Academic Creativity: Its Own Worst Enemy?

Acedemic Computing

THE TIME IS RIGHT to align executive
creativity, and use technology
to improve institutional performance.


Higher ed boards, executives, and faculties must work together to create differentiated academic management and governance models.

ALONG WITH A GROUP of academic, cultural, and business executives who’ve managed creative people, I recently participated in an organized but robustly interactive smallgroup discussion about creativity. When the meeting leader started the discussion by noting that being creative is not the same as managing creative people, I wondered how his observation applies to the leaders of nonprofit colleges and universities, and the intellectually creative faculty they “manage.” I wondered particularly about such faculty’s use of technology in teaching and learning.

Tenure and Policy vs. Creativity
Tenure and its antecedent purpose—the academic freedom to pursue knowledge creation and dissemination unfettered by political and ideological forces—are the foundation of today’s higher education management and governance model. That model excels at helping higher ed executives and boards support faculty members creatively pursuing new knowledge. But it serves less well the institutional obligation to inform and support the faculty’s creativity in pursuit of institutional performance responsibilities judged by governing boards, public policy makers, employers, and the public, in terms of learning outcomes, credit-hour prices (and costs), and workforce and economic development needs.
New Creativity in Leadership

In higher education, the creative lead and manage the creative. Higher education’s executives, like their faculty colleagues, often have demonstrated their creativity through scholarship and research in a disciplinary or professional academic specialization. They adapt naturally as leaders and managers to the distributed, peer governance model of shared institutional management. A more agile leadership, however, is the expectation today. If traditional academic creativity is not to become its own worst enemy, higher education executives will have to lead and manage in ways that are unnatural to the tenure-based peer (shared) governance model, and they’ll have to do this by channeling some of the faculty’s creativity into solving today’s pressing institutional performance challenges. Fortunately, the national economy points the way with new productivity tools and strategies.

In fact, creative executives (dot com, dot org) have managed and applied technology to fuel increases in annual productivity even as the economy was sagging over the past several years. Downsizing sometimes resulted, not because of productivity increases, but because of productivity increases in the absence of economic growth—and, admittedly, because some services and production were shifted to cheaper labor sources. Nevertheless, well-managed technology infrastructure and support have become competitive necessities, and the innovative application of technology to redesign service and production processes to improve quality, unit cost structures, and customer convenience and saisfaction has permitted competitive differentiation throughout the economy. How creatively disruptive will higher education leaders have to be if technology is to be applied innovatively to instruction, academic programs, and various support services to improve institutional performance?

What Will the New Creativity Mean?

Will higher education leaders have to dismantle tenure? No; but they should invoke academic freedom only to defend what it was intended to defend: the politically and ideologically unfettered pursuit of knowledge creation and dissemination within the professor’s scholarly and instructional obligations to the institution and the discipline/profession. Academic freedom should not be invoked as a reason for rejecting opportunities to make instruction more effective (as measured by learning outcomes that can be publicly reported). Nor should it be invoked as a reason for rejecting opportunities to make instruction more efficient (as measured by direct instructional expenses that can be reported). Nor should academic freedom be allowed to hinder an institution’s migration to more flexible program delivery models that give students the same kinds of options enjoyed by customers of other service organizations (e.g., banks). In higher education, those options include: a) fewer requirements for real-time interactions in any medium (classroom, office, interactive video, and Internet); b) a portal-accessible array of customizable online self-service options for matriculating, registering, studying, interacting with teachers and other students, accessing records, paying bills, and so on; c) 24/7, toll-free, first-line support services; and d) as-needed indepth expert academic and staff help provided as conveniently as possible during business hours in main- or branch-campus centers.

In higher ed, the creative lead and manage the creative.

Will higher education leaders have to downsize their faculties? While program demand and other factors may selectively affect some programs, there should be little or no need for national downsizing, because national demographics reveal a growing pipeline of (traditional and nontraditional) potential students, and because higher education already has a capacity and affordability issue. Demand already exceeds supply!

Will higher education leaders have to become technology experts and innovators? No; but they have to ensure that technology is: a) well-managed and cost-effectively supported by an internal or outsourced central technology unit; and b) innovatively applied, with expert help, to redesign academic and administrative programs and services to improve institutional performance indicators, such as those mentioned above. Academic programs and academic and administrative services are already being redesigned at some institutions around the flex model described above.

Will higher education leaders have to turn their backs on general education programs and their tenure-protected goals of critical thinking, open discourse, reasoned debate, and learning to learn? No; the technology-enabled commoncourse redesign strategy described in my first column for this magazine [November, 2004] is at the heart of a proven strategy for using technology to improve and account for student learning outcomes while simultaneously reducing the direct costs of instruction: 40 percent on average for the 30 institutions that each redesigned a key general education course with support from the National Center for Academic Transformation ( www.center.rpi.edu).

Will higher education leaders have to become relentless cost-cutters in response to unrelenting pressure on traditional public and private sources of revenue? No; but they will have to differentiate key unit costs (such as costs per credit, costs per graduate, and so on) from aggregate revenues. And they’ll have to learn to use technology to redesign services to improve their quality and flexibility, while simultaneously driving down their unit costs.

Time to Align

As I listened to others in the creativity seminar, I realized that creativity is often easier to recognize than to define or analyze; the “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” cop-out. In its use of technology, higher education has creatively moved from supporting random acts of progress, to supporting pockets of progress such as the growing implementations of portals to integrate customizable self-service around a number of academic and administrative service functions. The time is right to align executive and academic creativity to move toward systemic progress on improving institutional performance in the public interest.

Higher education boards, executives, and faculties must learn to work together to create differentiated academic management and governance models selectively designed to fit each of the diverse mission planks and public-interest obligations of their institutions. Only then will the coupling of academic freedom and intellectual creativity at the heart of the academic core not become its own worst enemy, but instead regain public respect and continue to serve the public interest it was designed to serve.

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