Colleges must throw open the gates and welcome innovation

Costas Spirou is senior associate provost at Georgia College, the state’s public liberal arts university. He was a 2017-2018 American Council on Education Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology.

As Georgia colleges resume classes this month, Spirou cites the importance of rethinking current higher education practices by encouraging a more open culture that values partnerships and embraces innovation.

By Costas Spirou

For many, higher education and innovation is an oxymoron given that colleges and universities have been historically slow at embracing change. A 2017 Gallup survey revealed that 56 percent of Americans have “some” or “very little” confidence in these academic institutions. 

Beyond the public, this sentiment is also shared by many state legislators, as well as leaders from numerous industries. In addition, the disruption caused by demographic changes, shrinking enrollments, diminishing public funding, increasing tuition discounting, and rapidly burgeoning family debt has hit higher education hard. 

Our society is in the midst of rapid social changes, and higher education has been struggling and often unable to respond quickly to powerful shifts and definitively make the case about its role and relevance. The institution has also not helped itself. Its inward, often ivory tower orientation produces a durable culture, mired in politics, culture wars, bureaucracies, and internal battles. Henry Kissinger famously noted, “The reason that university politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so small.” 

For centuries, teaching was the primary function of higher education. Then, following World War II, research was added, and, more recently, economic development has emerged as a driver and another key purpose. However, a fundamental shift is now becoming necessary, in both thinking and doing. It is essential that colleges and universities embrace a new era, grounded in purposeful innovation.

The fuel for this direction rests on a model of open innovation, and an external institutional orientation that requires a strategic emphasis on valuing and pursuing new and different types of connections. Partnerships have the capacity to ignite and sustain a culture of innovation. This structured outlook applies to both the liberal arts and sciences, as well as to professional programs. It dislodges the university from its current inlying orientation. Rather, it seeks to produce graduates that, because of these deliberate interactions, can lead, invent, create, and sustain. 

The fundamental questions then are how does student work in the classroom, the art studio and music hall, the laboratory, with faculty mentors, and in all curricular and co-curricular activities, connect to the external environment? What sequence of activities can help build this setting? Finally, what type of leadership can create and power the higher education innovation ecosystem?

Developing structures which connect in-classroom projects and formal and informal student research activities to addressing community and business needs, and to improving the lives of those less fortunate, is at the core of what it means to be intentionally innovative. In addition to identifying and cultivating partnerships, advocating for the importance of iteration is critical. Iteration helps drive invention and improve processes. 

Robust engagements with a multitude of organizations including governmental entities, non-profits, corporations, business groups, the media, think tanks, and other institutions of higher education add a unique substantive quality to the educational enterprise. Partnerships can also develop the pipeline for meeting the talent needed to address the dramatic hiring gaps evident in many industries.

In some cases, this process is already underway. Partnerships helped launch large innovation districts connected to major universities such as Tech Square in Atlanta,Kendall Square in Boston, and University City in Philadelphia. But there are also smaller entities forming in many cities across the country that are connected to local institutions. All these hold the promise that purposeful innovation is penetrating aspects of higher education with the potential of expanding further.

The innovative university is one which operates in the space where teaching, research, and economic development intersect. The pursuit of innovation in higher education can not only lead in entrepreneurship and commercialization of discoveries, it can also provide guidance on how we can be socially responsive, ethical, inclusive, and just. For partnerships to succeed, continuous exploration is essential, and as Edith Widder, an oceanographer and marine biologist, noted “Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So, let’s all go exploring.”