The 10 Barriers to Innovation in Higher Education

Innovation Center: Image of reflections on a light bulb

Why is it so difficult to nurture innovation and academic entrepreneurship at a college or university?

My keen and longstanding interest in innovation was first fueled by my doctoral dissertation research, conducted in the early 1990s with a focus on small college resiliency. I studied the financial performance and management strategies of 100 small resource constrained institutions over a ten-year period to account for why some colleges thrived while others declined. I found that the most resilient colleges employed several strategies that, when taken together, helped explain their success.

Most significantly, each of these schools exhibited an innovative institutional mindset, something that has been touted recently by prominent higher education thinkers as a critical prerequisite for thriving in these disruptive times. In fact, my research suggests that at the end of the day, institutional resiliency may depend more on mindset than skill set.

Having been in the trenches for more than thirty years, I also know that this is not easy, especially for academic institutions. As legendary management consultant Peter Drucker concludes in his classic article The Discipline of Innovation: “In innovation, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But when it is said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work.”

Why is it so difficult to create and nurture innovation within an academic organization? In my experience, significant change will never occur until the forces for change are greater in combination than the forces preserving the status quo. This is especially the case in most academic institutions where the forces for resisting change are often institutionalized in complex and powerful ways.

What are some of these barriers? Here is my top ten list of the most common barriers to change and innovation in higher education:

1. Risk Avoidance

Faculty, staff and administrators are no different from anyone else in being slow to exchange what they know and do, even if they are not happy with it, for the unknown which has the potential of being far worse. The risk of being deskilled and rendered irrelevant is a powerful fear, especially for faculty, and is often the reason for resistance to new program ideas or delivery models. Reporting on the challenges faced by two once venerable institutions in a recent Ithaca S+R publication, William Bowen and Lawrence Bacow observe:

“Rather than confront truly difficult decisions, and risk personal insult and damage, it may often seem easier for both presidents and trustees just to hope that the sun will shine tomorrow—whatever the official weather forecast—and to assume that if it rains eventually, as it almost surely will, it will rain on someone else’s parade.”

2. Zero-Sum Thinking

Most colleges and universities exist in a culture of competition among institutions, among programs, and even among faculty. The pull towards self-protection can be intense, resulting in a fear that if another department or faculty gets new resources, “there will be less for me and my department.” New program ideas can be viewed as something that will take away the resources or the attention that faculty need to do their jobs. Subsequently, cooperation can be very difficult to achieve and is rarely rewarded.

3. Accreditation

As membership organizations, accreditors gear their standards and policies toward maintaining and increasing excellence in higher education as it is understood by those members. In other words, nearly all accreditation processes and standards are designed to maintain the status quo. While we are beginning to see the winds shift slightly in this regard—for example, in its most recent revision, NEASC added a standard dedicated to effectiveness—notions of excellence remain mostly focused on measures that reinforce the existing state of affairs.

4. Tradition and Culture

Tradition can be an extremely powerful force—from within and outside of the academy—and can never be underestimated when planning change of any kind. When the then-president and board of Sweet Briar College announced their decision to close in 2015, the alumnae rallied to accomplish what many said could not be done. They pursued legal action against the administration and won, resulting in the institution’s reopening with a new president and board. The power of tradition is obvious in the words of Sweet Briar Board Chair Teresa Pike Tomlinson: “Sweet Briar’s near collapse turned out to be a blessing because the school now has an alumnae network that its president described as ‘like Patton’s army.'”

5. Leadership

Change management is rarely on the list of attributes required for college president and provost positions these days. Consequently, most new institutional leaders are ill-equipped to lead or understand organizational change efforts. This is particularly the case on the academic side of the house, where senior academic leaders typically come up through the ranks. However, as noted in a recent AGB Trusteeship article on presidential leadership, “in an environment of unprecedented disruption, rapid change, and nontraditional challenges, a new mode of leadership and decision making may be required.” The author goes on to suggest that “among the key attributes required for the next generation of presidents are courage, entrepreneurial aptitude, and experience in successfully leading change.”

6. Internal Systems, Structures, and Decision Making Processes

The reward and budget allocation systems on most college campuses tend to reinforce the status quo with few, if any, rewards for taking risks. And top-down, control-based hierarchical structures discourage individual initiative and reduce autonomy. As Hackathon contributor Peter Russian observes about the challenges of today’s world, “those closest to the front line are going to be better placed to understand the increasing demands of an informed customer [e.g. student] and need to be able to respond to those demands.” Yet the traditional hierarchical and siloed structure found in most academic organizations makes it very difficult to organize for change in a way that is contextually responsive.

7. Staffing and Recruitment Processes

Likewise, the search processes for most new academic positions tend to place greater weight on preserving the status quo. In her insightful book Now You See It, Dr. Cathy Davidson suggests that diversification of the faculty is one of the most powerful things an institution can do to enhance innovation. Per Davidson, new ideas and ways of thinking about teaching and learning will come “only through a purposeful mixing it up of perspectives, experiences and backgrounds,” something that is impossible to achieve when we hire people “just like ourselves.”

8. Faculty Governance

The traditional faculty socialization and tenure processes can also be a powerful barrier to change on today’s college campus. Tenure track faculty play a particularly important role because of their oversight and control of the teaching and learning experience. Any effort to change how things are done may be seen by the faculty as a threat to academic excellence or integrity. Moreover, the very process of earning tenure is one that rewards and reinforces the status quo for individual faculty members. Perhaps not surprisingly, at its annual meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges in 2016, a panel of presidents drafted a list of “essential” and “negotiable” elements for the future of higher education institutions, including tenure on the “negotiable” list.

9. Organizational Silos

Many institutions, their leaders, and their faculty tend to work in silos, cut off from the broader inputs and influences that may shape their very future. If the institution is too internally focused and rigidly structured, its leaders may miss the signs of change within its fluid market context. In today’s disruptive environment, academic institutions must be able to change quickly to meet the evolving needs of the communities they serve including rapid realignment of skills and assets. Recent small college closures such as St. Joseph of Indiana provide a sad example of this reality.

10. Success

Ironically, one of the toughest barriers to negotiate is success. Successful institutions tend to define quality by their own standards, with the status quo serving as a marker to exemplify quality. Hence, in good times, there is neither the imperative nor a sense of urgency to change anything. And yet it is precisely when things are going well for an institution that its leaders need to look to the future. Stephen Remedios, Principal at the Boston Consulting Group’s Leadership & Talent Enablement Centre, sees past success as one of the greatest decision biases. “When there’s no threat on the horizon, and you’ve just had your best quarter in a while, adapting to remain relevant in the next quarter is the last thing on anyone’s agenda,” he says.