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Strategic Directions | Feature

Making Waves of Innovation — A Model from Pepperdine University

A Q&A with Lee Kats

There are many examples of college and university initiatives to maintain a culture of creativity and innovation even in difficult economic times. One caught the eye of the TIAA-CREF Institute, which commissioned a case study by the program's principal leadership at Pepperdine University. CT spoke with Vice Provost for Research and Strategic Initiatives Lee Kats, to learn about Pepperdine's Waves of Innovation model.

Mary Grush: How did Waves of Innovation start at Pepperdine?

Lee Kats: The genesis of Waves of Innovation definitely came from our president, Andrew K. Benton. He greatly admired the entrepreneurial history and spirit of our university. We are a young university, but we've made several bold moves, starting new programs before many other institutions. We were one of the first schools to go to hybrid technology in terms of a learning platform, in our school of education. And there have been many other good examples. 

But, President Benton thought there was a slow down in entrepreneurial efforts, tied to the economic slow down that began in roughly 2008-2009. He wanted to brainstorm about how to generate enthusiasm within our university community for bold, new ideas. So, he and I strategized on this, and he charged me with developing the program.

Grush: Is the university setting new funding priorities or being more creative with funding to foster innovation with this program?

Kats: The finances behind it involved the creativity of the president, who had asked for the university to be efficient. We went through a period of some reprioritization, but just because we were realigning didn't mean we had to lose our creative edge. So, one of the priorities that came out of all this was the Waves of Innovation program.

Grush: I noticed in the report that the Waves of Innovation engages the entire community, with students, faculty, staff, and researchers all contributing on the same level. Can you talk a little about that?

Kats: I really appreciate that question, because I think it's one thing that makes our program unique. Once we set out the direction we were heading, I did an environmental scan of what other universities were doing. I quickly saw that at other institutions, anything revolving around innovation was tied specifically to technology, or maybe to the business school — usually it was tied to faculty, and occasionally it was tied to faculty and graduate students… What was very important to our president was that our program not be tied only to segments of our population, but be open to the creativity of all of the community.

We have five schools — four professional and graduate, and one undergraduate — and we had seen creativity in previous efforts coming from faculty, staff, and students across the board. We didn't want to limit this. So we formed a Waves of Innovation committee that put together the programatic aspects of how Waves of Innovation would evolve. The committee included undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff, and administration. One of the ground rules was to put everyone on equal footing in submitting ideas.

Grush: How do you communicate about Waves of Innovation with the entire university?

Kats: One of the toughest challenges for the committee was how to effectively get the word out. It was very helpful to have graduate and undergraduate students on the committee, as they were very helpful in using social media to get the word out, and connecting with student clubs and organizations. It was, I think, most impactful, because the message was coming from fellow students who could already say, "I'm serving on this committee — this is for real; we value your ideas." We put a campaign together that involved everything from old-fashioned posters, to e-mails from the president's office, to social media.

Grush: There is an engaging informational evening where the community can learn about proposed innovations and share ideas with finalists. Could you describe the Waves of Innovation Talks (WIT) event?

Kats: Like many universities, we don't have a lot of events that bring people together from all five schools, from the staff side of things, from the student side of things… so, our goal was to make it an event where everybody who was interested would be encouraged to come, and that it would be a 'fun' evening. One of the ways we did that, was by not only assuring that they would have a fast-paced evening, with short, TED-like talks, but also giving them a chance to vote on their favorite presentations using polling technology. Whether winning presentations in these polls will finally get selected by the president, or not, they receive a small award from this anyway. We have several other things built in, to make it a fast-paced, fun night. And again, the students, faculty, staff —  everyone is treated the same.

Grush: Most — not all — innovations tend to have a technology component. Could you mention just a few examples of funded proposals that have a strong technology component?

Kats: I'll just mention three examples that come to mind. One of the first awards went to an exploration and analysis of gaming in learning. Another used funds to completely redo a dorm with an emphasis on sustainability — the natural resources in the building are all monitored closely with technology accessible to the students. This ties living and learning with sustainability — bringing the best of those worlds together. Still another is a possible new master's degree in data analytics. Each of these examples has very close ties with technology.

Grush: You've had two rounds of Waves of Innovation. Is having this program changing the campus culture in ways that encourage creativity and innovation?

Kats: It's worked out well because of the incredible diversity of ideas that have come in. Many of the ideas surround the big topics in higher education right now — e.g., technology and learning, or education that's broadly accessible. It's really created a buzz, because it revolves around topics that people care about.

I think at universities, too often we talk about topics but we're a little slow to make change. Waves of Innovation has really created some jump starts, to changing the way things are happening on campus, to building new academic programs (moving more quickly than they might have)… So I think there have been some major 'wins' here — not only the breadth of ideas that have come to us, but also taking them full circle, to implementing them relatively quickly.

Grush: TIAA-CREF was very clear that they thought this model should be shared with other institutions. Is it applicable to other sizes and types of institutions?

Kats: I think it's a program that is very scalable. I think it could scale up to larger universities; I think one could use it in smaller colleges as well. And I do even know of a center within a larger university that is going to use it just within the center, to generate interest, excitement, and new ideas.

Grush: Were there unexpected benefits of Waves of Innovation?

Kats: Yes, there were benefits we didn't even anticipate. I'll highlight one: Even proposals that didn't receive funding from the program were elevated to the point where they received attention from key community members. They were given a platform for wider hearing and attention. As a result, we've seen ideas that weren't in the winning pool come to fruition. There was a lot of energy behind those ideas.


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