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Nov 19, 2006

Community and innovation: On the Academic Plannign Process

The University has embarked on a massive academic planning process. The idea is to hold a series of conversations among faculty and administrative staff and identify broad themes on which most people agree, and then develop specific objectives and plans. The process includes broad participation, and strives for consensus. That is the good news.

The bad news is that such a process is unlikely to produce innovation, and here is why. It begins with small groups of faculty sitting around the table and brainstorming on something like SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). Whatever the question is, the small group of strangers has a definite dynamics: one does not want to be weird or offensive, so one offers ideas that are likely to be non-confrontational and possibly not weird. If an unexpected idea comes along once in a while, it is likely to be met with a bewildered looks or silence from the rest of the group. This does not happen because people generally resist new ideas; rather, any new idea requires some time to process, and these exercises are usually brief or very brief. So, the occasional unusual proposal rarely gets recorded. If against all odds, a new idea makes it into the group’s notes, someone else is charged with the task of summarizing notes from all groups. To do a fair job, she or he will have to look for common themes, and ignore wording that occurs just once. This is another powerful filter against new ideas.

The result of the process is going to be both impressive and disappointing. We all agree on most wonderful and most generic principles. Those are so generic, they will border on triviality. Who is against community building? Who would object to rational planning and distribution of resources? Anyone against higher salaries? Proper facilities? This is just the nature of a large group’s consensus; it is essentially conservative, and is never innovative. New ideas arise from a small minority, and are expected to be met with resistance. By definition, new ideas will not gain easy acceptance, and need a period of criticism to prove their worth. This is why the academic planning is unlikely to produce any innovation.

Of course, one may question the premise that a university academic planning should produce innovation. One may suggest that the process is designed merely to produce more cohesion in the university community. The process, one may argue, is more important than the result, and the buy-in is as important as what exactly people are expected to buy. I disagree. Although the process in question can produce temporary sense of community, everyone will be disappointed in the end, when the results turn out to be unimpressive. Success, not harmony is the most dependable vehicle of community building. And to be successful, a university like ours needs to puts itself on the map in some tangible ways. We cannot distinguish ourselves by doing what everyone else is doing. Higher education consists of a large number of essentially very similar providers, separated from each other geographically rather than substantially. There is a relatively small number of bran names, whose product is not that different from generic institutions like UNC. Those brand institutions are not faced with the need to innovate, for they can simply reinvest into brand quality, and continue to project the image of exclusive quality. We can never achieve brand recognition like Harvard or Stanford or even UC Boulder. Therefore, in order to be successful, we must find a very specific niche or niches, and do very few things extremely well. In other words, to achieve the sense of success, we must innovate.

How can innovation be institutionalized? What sort of process can produce innovation? One way to go would be to break down the group dynamics processes I described. Perhaps we can have several small teams, each consisting of people who either know each other already, or are given an opportunity to get to know each other. They should feel safe enough to bring up unusual, weird, or radical ideas. These teams would be given ample time to brainstorm with specific purpose of finding innovative ideas, perhaps in direct competition with one another. Once their competing projects are produced, the teams will need to sell their ideas to the campus community. I am certain that university faculty are capable of supporting someone else’s ideas, if those are good, and are not pushed down from the central administration. An open debate, with rational argument and evidence, will generate more sense of community than the polite and inconsequential conversations we are having now. In the end, we may have a set of proposals, which then need to be carefully considered, critiqued, and eventually acted on.

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