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?