Category Archives: highered

Innovation in the Business of HigherEd


business-561387_640Innovation in higher ed? Are you kidding? The business of higher education is so not innovative. To suggest that higher education is innovative is like suggesting that ham sandwiches can fly.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Take me to task: what is my definition of innovation?To be clear, when I’m talking about innovation in higher education, I’m talking about “a new idea, method, or device.” Or, to offer a synonym: “novelty.”

Sure, in higher education we teach classes on entrepreneurship and innovation. Some of our institutions may even have a program or two that we consider to be novel in the way they sequence the learning or in their formative methods such as hands-on apprenticeships, internships, student-led research, and so on. But we must not fool ourselves: such innovation is not applied to the business of higher education.

Sadly, if we don’t change how we do business, many of our institutions won’t be here in another five years. I’m not talking about Clay Christensen’s disruptive innovation, in which “disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players.”1 If I were talking about that (and I’m not), I would be talking about how our established institutions would be put out of business by others offering cheap and inferior product. Instead, I want to focus on those of us in higher education and on what we do to continuously improve—to repeatedly make new—the product we offer to our customers: our students. I believe the colleges and universities that are no longer here in five to ten years will be gone not because they failed to compete with cheap and inferior offerings but, rather, because they failed to distinguish themselves in a saturated marketplace. They failed to renew their product offerings. They failed to deliver to hopeful graduates the career-readiness those students expected, using methods those students could best absorb, respond to, and learn from—learn from!

Getting back to higher education’s failure to innovate. . . . What about online learning? Wasn’t that an innovation? Not really. For one thing, it didn’t originate with higher education: we borrowed it from the corporate world. We can’t claim it as our own business model. Nor did it fundamentally change the way we do business. Call it a bolt-on to the “same ole, same ole.” Higher education is exceptionally slow to adopt new methods, devices, and practices. In general, something new has to be proven in the corporate world and at one or two colleges/universities that we consider peers before a case can be made to try it out at our own institution. That’s because the case will involve assessing risk to the institution, and we can’t do that until we have the data borrowed from those first adopters.

I’m involved in educational technology—in facilitating and building awareness, among my faculty, of technology that enables new methods of teaching and learning. Yet sadly, even the innovations in that slice of the business cannot be said to originate within higher education, with the one exception of student-led startups. If the students themselves can gain traction with an idea, then the risk footprint to the institution is already small in terms of cost, damage to reputation, and failure to launch, since those are all borne by the student principals of the startup.

Within our institutions, even our research institutions, we have no incentive, and certainly no straightforward process, for entrepreneurial research that can become the new de facto “business” of higher education.

Every generalization has its exceptions, of course. In this case, one exists at Georgetown University. Under Vice Provost Randy Bass, the Designing the Future(s) initiative is an incubator seeking to answer the question, “What should a Georgetown education look like in the next ten or fifteen years?” This effort fits my definition of innovation because it is a novelty: it begins with the current business fundamentals and deconstructs them all to see if they are still serving teaching and learning. No rule is sacrosanct, be it the 16-week semester or the credit hour or the 9-month calendar. The innovation that Georgetown hopes to foster is being created by higher education, to be applied to higher education business. And that is true innovation by any definition of the word.

Are there other examples of ham sandwiches that can fly? I came across a promising one when I attended the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Annual Meeting in January 2018. I was introduced through Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation at Davidson College, who led a session. At Davidson, Kristen leads efforts to define and pilot discrete manageable experiments in change. The experiments are mission-aligned, have accountability and metrics built in, and are designed to manage risk while finding the change points that Davidson’s traditional liberal arts mission can use. It’s a different approach from Georgetown’s but does create the requisite siloed “R&D” department that can lead to transforming the way Davidson does the business of higher education. In addition, Eshleman is involved in the 2018 version of an event called the Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm. Georgetown will be represented at the gathering as well. This small but powerful event is held annually by invitation only. And that’s probably because such a small number of us have begun to think the way they are thinking.

Would you be one of them if you could? Do their stated goals below scare you? Or invigorate you? Do you have other ideas for effective innovation in the business of higher education?

Share learnings from across our community on successes—and more importantly, failures—within experimentation efforts for the purpose of institutional transformation.

Establish communities of practice around the most pressing opportunities and challenges facing innovation leaders within higher education (e.g., new business models; culture change; moving from pilot to scale; innovation accounting; etc.).

Address external disruption by building the case for advancing institution-led innovation, both within our individual institutions and across the sector.


  1. Disruption as defined in the New York Times “Innovation” report, March 24, 2014, p. 16. 

Laura Gekeler is LMS Administrator at the University of Notre Dame.

© 2018 Laura Gekeler. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Originally published in EDUCAUSE Review 53, no. 2 (March/April 2018)

Educause Review March/April 2018.


Adjuncts– What Those Disparities Are

If you expected my last post, “Adjuncts – Bless Their Hearts,” to be a whistle blowing article about my own institution, the University of Notre Dame, you were disappointed.

Sorry about that.

If there were a whistle to blow, I would’ve blown it. I asked Adjuncts how they’re treated. I turned up the corners of a rug or two. Notre Dame is working hard to eliminate what disparities may exist and to set appropriate expectations at hiring about how the position one is stepping into is positioned in the hiring college. But the disparities I spoke of as reported at other institutions, aren’t really in the hiring process, are they? This is what some of our institutions are doing to Adjuncts:

  • Creating and fostering an underclass of Instructors, including treatment in office space, in departmental meetings (invite and pay, or invite as truly optional, with minutes sent to those who couldn’t/didn’t make it), and in lack of respect for their academic accomplishments.
  • Underpaying for their time and effort (Do you pay for course preparation time?)
  • Not providing scaled benefits based on service hours, courses, or years’ affiliation. Being part-time for a long time should mean something.

Scaled benefits for part-time Faculty or Staff is something all of our institutions should consider, especially our tuition benefits. We should also look at employees who are in our “part-time” category, but for whatever reasons their workload is fulltime. Consider the Adjunct whose designation is part-time and yet teaches as many courses per semester as their “full-time” counterpart.

Adjuncts, face it, are  one of your institutions’ ambassadorships to the community. They are stakeholders too. Let’s recruit their loyalty and commitment just like we do alumni, community leaders, or any other stakeholder. Did you think of your benefits package as helping to accomplish these goals?      …Maybe you should.


Notre Dame’s Adjuncts:

“…fortunate to be able to draw on talented faculty from outside the University of Notre Dame.”

63 Notre Dame Adjuncts with LinkedIn Profiles

Adjuncts – Bless their hearts

Faith-based institutions.

We expect our part-time instructors to share our institution’s values, to represent us in work and ethic and lifestyle, to be careful in the leeway we give them to dissent, such that they represent their opinion as being their own and not reflecting that of our institution … yet, some faith-based institutions violate their own values in discriminatory compensation practices.

According to data collected at (which admittedly is light on input from those at faith-based institutions), work environment disparity exists on many levels: from access to printers, office space, departmental faculty events, and fitness centers, to compensation for course preparation time, and health and tuition benefits for self and family. In other words, the pay scale isn’t the only way part-time adjuncts’ standard of living is not commensurate with their academic knowledge and experience.

At John Brown University, a distinctively Christian liberal arts school, and #1 ranked in US News & World Reports’ 2012 Best Colleges in the southwest US, adjuncts are denied the same access to tuition benefits as their peers. One long standing adjunct, nominated by students this year for the teacher of the year award, has a daughter who has no chance of attending the very institution into which her mother daily pours her heart. Oh well, that’s the life of an adjunct. Tuition benefits for her full-time colleagues, but none for her. Bless her heart.

Whether you’re a faith-based institution, public or private one, think about “blessing” your adjuncts with esteem and status for starters. Branch out a little and make it a blessing in this world in terms that count both in this life and the next.

[My June “social justice’” column was about disparity in management, innovation and autonomy between Faculty and Staff, specifically IT Staff. ~LG]

Further Reading:

Higher Ed IT Management Metrics

This is a hard post to write. It has several components that may not be obvious to the casual reader. In the interest of providing a full context for my remarks, I’ll list them:

  • I am on staff with the University of Notre Dame, a truly amazing place to work.
  • I’m entering into my 14th year in IT, and my 8th year as Learning Management Administrator.
  • My blog has recently been syndicated by
  • My Notre Dame colleagues were not very aware of my blog until the aforementioned. Now they read it too.
  • My Manager for the past several months has been previewing my postings to verify that they transparently did not purport to speak on behalf of Notre Dame.

In the New York Times bestseller, Drive , by Daniel Pink, he provides compelling evidence for those things truly motivating people. He says we seek autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Not surprisingly, I discovered those things about myself a long time ago, and in fact ‘targeted’ Notre Dame as an employer after digesting the book, “What Color is Your Parachute?”

It has been a delightful –mostly- relationship thus far. I get to meet faculty needs in ways that make sense to faculty within the means Notre Dame has to allocate.

Faculty vs Staff Dichotomy

Although my higher ed employment history is mostly at Notre Dame (briefly in grad school at the University of Texas I TA’ed), I suspect that everywhere the dichotomy between what we offer in intrinsic motivators to faculty and what we offer to professional staff varies widely. We recruit faculty who are creative, innovative, imaginative, free-thinkers, if you will. We recruit and hire professional staff, specifically IT staff, to support our faculty, their processes, teaching, research and all the administrative workflow entailed in matriculating graduates. We expect our staff to creatively implement and maintain processes and methods which work for everyone.

Further, coming back to Daniel Pink’s book, we manage the two groups differently. Faculty are given more autonomy, more resources to promote mastery of their research, mastery of their discipline and their classroom. We expect them to be intrinsically motivated by a sense of purpose embodied in contributions to their chosen discipline.

Staff? Highly trained, highly skilled and motivated IT Staff? Not so much. I am hazarding a guess that in most of higher ed we still manage these people as though they are plugged into an assembly line in the industrial revolution.

Let’s discuss autonomy over time … Do you allow IT Staff to work from home? To maintain their own schedules? Do you acknowledge that the work they give you is done at all hours anyway?

Autonomy over process … Are your IT Staff (not the managers) creators of their own processes? Creators of their development processes? (Have you seen the Agile Manifesto? It has autonomy baked in.) Do they have input into change control procedures, code repositories, versioning? In tool choices? In tool strategies?

Does your IT Management see themselves as empowerment or enforcement? Is following process more important to them than the interactions which move the project along? A focus on managing the processes of IT Staff puts your management in the unenviable position of Kindergarten Cop.

If you were ‘rank and file’ staff, with an opportunity to critique your manager, what criteria would you choose?  As Directors and VPs, what are the metrics you choose in performance reviews? We all recognize we get what we measure… So what are we measuring?

Disruption in the Force of Higher Education

When online degrees by the commercial entity University of Phoenix began in 1989, it introduced a new market segment. When Your Town Community College began offering online courses, it was a new revenue stream.

When Your State University added an online component of its face-to-face courses in order to optimize its use of brick and mortar classrooms by reducing the number of classroom meeting times per course, it was cost effective.

Now It’s Online and Free

The real disruption, which David Brooks last Thursday likened to that which has already overtaken newspapers and magazines, is about to happen to the elite of the higher education institutions: completely online and  completely free courses.

Most of my local and world news has been freely mine for years. The last time I bought a newspaper was probably 9/11  and that out of shock. I needed something tangible to hold on to. These days I’m not sure how my local newspaper company stays in business. And magazines? The print edition isn’t keeping them in business, more of a convenience or a perk or a side effect of my online subscription.

With Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Yale and Carnegie-Mellon professors offering the best of their best online, what will happen to the ‘print edition’ – the college degree?

You scoff. You say I will still need and want, and be willing to pay for, that piece of paper and the invaluable relationships and community derived from a campus where ideas can flow and be freely exchanged in a multiplicity of well-crafted and ad hoc face-to-face encounters . Yes, I think that’s true for many.

But to which of those institutions will those who want (and can pay for) that experience go? How will they evaluate and compare? Will the campus visit be discarded or augmented by a sampling of the best online courses? Will those institutions with  the most credible and engaging online Instructors have the highest application rates?

I’d say some of our nation’s best institutions are banking on it.


By some this may be interpreted as a reaction to another disruption in the force, the devaluation of a college degree. Although debatable as to how the devaluation began, I think we can agree that the combined and systematic factors of recession, spiraling costs, and glut of degrees (sometimes less than meaningful indicators of skill to employers) on the market are yet another indicator.

Portfolio Alternative

Yes, my colleagues, the business of higher ed must change. We must be more fluid, provide more options, become more conversational, do more research and foster more collaboration, and become even more personal – for that is our strength in the midst of all of this, is it not?

Otherwise, the pick-and-choose disruption sends our potential students to create stand alone personal portfolios of their intentional, or cobbled together, meaningful, or haphazard, experiences including exemplary (and free) online courses, and presenting that, with greater and greater finesse and effect, to employers…. without our college degree.

Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Yes, in This Context Too 

Our Schools of Business are busting their chops on new curricula, new Centers, new whatevers, to build and create curricula training the next leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, our administrators dally around doing business as usual or responding with incremental movement. With disruptive forces all around us, revolutionary innovation then, must be something we not only teach, but something we also do.