Taking the Long View

By Richard Ekman

As I pass the baton to my successor, Marjorie Hass, I find myself thinking about the high-stakes decisions that campus leaders must make in the near future. My experience during two decades at CIC has confirmed my belief that durable campus leadership always requires the long view, especially when institutions face challenges that seem both urgent and intractable. In this, my final President’s Desk column, I’d like to explore the connection between taking the long view and championing innovation.

For example, as college presidents and CAOs plan for post- pandemic life on campus, they must now consider which of the sudden and necessary changes made during the past year should be retained, which should be dropped as soon as possible, and which might be adapted into something new. Many of these questions focus on the use of instructional, communications, and information technologies; the problem, however, is that it has always been impossible to predict the trajectory of new technologies. The Wright brothers’ decades-long pursuit of a flying machine, chronicled by David McCullough in his 2015 book, offers one pattern of incremental technological development and adoption. If this model is applicable to higher education, a college might well continually embellish, refine, and improve its initial efforts at, say, online instruction, and eventually arrive at an industry-defining success. But some innovations don’t follow such a predictable path. The typewriter, for example, was the unintended byproduct in 1868 of efforts a half-century earlier to invent a kind of Braille printer. If the typewriter model holds, it may be decades before the true promise of the technological experiments of 2020 becomes evident.

Unpredictable Future

The history of innovation, like that of specific technologies, is one of unpredictable gaps, swerves, surprises, and hesitations. Almost every innovation creates unintended consequences. The late Clayton Christensen’s groundbreaking 1997 work, The Innovator’s Dilemma, argued that “disruptive” innovation is the only way to move beyond the conceptual boundaries established by past success. His well-documented and insightful studies of the industries that manufacture earth-moving equipment and semiconductors bolstered widespread and enthusiastic acceptance of his thesis. But these studies could not anticipate how the concept of “disruptive innovation” might translate into a very different industry—namely higher education—or what the consequences of attempting such an adaptation might be. Many a college president, following Christensen, launched attention-getting disruptive initiatives. Many a board of trustees, impressed by Christensen’s impact in the world of business and manufacturing, insistently urged “disrupting higher ed.” But which of these experiments in innovation worked in our nonprofit, knowledge-based, shared-governance sector, and which of them in fact improved student outcomes or strengthened institutional finances, for the most part remains to be seen. What has been clearly seen is that many of these disruptive initiatives led to clashes with faculty members or alumni and led to consequences that served the institution, and the president, poorly.

Of course, not all innovations involve technology, and those that don’t are sometimes especially difficult to discern in higher education. For example, almost all research studies show that full-time, residential study is the most effective form of undergraduate education and can be transformative in people’s lives, while part-time, nonresidential, and online study are less effective. Notwithstanding the preference that many students have for online learning, most of the evidence of true cognitive and personal development favors full-time campus- based undergraduate instruction. Nonetheless, other modes of instruction have necessarily become widespread for educating the increasing numbers of learners whose life situations constrain their ability to participate in full-time campus-based education. This trend was established many years before the pandemic. Campus leaders have innovated in advising, scheduling, providing services, situating instruction, and other key functions in order to serve their part-time, nonresidential, and remote students effectively, and in doing so have often learned lessons that improve the on-campus experience as well. Even so, questions remain.

Planning for Uncertainty

How should colleges and universities plan to retain elements of full-time residential undergraduate education while also increasing access for students who require alternative options? Should colleges assume that the trend will continue toward more part-time, nonresidential, pre-professional, graduate, and online study—and will this trend prove to be disruptive, in the Christensen sense? Should a college that hopes to gain a distinctive edge position itself even more emphatically in the newer direction, even at some cost to its traditional and highly effective model? This is a form of the “innovator’s dilemma” as it is experienced on many campuses today. Will our past success in one model make it difficult to judge the moment when a new model becomes beneficial and even necessary?

The related and unintended consequences are clear and familiar. With fewer people on campus, colleges can certainly preserve flexibility and save money by relying more heavily on non-tenure-track or part-time faculty members. But this innovative approach to instructional personnel has specific consequences. As time passes, the percentage of faculty who are long-term members of a campus community will decline, a fact that could have wide-ranging effects far beyond the campus itself. As the job market includes fewer positions that offer the attractive possibility of full-time tenure-track careers, will the most intellectually capable undergraduates continue to pursue PhDs? Perhaps over time the more predictable paths to success in medicine, law, engineering, and other careers will create a “brain drain” away from other academic disciplines, and especially from the liberal arts and sciences.

The compelling data on trends in the composition of American college and university faculties that Martin Finkelstein, Valerie Martin Conley, and Jack Schuster provided in The Faculty Factor (2016) should give us pause. The nation certainly needs physicians and attorneys, and it just as certainly needs experts in astrophysics, central Asian economics, African languages, and post-Soviet history. A disruptive innovation in faculty roles may in fact have the unintended consequence of weakening the nation’s intellectual and strategic advantage in important areas of human knowledge.

Taking the Long View

When it comes to educational innovation, “disruptive” and “successful” are not necessarily synonyms, and that is in large part because higher education has a very different mission from manufacturing. From the point of view of higher education, a successful innovation does more than strengthen an institution’s bottom line in the short term. Such innovation is sustainable and mission-centered, simultaneously improving quality while also helping the institution generate new resources—both financial and intellectual—so as to improve quality further. CIC has examined what makes for successful innovation that meets these standards through several commissioned research studies. Two conclusions emerge from Mission Driven Innovation: An Empirical Study of Adaptation and Change among Independent Colleges (2015) by James Hearn and Jarrett Warshaw. The first is that an innovation will endure only if there is significant buy- in from the faculty and other key constituencies. Innovations therefore usually require time to take root and cannot be imposed suddenly from on high. The second conclusion is that in order to create a campus climate that is receptive to innovation, many innovative initiatives should be launched simultaneously with the widespread understanding that they are good-faith experiments, some of which will succeed and some of which will not. A campus that is patient and not afraid to fail can develop a culture of innovation and become more likely to discover and embrace meaningful new ideas.

At CIC’s most recent Institute for Chief Academic Officers and Presidents Institute—both, speaking of innovation, offered successfully online—two plenary speakers provided nuanced and current perspectives on innovation from their recent books. Bryan Alexander’s Academia Next (2020) reminds readers that multiple potential futures, shaped by a range of social and economic forces, lie before all colleges and universities. Decisions taken today can nudge an institution toward the future it hopes for and away from one it wishes to avoid. Leaders who are actively engaged in discussion of the future that the institution wants for itself and its students have a great advantage when a pressing decision about an innovation must be made.

In a different vein, The College Stress Test (2020), co-written by Robert Zemsky, reminds readers that decisions about the future are not only up to presidents, faculty members, and boards. Every innovation or failure to innovate will ultimately be tested in a market—for enrollment, for foundation or corporate support, for academic talent—and must succeed in that market in order to influence the future. Zemsky reminds us, for example, that in the abstract students prefer a live, full-time, residential undergraduate experience. But unless that experience can be made, through strategic innovation, affordable and available to all who prefer it, that option will not thrive in the marketplace for enrollment and will soon be available to almost no one.

Taking the long view—extending in both directions, into the future and the past—is a necessary habit for campus leaders who hope to foster innovation. Discerning where one’s own college fits into academic, economic, and social trends requires well-honed judgment. And most trends will not wash over all colleges in the same way or at the same time. For example, CIC member institutions differ widely as to their reliance on graduate programs or part-time students or the role of online instruction in their existing programs. To position an institution for greater success and distinction, a successful leader will not assume that trends visible today are inevitable predictors of the future, that what worked in another industry will work in higher education, that what worked on another campus will work on this one, or that any one innovation, however disruptive, can possibly be a magic bullet. We can shape our institutions’ futures, not assume that external trends are inevitable markers of our institutions’ destinies.

With that, it remains only for me to thank the many successful and wise campus leaders with whom I have had the honor of working at CIC, especially those who have given so generously of their insight and energy to service on the Board of Directors, as well as the many innovative and dedicated members of faculties and staffs across the country who make independent higher education the national treasure that it is.

You have my deep gratitude and appreciation, and best wishes for future success.


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