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Week of December 3, 2012

Faculty perspectives

Not with my money you don’t: Obstacles to innovation in higher education

I should establish my credentials to write on the subject of innovation, or the lack of it, in colleges and universities. I have worked at two private and three public universities. I have served on the faculty senate at two of these institutions. I have been a department chair for 10 years and then a dean for 15 years. I am now the chair of the faculty senate at UM-Dearborn. In my time I have created new degrees and I have failed to persuade my colleagues to adopt others.

I have not lacked for role models in the quest for institutional renewal. I remember Harry Rivlin, the elfin dean of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. It was the heyday of The Great Society. Dean Rivlin attended a White House conference on minority opportunity. When he came back he announced at a faculty meeting that he had a commitment for a major grant to enroll talented minority students in our urban education doctoral program. “But Harry,” we complained, “We don’t have an urban education doctoral program.” Dean Rivlin looked thoughtful and observed, “I guess I’ll have to give the money back.” As it turned out, he didn’t have to return the money. Of course it helped that we were fond of Harry.

It seems to be harder to negotiate the degree initiation process when you don’t have the backing of the U.S. Department of Education. Sometimes it’s possible for an existing degree to be augmented with additional options, or refocused without sacrificing the original intent of the sequence. I happen to hold a time-honored degree called a Master of Arts in Teaching or M.A.T. This is a degree for people with a liberal arts background who have decided to go into teaching. The degree combines the education certification courses with courses in the teaching field taken through the liberal arts college. Harvard, Yale, Chicago and many others confer the degree. When I suggested that it be introduced at UM-Dearborn I heard all sorts of objections including that it cheapened the liberal arts degree (the usual disdain for schools of education), or that it was a shortcut into teaching. Some said that people with a good liberal arts background from a good college could do better than to go into teaching — apparently blissfully unaware that I held the degree. I persisted and, fortunately, had a supportive provost who was glad to see any movement. We created the program. It was a success and it didn’t cheapen the liberal arts or education or siphon students away from the liberal arts — another concern. Whatever the remark, I did not lose my temper. When some who said, “I’m confused,” or “We should study it,” I countered that it was acceptable to say, “I’m opposed,” but it wasn’t acceptable to duck the question. After a period of perturbation, discussions progressed to decisions. I had a showdown with another dean who answered every proposal with “we should study it thoroughly.” My invariable response became, “Unfortunately, planning degenerates into work.” Humor sometimes moves a project.

But why not study any proposal further? It is always critical to ascertain whether the institution can mount a worthy program based on elements such as faculty qualifications, library and other resources, staff assistance, faculty and staff morale and likely accreditation status. Then there is the issue of competition from other institutions; administrators must assess the likely market based on enrollments elsewhere, opinions of allied organizations and alumni requests. Finally, there is the topic of governance. Will the influential faculty bodies support the proposal, even halfheartedly? Will university officials agree to the innovation? Public universities must ask if the other state public institutions and bureaucrats accept the idea. New degrees or programs require persistence on the part of their sponsors. After much of this work has been done and publicized, the sponsors do not appreciate someone saying, “We should study it further.” Hoy and Miskel cite studies in administration that found that excellent companies “…were brilliant on the basics: Tools didn’t substitute for thinking. Intellect didn’t overpower wisdom. Analysis didn’t impede action.”

Just as new programs are vital for institutional renewal, old programs may have outlived their usefulness. It may be harder to eliminate an aging offering than starting a new one. A case in point is geography. As interest in geography has shifted to geopolitics or geophysics or geopharmacology, etc., existing programs in geography have slowly disappeared. K-12 school requirements in geography may be the sole rationale. As Sergiovanni, Burlingame, Coombs and Thurston observe, “Changes in professional practice are a result of shifts in models that characterize thinking in the field.” GPS devices may be the final nail in geography’s coffin. Geographic knowledge is useful, but is this sufficient to counsel students that careers may still be built upon geography degrees?

Global positioning systems are a potent technology and may hasten geography’s demise. However, not every new technology will sustain college programs. Textbooks on iPads or other tablets may appeal, but will the technology doom paper textbooks? Will students create their own textbooks given questions for investigation? Is it appropriate for colleges to base curriculum courses on the presumption that iPads will revolutionize education (a claim made by some enthusiasts – or vendors). The students in my courses love their cell phones (which they covertly use for texting and email during class), use their laptops as serious devices, but they ignore tablets as toys. Is the reputation of tablets as the device of the future — the center of BYOD policies — a result of hype? There is no substitute for the sound judgment that must be applied to any college proposal; additional study is not a substitute for judgment.

The repeated reaction to a departure from the existing curriculum is, “If this program is created it will drain money from my program.” It is never true; the fact that professors insist on it tends to lower their credibility in matters of governance. You can provide examples of how new programs providing the revenue that allow existing programs to survive, but the zero-sum game thinking is hard to overcome. Prudent administrations have some money in reserve for emergencies. Those same funds can be used for new degrees or variations on existing degrees. The currency of the “not with my money you don’t” may be traced to the old joke, “Why are academic politics so bitter? Because the stakes are so small.”

Another part of the explanation may be due to why academics are academics. In general people are attracted to a field such as history or mechanical engineering. Their identity is encapsulated in their success in this field. When the academic world seems to be changing an element of uncertainty threatens the stable universe of the college world. Victor Vroom posited expectancy theory to suggest why people find even modest change unnerving. “People join organizations with expectations about their needs, motivations, and past experiences. An individual’s behavior is the result of conscious choice … People will choose among alternatives so as to optimize outcomes for them personally.” Of course opposing change is one way of insuring that nothing challenges one’s expectations.

Faculty governance depends on volunteers. It would be helpful if positions requiring exposure to financial decision making were rotated among the faculty so that everyone had to consider the basics of budgeting. Not everyone would be receptive to this, but a cadre of faculty members would emerge who could calmly consider the pluses and minuses of program death or birth. It’s fun to demonize administrators, but as a person who has been on both sides of the fence it’s better to approach governance as process of making sometimes painful but informed decisions.


Wayne K. Hoy and Cecil Miskel, Educational Administration: Theory, Research, and Practice, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996).

Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn, The Social Psychology of Organizations, (New York: Wiley, 1978).

Sergiovanni, Burlingame, Coombs, and Thurston, Educational Governance and Administration, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999).

Victor Vroom, Work and Motivation, (New York: Wiley, 1964). For more recent treatments of expectancy theory see Naylor, Pritchard, Ilger, A Theory of Behavior in Organizations, (New York: Academic Press, 1980) and Fred C. Lunenburg and Allan C. Ornstein, Educational Administration: Concepts and Practices, 5th edition,(New York: Wadsworth, 2007).

For an interesting discussion of how technology may alter and perpetuate degrees see Phil Hill’s explanation of MOOCs – Massively Open Online Courses, in Educause Review, November-December, 2012, p. 84.

The Faculty Perspectives page is an outlet for faculty expression provided by the Senate Assembly. Prospective contributors are invited to contact the Faculty Perspectives Page Committee at Essays are the opinion of the author. The chair this year is Bob Fraser. Submissions are accepted in electronic form and are subject to review by the committee. Essay lengths are restricted to one full printed page in The University Record, or about 1,500 words.


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