Saturday, October 31, 2009

The structure of change

The world around us is changing fast, faster than ever before. Just a few things: the State budget is heading to a cliff; a perfect storm for teacher education is brewing; the technology revolution has really started to affect education. Yet our University like most others, does not seem to be able to change. We definitely improve our programs, and the organization is improving. But all of it is happening at such a slow pace that the world seems to be hurling past us. Whatever improvements we manage to accomplish are just nibbling at the edges; they are neither revolutionary, nor profound. Universities are sitting on a large stock of human capital: some of the most educated and creative minds in the nation. Yet they seem to unable to use those minds for fostering innovation. The rate of innovation in private business world is many times higher than in higher education. We all remember the first PC's with blue screens and no mouse. Some people may remember Gopher. We now have vastly superior computers plus iPhone, Kindle, iPod, plus Google, FaceBook, Wikipedia, and many others. Even old technologies like cars manage significant improvements every few years. They are safer, more efficient, and more comfortable now than just five years ago. Yet our classrooms look and feel just like they did in 1950-s, with only slight and uncertain improvements.

Part of this is the institutional culture. Whenever a faculty committee is asked to think about a new or revised program or procedure, it meets once a month for an hour each time. It always takes a year to design a change. And because we are used to collaboration, the committee will agree on something most acceptable to all – which virtually guarantees only minor changes. I just served on two of these: we spent a great deal of time, talked a lot of smart talk, but accomplished something very modest, none of it is game-changing.

The University bureaucracy is no faster either. We revise curriculum once a year, because of the arbitrary deadline the printer imposes on us to change catalogs. Memos can sit on various administrators' desks for months and months. And not just ordinary memos – a new and promising program we designed was just recently approved, although we submitted it in March. What is more important that bringing new programs and attracting new students to this campus? Apparently, there is. We think in terms of years; the world thinks in terms of days. Universities are really pathetic where it comes to change.

Innovation, like anything else, needs a special support structure. For example, our university has nothing like an R&D unit. No one is really expected to come up with new ideas, or support new ides as a part of his or her job. There is absolutely no process for submitting new ideas – no place to send them, and no one to consider their merits. There are no incentives for individual people or groups of faculty and staff to work on innovations. Why take the risk, if you need to play it safe to get tenure? There is no chance for any of us ever get rich and famous from a brilliant idea, because the University is vigilantly egalitarian and jealously hierarchical. We need to change that and provide specific, tangible rewards for groups of entrepreneurial faculty, as well as recognition and support.

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