Higher education must innovate in challenging times

Maintaining mission while competing in the ever changing marketplace
By: | Issue: August/September, 2019
August 9, 2019
Walter V. Wendler is president of West Texas A&M University.

Higher ed leaders are under pressure to meet the needs of a changing culture and work environment and to manage an increasingly diverse set of student and graduate expectations. Innovation is required.

At the same time, leaders strive to keep their colleges and universities the same. Leadership, faculty, elected officials, alumni and others who experienced university life one or two generations ago fondly remember graduation day and many of the experiences leading up to it.

The jaws of this vise—simultaneously pressing to change and remain constant—can squeeze out innovative ideas or create resistance to them. Only two decades ago, university leaders believed it was impossible to significantly reduce costs and increase access without undermining quality and satisfaction. They were wrong.

Different strokes

While transformative practices at Southern New Hampshire University may be looked at suspiciously by many on and off traditional campuses, the facts are clear. Students at SNHU wanted something different, and they got it. SNHU serves two very different types of students: the 3,000 on-campus students whose numbers have remained relatively constant over the years, and the 90,000 online students who did not exist when the transformation started.

Georgia Institute of Technology offers an online master’s degree in computer science, a mainstay for the institution, and it costs about the same as attending a community college.
But effective innovation in Manchester, New Hampshire, may not work in Atlanta, Georgia, or Canyon, Texas. Ideas must be tied to mission, culture, geography and students. Responding to the specific needs of the people and the place you serve is not limiting. It is enlivening and freeing. Such innovation requires attentive, responsive leadership.

Responding to the specific needs of the people and place you serve is not limiting. It’s enlivening and freeing.

True to their missions

Student populations and their distinctive characteristics impact a university’s mission and service. In 1944, for ex- ample, Syracuse University in New York participated in early utilization of the GI Bill and has continued its commitment to educating veterans. That commitment gives life to new initiatives such as the National Veterans Resource Center, which focuses on innovative academic and research programs for veterans.

Some universities have remained true to their early missions of problem-solving. Texas A&M University is one example. But others, such as Purdue University in Indiana and Arizona State University, have remained true to their land-grant missions, revitalizing them to meet current demands.

West Texas A&M University is committed to its region and legacy as a teachers college. WTAMU is a leading producer of primary and secondary educators in the state of Texas and dramatically meets the needs of the Texas Panhandle where 7 in 10 teachers and administrators have studied at the university.

Universities need to innovate to meet the ever-changing nature of American aspiration. College is increasingly seen as a private good rather than a public good. According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, state spending for universities has declined 16% since the Great Recession, but student census has grown by 8%.

The valuable processes of discussion and debate often smooth the crispness of innovation. The art of compromise subdues the power of new ideas. What starts out as a potent concept ends up as incrementalism.

Lastly, tradition can be an impediment. What is valuable and creates a sense of purpose should be riveted to mission, but protecting the status quo stymies insightful thought. Only universities whose leaders innovate responsibly will persevere. It is my intention that WTAMU will be one of them.

Walter V. Wendler is the president of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at walterwendler.com.