• September 4, 2015

The Creative Campus: Time for a 'C' Change

The Creative Campus: Time for a 'C' Change 1

illustrations by Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image
close The Creative Campus: Time for a 'C' Change 1

illustrations by Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

In the past few years, we've been hearing a lot of talk about fostering creativity, on campus and in society. Some college leaders claim to have found the secret formula, while others ask how to place creativity at the center of campus and academic life. The creative turn in higher education, however, remains only a series of ad hoc experiments.

Still, emerging insights from these experiments, new research about creativity, and changing labor and market forces could tip the efforts into something much more significant in education reform.

The wide-ranging nature of creative-campus initiatives has been particularly striking. While readers often jump to the conclusion that "creative" applies only to the arts, leading programs focus on the creative process that threads through not only art and design, but also engineering, medicine, and the arts and sciences. Experiments might take the shape of a physical space, like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center; multidisciplinary problem-focused centers, like Stanford University's d.school or Harvard University's The Lab; or academic programs, like the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor's interdisciplinary creative-process course and Vanderbilt University's Program in Creative Enterprise and Public Leadership.

Many programs tap into recent research suggesting that creativity is not simply a product of personality or individual psychology, but rather is rooted in a set of teachable competencies, which include idea generation, improvisation, metaphorical and analogical reasoning, divergent thinking that explores many possible solutions, counterfactual reasoning, and synthesis of competing solutions. Creativity also requires an ability to communicate and persuade, and the skills and leadership to apply diverse and specialized expertise.

Developing and refining such capacities seem to be exactly what 21st-century undergraduates want. In a continuing national study of creativity and academic choices among undergraduates, one of us, together with the sociologist Richard Pitt, has found that 84 percent of undergraduates surveyed say creativity is an important or very important skill (compared with 61 percent who say being able to solve quantitative problems is important or very important). As many as 54 percent say pursuing careers that allow them to be creative is important or essential. Other studies have noted the high percentage of students today who express their creativity by designing Web sites and blogs and posting their own music, fiction, or poetry online. With new digital technologies, open-source networks, and a proliferation of highly skilled amateur artists, scientists, designers, and inventors, we are witnessing a renaissance in creativity and culture that universities can ill afford to ignore.

While measuring and quantifying creativity has historically been problematic, the psychologist Robert J. Sternberg's Rainbow Project has developed a creativity test that uses analogies, open-ended stories and pictures, and divergent-thinking tests to measure creativity. It turns out that knowing whether an incoming student is creative is a more reliable predictor of freshman academic success than are more-traditional measures like the SAT or high-school GPA.

Can administrators afford, amid the pressing demands on their funds, to reorganize their colleges around creativity? Can they afford not to?

First, there is a growing consensus that America's economy will be increasingly based on creativity, or what the writer Daniel H. Pink calls "high touch" and "high concept" skills. Many existing high-tech and white-collar jobs—basic computer programming, accounting, data­­base management, routine scientific work—may be exported abroad in the coming years. To stay competitive, America will need to draw on its ability to tell stories, create visually compelling messages and designs, come up with new ways to organize and synthesize information, and invent programs and businesses to solve complicated social problems or tap emerging markets. Business leaders are demanding those skills. A recent IBM poll of global CEO's ranked creativity as the most important factor for future success. And while there will always be jobs in service industries, many of the highest-paying jobs will be in the creative sector.

Second, students are arriving on campus brimming with creativity and curiosity. They are digitally savvy, highly expressive, and they like to get under the hood and figure stuff out—whether redesigning video games or developing new approaches to fight poverty. They are active learners and problem solvers who demand new ways of learning.

Third, escalating costs of higher education and new competition from for-profit colleges are forcing parents, students, accreditors, and elected officials to ask themselves the "value" question, about what a college education is worth. The notion of a creative campus—where students and faculty members work together, face to face, to solve problems, improvise, and experience new ways of learning—can be an antidote to the increasingly antiquated traditional college.

Reorienting a college around creativity holds promise, but only if the effort is:

Student-focused. The greatest challenge facing many efforts is sustainability. What comes next after a visiting artist departs, a speaker series concludes, an interdisciplinary seminar disbands, grant money dries up? If it is to endure, a creative campus must become a central part of students' learning and living. Vanderbilt's Creative Campus Initiative, for example, is deliberately anchored across numerous aspects of the student experience: academic programs, extracurricular activities, residence halls, career advising, campuswide competitions, and grants. Ball State University's Center for Creative Inquiry has developed a student-driven "immersive learning" program around creative inquiry and problem solving that has become a key aspect of the university's strategic plan and a defining feature of its brand.

Broadly defined. Recent research on the creativity of undergraduates suggests that there is an entire spectrum of "little 'c'" creativity happening outside studios and labs. Many students forge their creative chops when they are planning events, leading student organizations, working with children, volunteering in the community, engaging in playful conversation with roommates, traveling, or participating in religious activities. Promoting creativity must focus on all those areas. For example, students should be encouraged to produce portfolios in which they assemble and reflect on their creative practices inside and outside the classroom.

Intentional. Build the infrastructure of the creative campus. Being intentional may require changes in deeply held institutional structures, including admissions, teaching, academic credit, and requirements for majors.

Systematic. This is the next step facing us. We need to develop best practices for building creative capacities, and rubrics for measuring and teaching creativity. We need Web sites, interdisciplinary journals, conferences. Some collaborations are already under way. Faculty members at the Five Colleges of Ohio (Denison, Kenyon, Wooster, Ohio Wesleyan, and Oberlin) are working together on a Teagle Foundation grant to develop rubrics for teaching and evaluating creativity. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation sponsored a national meeting in May 2008 that brought college presidents, provosts, and deans together with scholars, arts leaders, and foundation officers to evaluate creative-campus projects and research. Wake Forest University's Program for Creativity and Innovation held a conference on creativity and innovation in 2009 and is planning a meeting on teaching creativity. International conferences are in the works as well.

The creative-campus movement can learn a great deal from the success of the Writing Across the Curriculum movement, which began in the 1970s and became a systematic reform effort in the early 1990s. It is based on a strong body of scholarship documenting both the process and outcomes of effective writing-improvement programs. A community of practice has emerged from the annual National Writing Across the Curriculum Conference (begun in 1993), several interdisciplinary journals, and the online WAC Clearinghouse.

We believe the 21st century will be the century of the creative campus. But such a sea change requires overcoming skepticism and fragmentation with credible theory, compelling experiments, and rigorous research and assessment.

Elizabeth Long Lingo is director of the Curb Program in Creative Enterprise and Public Leadership and an adjunct professor of management at Vanderbilt University. Steven J. Tepper is associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy and assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt.


1. scg111 - October 11, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I'm a staunch advocate for the articulation of and committment to on campus creativity. It saddened me that the piece failed to cite the contribution of the campus planner and, or the "Campus Experience" has on the creative impetus on campus. The collective experience on campuses does not begin at the threshold of any set of buildings; that is unfortunately an architectcentric viewpoint that is too prevelant throughout our campuses. That premis is failing to lift our institutions beyond the rigors of zoning code or merely implementing HEGIS space standards, ADA and, or IBC metrics. It fosters an environment and a set of experiences committed to less. As a campus planner and site designer specializing in private higher education for 20+ years, I have been citing the exterior built environment as the "low hanging fruit", the true opportunity for campuses to reflect a committment to the creative. Why? Because it is the universal forum on campus, it informs what we all (student, staff and administration) experience on a daily basis. It is a simplistic sentiment, but "What to we covet?.. We covet what we see everyday. It is the campuses' soul; it affords immediate opportunity for the creative to manifest itself. I applaud the initiative and I aknowlede my viewpoint should be seen as only one component of the greater strategy, but it is an important piece. Isn't it interesting how we miss the obvious opportunities in the quest for the greater good. Throughout this process I would ask, "Have we created the opportunity for the informed mind to dream?". This is always the starting point of creation and it may be our loftiest goal.

M. Terry Higgins, President
SCG & Associates, Llc

2. abichel - October 12, 2010 at 08:00 pm

"Have we created the opportunity for the informed mind to dream?"

We'll talk more tomorrow, for now what is this supposed to mean Mr. President? If it walks like a duck...

3. colorlessblueideas - October 13, 2010 at 12:15 am

I've worked with programs designed to teach creative problem solving to kids for about 15 years now (currently "Destination ImagiNation", previously "Odyssey of the Mind"). In dealing with those who image "creativity" is the /summum bonum/ and those for whom it is anathema, I've concluded that there are three basic groupings of problems.

1. Those in which creativity is detrimental. One does *not* want a nuclear power plant normally operated based upon creativity, nor does one want the building you work in to have been designed by someone who was "creative" in basic arithmetic.

2. Those in which "creativity" is used when really "randomness" or even "meaninglessness" is meant. A creative viewer might be able to make something of a painting with random blobs of paint, but the self-yclept artist can honestly (!) claim no creativity.

3. Those in which creativity brings significant added value to the set of solutions. The rub comes from that phrase, "added value". In most cases, that is somewhat idiosyncratic: it depends upon the values of the evaluator. Often there are a mixture of values, and they must be weighted: cost, ease-of-use, the "green" fad, etc.

My conclusion has been that a basic tool set is first needed: how to calculate, how to communicate, how to read, and the like. Only with these met in the main does creativity come into play, and then only when there is some sense of values and of trade-offs and how to make them. (This also helps discernment as to when randomness has its own value.)

It seems simple enough, but overbroad statements about "creativity", like overbroad statements about "basics", each miss the proverbial boat.

4. jagrell - October 14, 2010 at 03:22 pm

I teach a freshman seminar entitled Creative Thinking; also Improvisation for Classical Musicians. My experience is that most freshman have long since had creative lobotomies. They are deeply marinated in convergent thinking and the System. There one right answer. "Let me memorize it, spit it back at you, give me my A and move on to the next thing." Most are very uncomfortable with the idea that _they_ have to find the answers and there may be many right answers. Divergent or creative thinking has a very hard time finding a home in the system because it is messy, chaotic, hard to assess, and tricky to teach. It's a lot easier to say, "Read the next chapter and we'll have a quiz." No Child... and standardized tests and learning are great murderers of education with the focus on teaching to the test instead of establishing learning environments and letting kids explore and experiment and risk "wrong answers." Creative thinking needs to be part of every curriculum from grade school on. Right now, only early elementary grades get to "play". Very soon after that, they only "serious", when education ossifies and becomes convergent only. The brave students who try my creative classes (something I do on the side - my academic 'hobby') are terrified at first, but when they get into it, are passionate about the process and the value of creative thinking. It's completely the reverse of their "normal" training, but the two complement each other. Creative thinking should be part of everyone's training at every level of education.

5. tpul2014 - October 15, 2010 at 02:16 pm

@colorlessblueideas: creativity does not preclude practicality.

6. richardtaborgreene - October 18, 2010 at 08:05 am

COURSES ARE the least useful and valid and used and impactful sources of learning, education, design skill, and courage to deviate from peers however moronic.

One PROOF of the lack of creativity in faculty is their unendingly stupid use of courses for topics. When will the gutless wimps ever outgrow their public schoolings?????

We may need creative people from creativity-fostering campi, BUT courses on creating are the least creative and useful way to achieve such ends. Let's hear faculty ideas beyond "a course on ethics" "a course on not using my Harvard MBA for enriching myself at the expense of the entire world" "a course on how to be creative and brainstorm blah blah blah".

Faculty who propose courses to promote creativity know so little about it we dare not let them succeed.

7. djeich - November 09, 2010 at 05:08 pm

First, great articles on Creativity & Higher Education in the October issue. I would like to see more coverage of this. It would be really great to see some examples or case studies of new iniatives, centers, or programs dedicated to fostering creativity in college students and also staff & faculty. I think we need to take it one step further...past creativity to innovation...needed to actually enact the ideas in addtion to creating them. Thanks for the inspiration, the article motivated me to blog at http://InnovationLearning.org

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.