting of social supports... (Often funded by the same people who put together this conference that 'insist' academia must pay for itself)...

How we talk about change in the academy is different: efficiency, innovation, productivity, evidence, measurement, incentives etc..
If universities are to become corporations, then why not now have them merge (make it explicit, overt) say what it is....That way our undergraduates with 20K of debt and our graduates with 40 to 50K of debt will know who point their finger at when the jobs they paid for as consumers went somewhere else... YOYO (come up for academic air and be sent down to malleability of debtors hell)

3. intered - June 04, 2010 at 12:53 pm

For 16 years our firm's sole business has been facilitating innovation in higher education by helping senior decision-makers envision and then implement strategies to achieve all three planks of the cheaper/faster/better platform.

These deeply involving longitudinal experiences have given me a perspective that is much different from what would have been available to me on the sidelines. In this work, I have identified 12 significant barriers to change. Following is a brief sketch of four that are appropriate to this venue.

The first barrier to innovation is higher education's institutional culture. Without exception, the first question college presidents ask me in the context of discussing a specific innovation is, "Who else is doing that?" If the answer is, "No one, you can be the first," the discussion is over. For reasons I will identify below, college leaders place a premium on avoiding mistakes rather than accepting the inevitable sidesteps that come with innovation.

The second barrier is that most colleges are governed, rather than managed, and their governance centers on the wishes of faculty. Most college presidents admit privately that keeping their faculty happy is the secret to success in their job. We make jokes about the defects organic to solutions designed by committees, but that is precisely how higher education attempts to progress and why its solutions are always sub-optimal. Left to their own devices, as they are to a certain extent, faculties will act to make their lives richer and more enjoyable at the expense of the students, their institution's health, and the public.

The third barrier to innovation is that virtually every college, save the for-profits, operates in an informational vacuum. College leaders can only make educated guesses with respect to static and rate-of-change variables. For each program they offer, college leaders are largely ignorant with respect to market share, growth rates, competitive position, operational and service costs by category, margin, learner satisfaction, retention-rates, learning outcomes (the scientifically valid kind), productivity, and new programs that will be needed three years from now. The result is that they "manage" much the same as congress makes laws, by skillfully adjudicating the desires of competing special interest groups to sub-optimal solutions that place the true consumer at the bottom of the list of considerations. True and lasting innovation cannot take place until college leaders develop and learn to use modern enterprise-level accounting and decision-support systems.

The fourth barrier comes without precise causal attribution. I can merely state the condition. In the last 50 years, learning and measurement scientists, in primary disciplines, and pedagogical scientists, in secondary disciplines, have made enormous gains in creating more efficient ways to teach and measure learning. One small example: In the mid-1980's, I began reporting on successful curricular models that embedded structured techniques for "horizontal learning" (erroneously attributed to Harvard above). Through carefully measured learning outcomes, these models were turning in time-to-proficiency decreases as high as 50%, in some disciplines using the proper techniques and being willing to adapt experimentally. In the worse cases, they were increasing efficiency by 20%. While I coined the term, "horizontal learning," to describe these structured techniques, they were anything but new. Women's studies groups were using them in the late 1890's. (Yes, 1890's.) The sciences have given us a few dozen material ways to increase not only the rate and transferability of learning, but the motivation of students and the likelihood that they will persist. How well has the professoriate, most of which earns its living teaching from other sciences, incorporated this exciting and potentially transforming knowledge? Most have ignored or explicitly rejected it. Most college teachers teach the same way their great grand-professors taught: read this, listen to me lecture, take lots of notes, take this (largely invalid) multiple-choice or essay test. I have no good explanation for why the professoriate is so doggedly conservative in the extreme, but the facts speak for themselves.

I have presented four of what I see as the dozen most significant barriers to innovation in U.S. higher education. In appreciating these issues, there is one top-level issue to keep in mind: Doing nothing will be costly. Unlike most industries, which have turned in substantial productivity gains in the last 50 years, higher education, again save for-profit higher education, has become roughly 25-30% less efficient in the same time period. I am not defending the for-profits (they have separate, equally important, challenges to address). I am pointing out that they are efficient at most levels of analysis and are becoming more rather than less so.

Against this gloomy picture stand a few colleges that are innovating and have managed to remain outside the crushing box of higher education's conservatism. Given the depth of the problem, my view is that we should leverage reform by providing incentives for innovators to achieve results, broadly and intelligently measured, gradually reallocating funding to institutions that can demonstrate value added in human and economic terms. The Gate's Foundation is on this course, as are a few other organizations. I support them and would encourage others to support risk-taking and innovation in higher education.

- Robert W Tucker

4. rickw - June 04, 2010 at 04:20 pm

There are barriers to innovation not mentioned in this piece. One is expense. Many universities are strapped for funds, and while it is appealing to suggest that an institution can do more with less, and less, and less, this is not the case and reminds us that, ala Mark Twain, the King and the Duke are on the raft and the huckerism of the consulting firm knows no bounds.

A second barrier is the cancerous process of administrative bloat that leads to unqualified senior administrators time and again making bad decisions and following these up with more bad decisions.

Faculty bashing may be in vogue, but it misses the mark and demeans the work of the only part of the university that is actually bringing in students and whose work pays the bills and is not parasitic.

--Rick Whaley

5. 11159766 - June 04, 2010 at 10:22 pm

An unlikely premise: "A diverse array of scholars gathered here on Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute . . ."

6. generally_academic - June 05, 2010 at 02:08 am

The last big push I saw at a college took two flushes to wash away.
A few words for the wise....

7. bjgeorge - June 05, 2010 at 10:07 am

I like the quote on mimicry at the beginning of the article. It takes time and effort to implement changes and sustain them. There are those that will take the time and effort and those who won't.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.