Monday, February 07, 2011



I’ll skip yet another weather-related rant, except to use it as a metaphor. Those of us in chilly climes know that a warm day in winter is very much a mixed blessing; yes, it helps clear the backlog of snow and ice, but inevitably some of the resulting water is blocked from going where it should, so it refreezes. Refrozen stuff is often even worse than the original, since it’s smoother and harder to see. (The usual term of art is “black ice,” since you can see black pavement underneath.)

I’m wondering if there’s a way to prevent refreezing of campus initiatives.

I’ve been through this cycle enough times now to recognize it. Someone proposes something innovative. It gets support, grows, gets more support, and becomes a regular part of what we do.

Then the refreeze hits. The original spirit of innovation is lost, the thing hardens, and what was once daringly responsive to new conditions has become dogmatic and brittle.

This sort of thing happens in the real world all the time. Some innovators keep moving, but too many stop trying once they’ve found something that worked. In a competitive marketplace, standing pat for too long is a sure recipe for failure, as hungry new competitors will come along and seize the opportunities with which you couldn’t be bothered.

On campus, though, the lack of a meaningfully competitive internal marketplace can lead to old dogmas far outliving their time, and even starving promising new ideas of resources.

In the latest version of this dilemma, a program that was legitimately daring and new when it began, decades ago, is starting to look like just another interest group. It has been called ‘innovative’ for so long that many of its partisans simply equate ‘innovation’ with the project, and therefore assume that any redirection of resources away from it is, by definition, an attack on innovation.

To extend the ‘warmth’ metaphor, of course, a sustained period of fiscal warming would melt the ice. With enough resources that the college didn’t have to choose between new and old, but could do both, the dilemma would mostly go away. But I don’t see that happening.

Worse, too many internal constituencies are wrapped up in a worship of “past practice,” not realizing that changes from past practice are exactly the point. If past practice were still convincing, we wouldn’t need innovation. But the world changes, new possibilities emerge, and stasis is not a serious answer. Experiments can’t be negotiated and spelled out in advance; that’s why they’re experiments. Cutting down the future to the size of the present is a crime against possibility. Black ice isn’t the answer; it’s part of the problem.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus or business or organization found a way to encourage the continued cycle of innovation without falling prey to repeated refreezes?

I've seen too many projects begun with great fanfare only to wither,sometimes because key people leave or are reassigned, sometimes because the resources get taken away.

Whether those projects are innovative in a meaningful way I don't know. The way Academically Adrift repeats its mantra of "forty pages of reading a week, twenty pages of writing a term" suggests a healthy skepticism about innovation for its own sake in higher education.

Vince Lombardi said football is blocking and tackling. Somebody in a position of authority ought to stress that (strikeout?) higher (~strikeout) education is reading and writing.
It has been noted elsewhere that while faculty remain fairly stable over time, administrators tend to come and go with greater frequency. And one thing I've noticed is that there tend to be "flavor of the week" pet projects or initiatives that vary, depending on the newest administrators' whims, and his/her control over budgets and internal grants.

So what happens is that people get started on a new idea or project (or tangent) because some new administrative initiative encourages them to do it. But then that admin moves on or loses influence (or budgetary power) and the Next Big Thing takes over, instead. And nothing sticks around long enough to be properly assessed or really put into practice.

How to fix it? Beats me. Maybe commit to longer-term budgeting/funding for projects to ensure that they'll be sustained? If offering grants or honoraria, pay people at certain waypoints in their project, rather than lump sums up front?

Also, be careful you aren't creating a culture where the shiny new thing gets precedent every time, over the tried-and-true. Value innovation for a purpose, not for its own sake.
Why not make refreezing avoidance part of the culture? That is, once something is going well, start explicitly discussing things like succession and governance.
All innovative programs come with a time fuse. Repropose or die

Makes it easier to try things too.
I couldn't really answer your question because innovation often comes from the bottom up rather than the top down at our campus. That does not mean the problem goes away, because faculty can be just as tied to an innovation as administrators can be, and both can be nimble and responsive as well. The problem for an administrator is that you have to lead well enough to get an entire department or college to change, not just change what you do by yourself in your classroom. A professor doesn't have to explain why this semester's class is different than last, since few (if any) students were in it last year.

A Dean has an even bigger problem, which is that part time faculty might be teaching the "old" way at two other schools and be unwilling to invest in a "new" way for just a semester or two. Even if full time faculty buy in (with the confidence that the investment will pay off over many years provided the winds don't shift every few months), you might have to re-orient an ever-shifting majority of your faculty every semester.

[A] program that was legitimately daring and new when it began, decades ago, is starting to look like just another interest group. It has been called ‘innovative’ for so long that many of its partisans simply equate ‘innovation’ with the project, and therefore assume that any redirection of resources away from it is, by definition, an attack on innovation.

Where is your IR group on this? Does it work? Is it cost effective compared to the alternatives? Has the replacement shown it can scale up?

And there is an additional complication. Suppose you modify some gateway class to improve a specific outcome, and it doesn't improve or even gets worse (reading between the lines of the ATD report summary). Can you be sure what you measured was due to the new curriculum or interactive classroom or texting in class or was it due to a new crop of students, some driven to school by a short Depression? And if it is the former, are the leaders (faculty or administrators) strong enough to admit it?
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