Judging by the headlines in our various trade publications, whatever higher education’s next chapter looks like, it must be innovative — OR ELSE.
With the past few years hijacked — first by emergency remote courses, and then by semi-in-person teaching — there’s no shortage of takes about how academe must either “innovate” or perish. As a chorus of op-eds, reports, deep dives, and metastudies inevitably concludes: Innovation is “imperative,” “has never been more important,” and only “disruptive innovation” will help us overcome the existential threats we face in operations and — especially — enrollment.
But what, exactly, do those panicky pleas mean by “innovation”?
In the tradition of first-year-student essays everywhere, let’s begin with a dictionary definition of innovation: “to make changes, to do something in a new way, to introduce as or as if new.” Perhaps the easy logic there is what makes the term so seductive to higher-ed leaders: The status quo is unsustainable, so we must do something new.
But too often the demand for novelty disregards existing work and dismisses those doing it. Countless faculty and staff members — you may be one of them, dear reader — have advocated for X only to see an outside consultant swoop in, suggest the exact same thing to senior leadership and be hailed as a visionary who “forced all of us to finally realize the importance of X.”
The second problem is that the avatars of innovation always seem to be people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos — you know: the lone, courageous mavericks who boldly fight the entrenched and stodgy forces of inertia. Except of course that the faces of innovation tend to be mostly white, almost always male, and often strengthen, rather than undermine, the most inequitable features of the status quo.
Perhaps worst of all, innovation is routinely used as a rationale to protect and enable actual predators. How many stories have we read just in the last few years about the “brilliant scholar” whose work was so innovative, original, or vital that it didn’t matter that he (and it’s almost always “he”) was a serial predator, pressuring students for relationships and sexual favors, or a known harasser? When the mania for innovation has so often trumped ethics in such fashion, it should give us serious pause about the concept’s use as a lodestar in any discussion of higher-ed strategy.
But what if we could approach innovation in another way? What if we could abandon the type of innovation that privileges novelty and outsider status? What if we refused to grant anyone deemed “innovative” a get-out-of-jail-free card for being a horrible person and then framed innovation in ways that would recognize the immense collective problem-solving capacity of higher education’s work force?