Innovation in higher education is about anticipation

Legendary Canadian ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky famously said that everybody he played with skated to where the puck is: “I skate to where the puck is going to be.” The same applies to innovation in higher education, says Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in the United States. It is not about online education – that is yesterday’s response: “It’s about figuring out where the puck will be in three years' time”.

“In the United States, boards of trustees are holding institution leaders accountable for knowing where that puck is going to be,” he told a *panel on “Leadership and Governance in a Complex Environment”, at an International Seminar on Innovation in Higher Education hosted by CETYS University in Mexico from 18-20 September. The seminar was part of CETYS’ 55th anniversary celebrations.

“Now that causes presidents lots of problems,” Legon said. Governing boards (councils) are often made up of business leaders and professionals and other very smart people who have led what they believe to be innovative companies.

“Their patience in allowing the president and other institution leaders to find out where that puck is going to be, and to lead the institution there, is a much shorter window than it has been throughout higher education history.”

Such pressures were sadly resulting in many university presidents shortening their careers.

Role of governing boards

In the United States, said Legon, governing boards play a fundamental role in determining policy in universities and colleges and have ultimate authority in making decisions related to the institution.

Governing boards have two areas of accountability. The first is the need to ensure the institution is 'totally autonomous', free from the influence of policy-makers and government and others in determining academic programmes and the business model that drives that institution. Second, boards must protect their own independence.

What makes governance in American higher education different is that members of boards – in both public and private institutions – “tend not to be in any way involved with the life of the institution other than serving as volunteers”. They are not academics, students or staff (although there are a few exceptions).

“For the most part these are people who come from outside the institution to set policy inside the institution. Which on the face of it may sound unique and strange and a little bit messy.

“But it truly connects our colleges and universities to the societies that they serve,” he said, adding that this also helps universities and colleges to be innovative.

Higher education’s value proposition

Legon was concerned that many universities, while developing what they called ‘innovative’ initiatives, were being more reactive that proactive – that they were picking low-hanging fruit.

“In the United States, the stress that chief executive officers are feeling from their boards of trustees will not easily be tempered by the low-hanging fruit.”

Everybody is doing online education, and international education, and trying to be a global institution. While all these were worthy things to do, they were not truly innovative in today’s context. This is especially so considering that higher education is one of the most innovative sectors in most countries, and drives the research that is often at the heart of innovation.

Legon urged delegates to go beyond just hearing what the guy down the street, or in another country, is doing. The role of boards, and the value of universities and colleges, is that they push individuals and organisations “to find that puck”.

“I hear a lot about online programmes,” said Legon. “That’s not innovation – it’s yesterday’s response. But I hear very little about higher education’s value proposition.” Among other things, universities and colleges provide programmes that offer a middle-class opportunity – a major contribution in any society.

There is a debate in the US about whether higher education prepares students for work, or to be critical thinkers and solid citizens. “It’s a fake argument. Every time I hear a university leader fall into the trap of that debate, I want that person to leave higher education.

“We have got to defend the overall value of higher education.

“We do both. We prepare citizens for the future, and we prepare folks who have the capacity to think and learn and add value on the job.” There had been discussion at the seminar about educating students for jobs that may not even exist in future. “So why are we fighting that battle?

“Boards have limited patience but also the responsibility to talk about higher education’s value proposition,” Legon argued. “They need to be out there talking to policy leaders, to corporate leaders, to parents, donors and students.

“Talking about the fact that it's not that we are preparing students for a career, but we are adding value to their lives, we are adding to society, we are adding to the corporate sector. We need the metrics at hand, showing the real contribution of higher education to society.”

Legon’s Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges is currently challenging boards to speak out about the value of higher education.

Where the puck is going to be

It is also challenging people to recognise that questions about innovation mostly come when the business model of colleges and universities is at risk: “We’ve been down this road before.

“In the United States there is not an institution out there that isn’t looking at its revenues and expenses and realising that this business model will not survive.”

Institutions that want to be pushed to be accountable to students and society should increase the engagement of volunteers from outside their academy, said Legon. This had been done by Fernando León Garcia, president of CETYS University, the seminar’s host.

“Otherwise we will be the same institutions we’ve been for the past 350 years. If it’s time to change, if it’s time to be innovative, let’s skate to where we think the puck is going to be.”

* The panel was chaired by Professor Dan Shunk of Arizona State University, USA. Other speakers were Rubén Covarrubias Giordano, president of Universidad Mayor in Chile; Petr Budinsky, vice-president of Vysoka Skola Financni a Spravni – University of Finance and Administration – in the Czech Republic; and Michael Cunningham, chancellor of National University in the United States.