Higher Education Needs A Start-Up Mindset


I have numerous posts espousing changes I think I’d like to see in Higher Education. In May 2012, I posted Fostering Education Through Student Incubators (5-21-2012); in November 2013 I posted Education Is Like A Dysfunctional Family (11-6-2013); in December 2014 I was rather prolific over the holiday, posting Steal My Idea, Please! (12-13-2014) and Education Is Ripe for Deconstruction (12-29-2014).

Once again I visit this topic based on interactions occurring during my recent experience at the 2015 ESRI Education and International Users Conference. My university is so remote; we are truly debilitated by the irony of our geography. Four major river systems converge within 60 miles of my home. The Mighty Mississippi, the Ohio, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland rivers merge along the conjoined states of Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. Southern Illinois has the Nubian nickname of “Little Egypt,” and people interested in toponyms can find towns of Cairo, Thebes, Karnak, Palestine, and Lebanon. I can’t find a reference for saying this but when I first moved into the region, I know I heard a radio show on my local NPR station refer to the area as “mini-Mesopotamia.”

One might think, “Wow, how could such a place be considered remote, seeing how so many rivers flow together here, so much barge traffic and commerce passes through the area?” True, many places around the world would envy our geography. But, now consider the greatest earthquakes to hit the interior of the United States had epicenters a mere hours’ drive away and we can begin to see the irony of our geography. In 1811-1812 two of the highest magnitude earthquakes rippled throughout the central United States, felt over as many as 1,000,000 mi². In spite of these earthquakes jarring the region 203 years ago, and no other earthquake since commanding any sort of newsworthy attention, the region still lags economically due in part to fear of earthquakes. Never mind for a moment the United States Uranium Enrichment Corporation has an enormous facility on the southern banks of the Ohio River, upstream of Memphis and New Orleans, the region suffers from a debilitating curse no amount of positive propaganda or enticements have been able to overcome.

So, educated people from my region must travel if they wish to find other like-minded, smart, witty, innovative people who shop at places other than Tractor Supply Company, or the farmers co-op, or the local thrift store, and who want to talk about something other than Duck Dynasty and how many points were on the antlers of the last buck they killed. My closest airport is 2 hours away, a little more, in Nashville. Memphis is an hour further. St. Louis, say should I want to see the Cardinals lose a few games, is a 3-1/2 hour drive. If I want or need to attend a state conference, Louisville is about 4 hours away and I lose an hour due to my state being divided into Central and Eastern Time Zones. The state capital is nearly 5 hours away, so far away in fact, many of the state’s own administrators think Paducah is in southern Illinois and “Why would you want to attend a conference in Frankfort, anyway? Shouldn’t you be in Springfield?” (True story.) For most Kentuckians, the Commonwealth ends just past Bowling Green, with the exception of Ft. Campbell, the entirety of which is really in Tennessee.

Thus, if I really wants to interact with the outside world, I have to drive or fly at least two hours to find my nearest peer. In Higher Education this “tyranny of distance” is a real threat…er…challenge to being innovative, to being open and receptive to new ideas. Additionally, one must be willing to accept some ideas and then act on those ideas. When an institution is isolated, an “Oasis of Intellect” surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, acres of tobacco, acres of soybeans, and even acres of cotton, that Oasis of Intellect can stagnate, can wither just a sure as ears of corn during a drought. Remote or rural colleges and universities must strive non-stop to remain fresh and vital, as the temptation to remain complacent in such peaceful and bucolic environs is too great.

A couple of real world examples to bring clarity to my topic. One of my posts from December 2014 entitled, “Steal My Idea, Please,” was written in hopes someone would discover my plan for an idea/innovation lab I developed for my campus and be able to use my plan as a blueprint or the basis of a draft for their own campus innovation lab. My campus leaders passed on the idea two years ago even though campuses across the United States were firing up plans to create their own “innovation centers” or “idea labs.” Not just college campuses, either, but the DIY and Make communities were finding advocates and resources for K-12, too. Yet, my own school essentially said, “Thanks, but no thanks. This stuff is essentially toys, isn’t worthy of exploring, and is a mere flash-in-the-pan.”

Two years later, the story has come around 180°. Spring 2014, I passed along my idea to the local director of our state’s agency responsible for commercialization and innovation. She liked the idea, thought the idea had merit, and would be worthy of pursuit especially in light of how industry was adapting to new forms of fabrication, how reasonably priced new 3D equipment had become, and the potential to get middle and high school kids involved. I provided her my notes and contact information for Makerbot, as I had established a dialog with their Education Account Manager. The agency director worked on this idea for many months while I continued to consult with people across campus, mostly fact-finding, as I had learned my idea was bound to die because implementation was well-beyond my pay scale for anyone to take me seriously. Yet, within the last weeks I’ve learned the basis of my plan is about to be implemented. My university has bought into fabrication, 3D design, printing, and scanning in two important ways. First, floorspace has been designated as a public-facing fabrication lab. The public-facing fabrication lab will be used to train faculty, staff, and students regarding fabrication equipment and software. Furthermore, the lab will be open to the public for training and use, with the added benefit of being managed by students, with faculty and staff oversight. As if that weren’t enough, the university has invested considerable floorspace in a new engineering building devoted exclusively for industrial-strength rapid prototyping and fabrication. WHAATT! Brilliant, right?

Not so fast.

According to superiors, the public-facing fabrication won’t be available for another year. In fact, the direct quote, near as I am able to remember is: “We hope to have the fabrication lab open and operating maybe within a year.”

What in the blankety-blank-blank! A year! Seriously? Twelve months represents two major software updates to most software companies. Occasionally, three major updates might be issued depending on the software company. Twelve months is 2/3rds of the way to the doubling of computer power, if one subscribes to Moore’s Law. On the one hand, technology is ever-changing, right? In a year, new hardware and software will be available we could potentially tap into. On the other hand, technology is ever-changing and when does one leap? Now? Wait…now? No? Wait…almost…no-yes…no, hang on.

Two fundamental concerns illustrated above, maybe more. I’m not an expert in the “Start-Up Mentality,” I’ve only read a few books and recently stayed in a Holiday Inn Express. The first concern is timeliness, or the lack of timeliness. How many people would invest in a start-up if nothing was going to be available, no movement towards results were going to be seen in a year? Remember to consider the technology exists, the floorspace exists, and the staff exists. A year to get a fabrication lab up-and-functioning is too long, not when similar labs found throughout the United States have taken a few weeks until time-to-live. A year exposes how out of touch academia is with the new Innovation Economy arising globally.

The second concern is not specifically detailed but alluded to, sort of. Technology is ever-changing, so the question I posed, “When does one leap?” is an important question, in a sense. The question is important if no plan exists to build-in an upgrade path, no plan to fund equipment updates or upgrades. If no plan exists to refresh a lab, in of any type, then the lab is frozen in time with whatever technology was able at the moment the doors opened. And, Higher Education, in general, for as smart and as savvy as the individuals are working in Higher Education are, Higher Education is a poor planner for the future. Now, we can point blame in a bunch of directions, but that is not the point of this post. The fundamental problem is how Americas fund education, and the importance our political leaders place on Higher Education, both philosophies fraught with ignorance, dogma, and politics.

Higher Education must do better than in-the-moment decisions. Institutions need to plan for the future, plan for changes in technology, plan for deprecating labs, equipment refreshment, training. Monies collected from student technology fees and/or additional lab fees must be charged and saved so computers, plotters, printers, scanners, data projectors can be updated on an appropriate cycle. Computers, for example, may need upgrading every 2-3 years. Waiting four years is potentially too long for upgrading computers, depending the application. Printers, depending on wear-and-tear, may need refreshing every 2 years. Certainly, 8 years to refresh a computer lab is 4 years too long, and 9-10 years indicates a true lack of focus for an institution, especially if the computer lab is found in a College of Science.

Administrators need to spend some time “managing by walking around.”

I promised two anecdotes and here comes the second. If you’ve read this far and you are anticipating yet another example of how Higher Education is ossified, you won’t be disappointed.

Again, in my college, my College of Science, I am faced with another concern, one existential in nature. The office is in danger of being dissolved, a tragedy, a literal tragedy, should this happen, given the discipline my office is charged with supporting, and the related fields my office is charged with educating. Technology is without a doubt the fastest and arguably most important aspect of the United States economy. Given technology is a very broad spectrum sector, the geospatial component of technology is a not an insignificant part of the technology sector. Much of our lives has now become intimately bound with mapping. We use our phones and tablets to help us find the nearest Starbucks, theaters, nic-nak shops, directions to that wedding we don’t want to attend, or the campground we need to set up. And, we haven’t yet scratched the surface. Self-driving cars are a reality, in part due to GPS and geospatial technology. We run, bike, and hike with a GPS-enabled app strapped to our arm like a blood-pressure cuff. Given how vital, how infused geospatial technology is becoming in our lives, I have a struggle on my hands to keep my campus geospatial open.

Why should this be? For a number of reasons, some of which, honestly, are self-inflicted to some degree. One of the department chairs supporting the office is retiring within a few months. The director of the office is retiring in 18 months, sooner if cancer threatening the director’s life is not able to be managed. The executive secretary has 34 years of employment history. Then, there is me. The executive secretary and myself are the only two salary items on the office’s budget. These are not self-inflicted reasons, of course. No, the self-inflicted damage came about by the reluctance to change, the ignorance of the need to change, and the documented refusal to change the mission and purpose of my office.

For at least a decade, management practice was laissez-faire, “let’s see what happens.” In the meantime, federal grants dollars dried-up. As federal grant dollars withered, so did state grant and project dollars. During this era, the Department of Homeland Security was created, a war in Afghanistan was initiated, as well as a war in Iraq, with subsequent aftermath economic support. These efforts witnessed the reallocation of financial resources away from education, the environment and natural resources, away from the CDC, and the USDA, and the Department of Energy, and into public sector activities where only the military industrial complex and secondary economic activities benefit. We stood by and watched this happen. Concomitant with the drop in domestic spending, the rise in foreign and war-fighting spending, another trend was emerging.

Our competition was increasing.

Universities were not entirely ignorant to the benefits of GIS and mapping. Quite the contrary. As funding levels diminished colleges and universities sought to increase efficiencies by looking in-house for software development, design, and management. Additionally, geospatial knowledge blossomed into an important skill set of students in many disciplines, from economics, biology, marketing and business, health and human services, to non-profit leadership. Universities without GIS created new programs, offered new courses, and competition between programs and departments escalated. We were complacent, relying nearly exclusively on word-of-mouth and reputation of rigor for potential students to find us.

Five years ago my office director and I developed a plan to reinvigorate the office, reset our mission, our purpose, our goals, even change our name. We spent many hours hashing out details, outlining new educational offerings, improving communication with our current stakeholders around campus, promoting our abilities to local school systems, broadening the scope of what we do well and narrowing the scope of aspects which have diminished as emphasis on the spending public dollars has shifted away from science and more toward fighting people at least an ocean and a continent away. Once we nailed down our proposal, the document was submitted to the college dean.

Remember how my pitch for an Idea / Innovation Lab was received? I know those details were many words ago so I won’t make you go back, hunt them down. “Thanks, but no thanks,” was the cool reception to our proposal. “This just isn’t the time for that sort of change.”

While I assume blame for being partly responsible for the self-inflicted damage, the self-inflicted damage was wrought by the university upon itself. One of our supporting faculty came out in opposition to our proposal, as I would learn nearly a year later. Again, self-inflicted damage wrought upon the university, by members of the academic community.

Yet again, this week, today, even, a conversation with an administrator went sideways, through the guard rail, down a slope, crashed and burned in the ravine with no sign of survivors. This week has been a frustrating week in a sequence of frustrating weeks dating back to the time pre-dating my divorce when I was trying to convince my then-wife there is only so much room on a credit card before you cannot charge more items and “no, I am not going to open another credit card account.” During my conversation with the administrator, I voiced my concern over the direction my office was heading, given the looming retirements of two primary actors, potential retirement of a third. “We don’t have to think about that for a couple of years,” was the response. “I won’t be around for that conversation, since I’m retiring.” And, therein lies the rub, and a strong reason why Higher Education needs a Start-Up Mentality, at least in some departments, in some colleges. Planning, foresight, vision, the contemplation of not what happens the next semester, or over the next academic year, but planning and vision for what happens two academic years away, or more.

I persisted in our conversation, as I am but one of only two salaried positions attached to the office. “It’s easy to let this decision sit, but as one of the only two salaried positions I have a vested interested to ensure not simply the success of the office, but the simple existence of the office. In a time when universities around the United States are creating offices like mine, enhancing and expanding offices like mine, to see this office dissolved, the mission and purpose evaporate like water on a hot July sidewalk, is regressive, a step backward. I’ve been told by your boss this week, “We don’t want to make your office a target.” I replied, “On the contrary, we need to make ourselves a bigger target, we need faculty, staff, and students to know we are here, what our mission is, our purpose, and how we can help. Hiding under the radar does not help us nor garner us any further support. We’ve lost over $100,000 of project work to 3rd party vendors, by my calculations, and that’s based only on what I know. Money which has left this university and ended up in Maine, in Tennessee, in Alabama.”

Colleges and universities are stuck in a model in place since at least the 1950s. A military-like bureaucracy governing the stereotypical liberal-minded college professors. Many are not liberal-minded; that is myth. Professor are just like other people and adhere to irrational beliefs, biases, and occasional bigotry. Professors are liberal in their approach to their peculiar research interest but get them out in public and they can be as dunder-headed as any person you collect off the street. A few universities have broken the mold. Stanford is an example. Stanford supports itself in part due to the intellectual property developed on campus. Stanford openly supports innovation among faculty, staff, and students, and I’ve personally met a number of former Stanford students who founded their own technology start-ups. MIT is another example. I’m sure there are others.

There should be hundreds of other examples, though. In fact, I assert every university should be actively engaged in fostering a start-up mentality, to support faculty, staff, students, and people in respective service regions in ideas near-and-dear to them. Universities must rethink their approaches to management, especially colleges enmeshed in design, fabrication, and technology. To wait a year to accomplish want should take 6-8 months is not effective. To wait two years to address the nature of a campus technology office is not an appropriate action plan. Not in my mind.

To be clear, I am not advocating decisions be made simply to protect my employment nor the employment of the office’s executive assistant. My university would be damaged by losing the geospatial locus of campus. Sure, faculty could still teach GIS courses, do research, work with undergraduates and graduate students. However, the service to the campus, in general, is diminished. The service the region, the local schools and school districts, is potentially lost. Once news propagated among other state colleges and universities my university dissolved the GIS office, the reputation of the university, especially in light of economic trends, would cause all to wonder about the sanity of administrators. A few years ago, a state school took just that course of action, eliminating most of the geospatial education from campus. The reaction around the state among those of us who know the temperature of the water were like, “What in the hell? Those people are crazy.” A couple of faculty remain, reassigned to other departments, the other faculty resigned, from what I understand.

I hope my passion comes across as positive. Oftentimes, I do not come across as anything other than confrontational, I am told. “You don’t understand who the bureaucracy works,” is a phrase I hear. “No, I understand how it works. I just don’t believe the bureaucracy has to work that way; there are alternatives. The question is, are people ready to choose alternatives? Or, are people wanting to choose only the comfortable path because the alternative to easy is work, is change, is new, is different, is challenging, is potentially time-consuming, is not going to work, is unknown.”

If you work at a university who appreciates something akin to a “start-up mentality,” kudos. Take some solace to heart your environment is probably uncommon if not rare. My experience in talking with people from campuses around the United States is my experience at my college is not unique. From small colleges to big universities, people report essentially many of the themes I have mentioned above. Part of me is relieved my environment is no different, and part of me is chagrined Higher Education is not educating itself to adapt, to become more nimble, to be more risk-taking, or less risk averse. I know – politics; politicians cry crocodile tears when universities are deemed not to be spending public monies in effective, useful ways, and are seen to be whimsical and frivolous luxuries sucking at the teat of the public taxpayer. Wisconsin politicians come to mind. Politicians don’t want Higher Education taking risks, not when public dollars are at stake. I get that. People, the American People, should see Higher Education as an ally in job creation, economic development, social progress, and intellectual achievement, and not buy-in to the false narrative colleges are an expensive asset which should be divested into the private, for-profit economy. That would be a complete and utter disaster, and if you want to know why I think so, leave me a comment. I discussed my perspective with a number of people, none of which saw the particularly insidious doom of the privatization of Higher Education I seen. Once I explained the details, each were like, holy shit, that’s nuts and that’s exactly what would happen.

We have to constantly be mindful universities produce a societal good which returns considerably more than has been invested. College graduates, in spite of owing an average of $27,000/yr in student loans, will produce more value than that, once the graduate is able to figure which direction their life should go. I’ve posted on that topic, too. I think. We can improve the social good contributed by colleges and universities by encouraging administrators to be more responsive, by promoting responsive people into leadership roles, by identifying opportunities on campuses for cost-saving, cost-sharing, and education-sharing, discipline-sharing; truly developing and fostering multi-disciplinary projects and programs and looking for ways to connect various programs across campus.

From what I understand, the Real World sort of works that way.

But, what do I know. I’m a mid-level manager, with little to zero influence, with no Ph.D, and no hopes of earning one (*see credit card fiasco from earlier.) I try to pay attention, and being a geographer, everything comes around to geography at some point. In these, the early days of the 21st century, geography represents the collision of people, place, and technology. Sometimes, it’s a true collision as some of those dashboard navigators are really messed-up. PAX

One thought on “Higher Education Needs A Start-Up Mindset

  1. Pingback: Staying Enthusiastic As Higher Education Sickens | Constant Geography

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