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The Politics of Academic Innovation

Strategies for advancing academic transformation

March 18, 2018
 
 

Academic innovation is a political act.

It requires all the abilities of a skilled politician, plus other talents. Success hinges on message crafting, coalition building, vision, and leadership, including the ability to motivate, incentivize, and remove obstacles. But it also depends on a host of practical skills: devising a strategic plan, formulating a sustainable financial model, and, above all, overseeing implementation: streamlining procurement and contracting, managing projects, and ensuring that benchmarks are met and outcomes are realized in a timely manner. 

Academic innovation must proceed through a series of well-defined steps.

The first step is to identify a problem, a need, or an opportunity. Without a sense of necessity or possibility, innovation is unlikely to occur. In the absence of a pressing need or promising opportunity, little will happen.

The next step is to identify potential partners. This is a difficult challenge. Here, one must be highly strategic. Working with individual faculty or on boutique programs is a recipe for planting seeds in the swamp. Individual faculty members too often shift interests or move on; it is far preferable to work with programs, departments, or colleges, but only on projects with a prospect for growth and which meet a clearly assessed need. 

It is also essential to assess and continuously monitor the partners’ level of commitment – to experimentation, scaling, and sustainability.  Our experience is that no more than one of ten partnership will ultimately work out.

Partnerships, in turn, require intensive care and feeding – and incentives, financial and otherwise. In addition, participants must build a sense of trust, respect, and common interests. 

The division of labor must be carefully defined. Our experience is that while faculty members are very willing to ideate, everything else -- implementation, financial modeling, curricular and competency mapping, and instructional resource development -- needs to be a staff responsibility to ensure that outcomes emerge in a timely manner. Given their other responsibilities, one cannot expect faculty to do the heavy lifting.

This partnership must persist, even after a program has been deployed. Revision and continuous improvement are essential elements of the innovation process.

If innovation is to succeed, every university stakeholder has a role. Senior leadership needs to articulate the overarching vision and disseminate institutional priorities, remove roadblocks, and provide impetus and support. Faculty members must Ideate, architect, and treat staff as true partners with their own special expertise. Staff, in turn, must drive the design, development, production, and delivery process.

Academic innovation takes place in a dynamic, charged environment with many opportunities for failure. Institutional leadership tends to have vague, shifting, and conflicting priorities. Their timeframes for outcomes tend to be extremely brief and expectations often unrealistic. The reality is that there are no quick fixes, most change is incremental, innovation is a long-term process, and transformation requires shifts in institutional culture, policies, and practices.

Then there are many internal impediments to success. Especially within public institutions, it is extremely difficult to be nimble, given rules and regulations governing the process of procurement and contracting. Certain tensions are inevitable, especially conflicts of interests and priorities that pit departments against colleges and college against university leadership. Some degree of Internal skepticism, resistance, or opposition is likely. 

As a political process, academic transformation is extremely difficult and demanding. But the process is well worth the challenges and complications. The conversations that take place reveal that there are alternatives to existing ways of doing business. New pedagogical and curricular possibilities emerge, and connections arise that may well pay off in unexpected ways.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin

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