Mar 17, 2012

"The Innovative University"

These are a few ideas of the many in this book (Christensen and Eyring 2011):
  • The higher education model in the US has been seriously questioned. The bottom line is that research is expensive and probably unsustainable at its current pace due to financial constraints. Besides, as faculty have focused more on research they have given less attention to undergraduates. As a consequence the quality of undergraduate education has suffered. 
  • Since its beginnings Harvard shaped the DNA of higher education. This includes the creation of tenure based on research, summer classes, majors, etc. Other schools have copied the Harvard model, some have been more successful than others at doing this. The authors of The Innovative University argue that to be Harvard schools need to have the resources that Harvard has, which is almost impossible. That is why imitating the Harvard model is not for every school. The model is very expensive because high caliber research is very expensive. 
  • The universities that will survive are those that will offer the highest value for the money to their students, those that focus on their strengths (mission and values), and those that make the tough choices to focus on specific programs and goals. Currently most universities can’t do everything (graduate education, undergraduate education, research, sports, etc.).
  • Some schools have defined research more broadly. For them research is not only about discovery but it includes studying how current discoveries can be applied to practical problems. Research about teaching and learning can play an important role as well. Engaging undergrads in faculty research can be very valuable too. 
  • Online education is a disruptive innovation, it can be pedagogically effective and it is also much cheaper; its reach will increase. But online education can’t replace traditional (face-to-face) education completely. There is still a future for the traditional classroom experience. Most universities however must seek a right balance between on-line and traditional education. Some will probably do well if they specialize in one or the other.

I read the The Innovative University with universities in Latin America in mind. What road should they follow given the changes that US schools face? One aspect is tenure. The authors argue that tenure to promote research was key to innovation that led to prosperity in the US. Tenure in itself, they say, is not a problem nowadays. It can actually be very useful if the process through which it is granted responds to the mission and values of each school. In Latin America several private schools have adopted the tenure model, especially Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil. Some universities in these countries have also put more emphasis on research.

As the emphasis on research in many US universities decreases it would be a mistake to abandon the tenure-research model that some universities in Latin America have adopted. Especially now that income is increasing in the region. It is true that research is expensive but to move innovation forward it is important that at least one or two schools in each country move in that direction. Innovation that responds to local needs is urgent; as it is research that can link universities and the industry. Tenure and research are still the common practices in the US, but they are exceptions in most Latin American countries. As it happens now in the US, research is not for everyone, but it will remain a niche for some schools. The hope is that some schools in Latin America start discovering that niche. 

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