Fourth in a series of how universities can help build character.
University innovation is often, and appropriately, viewed as the work of faculty and students fueling discovery through individual scholarship, research, and creative activity. Universities must innovate corporately, too. Resource challenges for education have increased while needs for social and human services, public safety, and other high priorities press heavily on taxpayers and legislative leaders. When George W. Bush was governor, an impassioned plea by university presidents was made for increased funding. He reportedly replied to the chorus of concern, “Healthcare institutions, departments of public safety, and social services don’t have marching bands or football programs. Go find the resources.”
Indeed, universities utilize philanthropy to offset declining availability of state funds. However, innovation in the delivery and management of educational programs through experimentation could drive costs down and simultaneously sustain and increase quality. Too many procrastinate rather than innovate. Colleges hum a mantra of self-fulfilling doomsday prophecies choking off new ideas. Innovation and experimentation should abound in universities. They are “idea places.” Instead, too frequently a hidebound mentality governs action. The pandemic exacerbates the need for innovation. Online learning began walking in the ’90s and reached a trot in the second decade of this century. But COVID-19 jockeyed online demand resulting in a full gallop, shifting delivery modes faster than the Internet.
Innovation is essential for survival. Survival is a commanding motivator.
Some institutions, Georgia Institute of Technology for example, brought their best academic offerings online at a lower cost than residential instruction. It was innovative. The New York Times recognized it: “The combination of a prestigious department, traditional degree and drastically lower price was something new in American higher education.” Yet many institutions and disciplines of study within those institutions fight online offerings as a pandemic-like disease that infects true learning. I hear this daily. I don’t believe it. Likewise, drinking the Kool-Aid that asserts digital delivery of instruction will solve every problem is more Pollyanna than problem-solving.
Forbes draws clarity between wishful thinking, dreaming, and innovation. Through pragmatism, innovative dreamers transform wishful thinking into solved problems. Marina Kim and Angie Fuessel in the Stanford Social Innovation Review report that change making can be embedded in corporate culture and freeing human capital to address challenges. Innovation should be a core value for forward-looking educational enterprises.
WT tracks national averages, and innovation is needed to address changing demographics. New America reveals misconceptions regarding universities in a study of 1,600 Americans. The average age of students has increased. Yet, 63% of Americans surveyed believe the average college student is 20 years old. The reality is the average college student is 26.4 years old. Of those surveyed, 57% believe most people attend public two-year schools compared to four-year institutions. The reality is 40% attend public four-year institutions and 38% attend public two-year institutions. Innovative approaches are required to distinguish the value proposition for two- and four-year institutions and simultaneously create seamless transfer between the two. These are just two examples. Effective universities will innovate in response to students and their aspirations. An American Enterprise Institute interview with Ben Nelson, CEO of Minerva, confirms this perspective. Innovation is essential.
Forbes’ Brandon Busteed provides a number of innovative ideas sharply focused by the pandemic. Some are not new: Work readiness is essential, particularly as costs increase. WT’s internship and experiential learning opportunities are growing markedly to meet demand. Admissions decisions should be provided within 48 hours. WT created a web application delivering an answer in less than a day, occasionally, in minutes. Online education is “core to the strategy of any four-year residential institution that has ambitions to remain relevant, diversify revenue and grow.” WT provides increasingly high-quality online instruction and has for 23 years. Condensed and less expensive bachelor’s degrees, the support of students as lifelong learners, shared services to increase efficiency and reduce costs and non-degree education are all worthwhile considerations.
Some of this thinking is fresh; some is common practice. However, this is clear—tradition must be overcome in any institution that seeks to innovate for the benefit of those served.
Innovation is a core value of West Texas A&M University and, thankfully, those called West Texans.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/