Respecting Faculty Governance and the Need for Innovation

Written by  //  June 7, 2014  //  Alumni, Faculty, Staff  //  No comments

One of the challenges of taking on a major change initiative such as the Purdue Polytechnic Initiative is the tension between change and innovation on the one hand and faculty governance and process on the other. Here I suggest a way to cut the knot between the two in a way that allows us to (a) move ahead piloting useful innovations and (b) fully respect the tradition of academic governance.

Faculty Governance Version 1: Vote Before Innovation

The usual way we approach faculty governance is that programmatic changes must be voted on before innovation takes place. This usually results in what others have called the NIMBY response (“not in my backyard”), by analogy to the sighting of nuclear power plants and superhighways. Faculty come into the meeting where the vote takes place and say, “Yes, innovation is a great thing.” They then look at the proposed change and realize that it may have some consequences on their course. They then say, “Yes, change is great, but just don’t change my course.” Then a form of politicking takes place called logrolling: “If you vote not to change my course, I’ll vote not to change your course.” The end result is that all but the smallest innovations are shot down BEFORE THEY ARE EVEN TRIED.

How Can We Innovate & Respect Faculty Governance?

This problem seems (and has been) intractable. Our normal process results in little or small innovation. How can we do more change in times such as ours, when greater changes need to be tried? The answer can be borrowed from industry. In industry, a new untested process is not tried at scale from the get-go. Instead, a pilot plant is built that takes the laboratory process and gets it to work in the real world in a small version of the larger plant. Likewise, entrepreneurs don’t build their businesses at full scale. Oftentimes, they use an incubator to try the idea out, find a market, make adjustments before launching at scale. These ideas, pilots and incubators, can be used in academic transformation, too. The example of the iFoundry (Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education) incubator/pilot is one such case (brief history post here & whitepaper here).

Faculty Governance Version 2: Pilot & Vote After Innovation

The key idea here then is as follows. Instead of demanding full permission to implement at scale, we split academic innovation into two phases. In the pilot phase, pilot permission to attempt innovation with a small cohort of students in a limited term and scope of experiment is negotiated. Oftentimes, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) can be useful in detailing the limits on pilot permission. The experiment is then held, and during the experiment, assessment data (qualitative and quantitative) is collected. Depending on the duration of the pilot period, iterative improvement is undertaken. At the end of the pilot, the results are then presented and at that point a faculty vote is taken on whether the pilot should go forward in some way as part of the regular curriculum. In this way, innovation is allowed to take place and faculty governance is respected.

The Times They are a Changin’

Bob Dylan said it, and our times demand that we try many new things. We can do this in a way that allows us to accelerate our design-test loop at the same time we preserve the tradition of faculty governance. I look forward toward moving ahead with innovation and full respect for faculty governance.

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