Advice & News

January 13, 2021

Getting Faculty off the Sidelines and in the Innovation Game


Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

When Shauna began her tenure as dean of her business school, she noticed a disturbing trend. Faculty rarely attended meetings, had limited contact with the leaders of the college, and seemed generally checked out of the needs of larger institution. At the same time, the college was struggling to reach new students with its current offerings. She decided to start a monthly "How might we?" session with her faculty. Rather than share her ideas or give commands, she set up each session to simply brainstorm with faculty around a specific problem in education and rethink how they might approach it, like a product design exercise. She says, "I end up with anywhere from a half to two-thirds of the full-time faculty that attend each one of those... It seems to be something they're hungry for, being involved and engaged." Her meetings have brought a wave of new energy and ideas into the college and resulted in several new programs for adult, military, and non-traditional students.

When colleges and universities face existential problems -- like many are today with funding, enrollment, or COVID-19 -- the tendency is to look outward for ideas and solutions. "We need to hire consultants! We need more donors!" or "We need new leaders from the private sector!" But we may forget that the greatest source of innovation on every campus is the human capital of our faculty and staff. Are leaders doing enough to nurture this innovation inside our own organizations? Over the next few months, I'll be exploring the techniques and strategies higher education leaders can use to unlock the innovation of their people first rather than pivoting to external sources for help.

Why Turning to Your People First Matters

Tapping into the innovation inherent in your faculty and staff matters for several reasons. First, these are the people who know the organization best. Faculty are the longest-serving members of any institution. They have the corporate knowledge to distinguish trends from fads and fact from fiction. Second, research has shown that when faculty are consulted on new initiatives -- even after first opposing them -- they become enthusiastic rather than resistant to the idea of change. It is a smart way to build consensus and support.

Finally, when leaders foster the innovation and creativity of their own people before turning to outside sources, they are also developing a sustainable leadership pipeline of people who understand the culture and needs of the institution. This was Shauna's goal. She stated, "I want to create that ecosystem so [we] don't have to go outside to hire [our] leaders in the future."

Techniques for Engaging Your Faculty and Staff

Let's look at a few specific techniques leaders can use to get faculty off of the sidelines to contribute their own ideas.

  1. Faculty "think tanks": A think tank is any deliberate body of experts brought together to provide advice or ideas on a specific problem. Just like Shauna's "How might we?" sessions, these gatherings must happen outside of the normal course of work. Staff or departmental meetings don't count. For example, Sasha, who serves as the dean of an education college, tasked her faculty to take on the challenge of designing a new online EdD program. She said, "I pulled together every graduate faculty in a big think tank, and I said, 'Here's your charge, I want all of you to bring forward your ideas about what this EdD needs to look like.' And, oh my gosh, it was the most exciting experience we have had. All the new faculty felt just as empowered as those who have been here 20 or 30 years to submit their ideas." As faculty contributed, they became more invested in the success of this program.
  2. Cross-disciplinary work groups: Next, leaders can use inter-disciplinary work to get faculty thinking more creatively about the challenges of their own institutions. Shauna continued, "…the number one set of skills that help people begin to think about how to lead from wherever they are in the institution is this idea of working on cross-disciplinary projects." This was true for Michelle, an arts & sciences dean. She organized cross-disciplinary lunch groups where faculty from several disciplines could meet and collaborate around specific campus challenges. She knew faculty needed some enticements to show up, so she held the work groups over lunch and had them co-sponsored by the faculty development center. From there, the tradition of meeting "grew under its own steam" to the point where she was able to step away as the leader.
  3. Faculty change symposium: Sometimes a more formal approach to engaging faculty is needed. Some institutions have had success setting up 1-2 day summer symposia geared around specific change initiatives on campus where faculty, from a variety of disciplines, are invited to participate. At the symposium, the participants are given a problem to solve, the space to discuss this challenge, and an opportunity to put forward recommendations to senior administration on the issue. One former vice provost who has led and studied these symposia stated, "The shift in faculty engagement culture has been remarkable," and faculty now view the resulting changes on their campuses as "their" initiatives.

In each of these ideas, the leaders primarily had a role in creating structure for innovation to take place. They did not need to come up with the ideas or solutions to the problems themselves. Michelle stated, "I guess what I've learned over the years is you have to have some kind of structure. You can't engage in magical thinking where you think [innovation is] just going to happen."

What other structures have you found to be effective in getting faculty and staff engaged in innovation on your campus?