Higher Education Teaches Future Employees Not To Innovate

Higher Ed Lack of Incentives for Employee InnovationFlicker

Here’s a riddle for you: why do many brilliant and motivated leaders run higher education institutions that discourage innovation?

In recent weeks, I’ve delivered several talks for faculty and staff at major universities, and I took the opportunity to poll one audience with regards to the barriers to innovation at their institution.

The categories I chose came to my attention via in an Academic Impressions article by Melissa Morriss-Olson, Ph.D., Provost of Bay Path University.

In her doctoral dissertation research, Morriss-Olson studied “the financial performance and management strategies of 100 small resource-constrained institutions over a ten-year period to account for why some colleges thrived while others declined”. She found that the most resilient institutions “exhibited an innovative institutional mindset,” and observed that when it comes to resiliency, mindset may be more important than skill set.

Nour Group Research on Top 3 Barriers to Innovation in Higher EducationIllustration courtesy of Lin Wilson

As you can see in the survey results above, the picture painted by my higher education audience was of an organization with numerous systems, structures, and processes that seem custom-designed to prevent innovation.

Just think about it for a moment. A typical university prides itself with rules, requirements, politics, and traditions. But unless these are designed to cultivate an innovative mindset, they may accidentally stifle it.

For example, I understand the reasons that higher education institutions grant tenure, but that practice also can serve as an obstacle to both taking risks and encouraging a constant flow of fresh ideas and talent. In fact, the tenure system tends to shed talent, because anyone who fails to get it typically leaves their institution.

What’s worse, the tenure system can be viewed as a barrier to student-centered education, because it rewards research rather than good teaching.

But here’s the issue that drives me crazy: unless we do a better job educating students, our companies won’t have the talent they need to thrive.

Every company I visit wants to be more innovative and responsive, but most universities neither teach this way nor foster such qualities in their students.

So, somewhere between college and work—which is somewhere between a week and a few months for most students—they are supposed to develop the ability to innovate magically. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t seem to me.

Student-centered education would lead to a higher prevalence of customer-centered business models. We are all human, and we embrace what worked for us.

One higher education practice I like is the growing presence of clinical professors on campus. Carnegie Mellon has gathered numerous definitions of this role, and here are three of them (all these bullet points are verbatim):

  • A clinical appointment in the appropriate rank is usually made to a person who holds a primary appointment with an outside agency or non-academic unit of the University, or who is in private practice. Clinical faculty make substantial contributions to University programs through their expertise, interest, and motivation to work with the faculty in preparing and assisting with the instruction of students in practicum settings.  (U. of Wash.)
  • The faculty modifier “Clinical” applies to persons of professional qualifications who perform teaching, research, or extension functions in a hospital, clinic, or another clinical environment in connection with an established program of the institution (U. Fl.)
  • While “clinical” often suggests a medical connection, Clinical titles do not necessarily imply that the incumbent is a health professional.  At the University of Illinois, for example, Clinical titles are used for librarians. (U. Ill.)

Such professors are more grounded in what is happening in their fields, which is why I like this role.

I’d love to see more examples of break-out-of-the-box thinking on college campuses, giving students more room to cultivate their innate abilities and more flexibility to be ready for the world that awaits them, rather than the world that existed forty years ago.

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