Episode 102 - Innovation in Higher Education: Lessons Learned  - Strategic Planning and Innovation

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith welcome Dr. Jon Anderson, Southern Utah University’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In this episode, the group discusses the role of shared governance in university strategic planning and how to engage faculty, staff, and students in the process.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined today in-studio by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you?

Scott Wyatt: Good, thanks Steve.

Meredith: So, we are nearing the end of our face-to-face portion of our fall semester of 2020, which in some ways has just been an amazing thing, but one of those amazing things like a 50 mile hike, is not something you want to do every day. [Both laugh] It's a good challenge, but you wouldn't want to do it every single time. And Utah has had a COVID spike that we're all trying to deal with, and so, once again, we are as always appropriately socially distanced and here safely and hopefully in an entirely COVID appropriate way ready to have yet another podcast about innovation. So, this semester's podcasts have been about Innovation in Higher Ed: Lessons Learned, and today we have one of the really best thinkers about innovative strategy in the country, I think, and how lucky we are to have him on staff here so we can make him come be on the podcast. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: Why don't you introduce our guest?

Wyatt: So, thanks Steve. We are delighted to have Dr. Jon Anderson who is SUU's Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Jon, welcome.

Dr. Jon Anderson: Thank you very much, I feel fortunate to be here. There have been a lot of popular people on this podcast lately.

Wyatt: [Laughs] Well, and you aren't just our Provost and Chief Academic Officer, you are a faculty member in business with a specialization in strategy.

Anderson: I am, and that's my training. And all of us that have been in academic leadership for a time have different perspectives, and one of the things that's very important to me as an academic leader is that we look at the university as a collective of scholars who are all here to accomplish the objective of creating new knowledge, disseminating new knowledge, and helping students develop and live fulfilling lives. And so, as an academic administrator, I think I talk often about the importance of teaching and all of our academic administrators in the division of academic affairs teach on a regular basis. I think if we get away from the fundamental work that we do, our decision quality decreases. And I think as we look at the university, we've got to all make sure we're participating to the extent possible in each of the elements, the teaching, research, and service that we do, so that we keep the perspective that we're all in this together trying to sort through the challenges we face to come up with solutions that are good for students.

Wyatt: That's well said. Let's talk about how innovation happens on a campus. So, I'll talk about innovation for the first two and a half thousand years…

Anderson: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And I can do that in about two minutes. Socrates died in 399 B.C. and his most famous student, Plato, started The Academy in Athens, which we might argue is the first university, and from then until now, things look pretty much the same. [Laughs] We have a culture that is…it's challenging to do significant innovation in the university because we have centuries of history.

Anderson: Mhmm. And part of that, I think, has to do with where the university has ended up over time. Many universities that are old were closely associated with churches at different points, and because they were protected institutions and affiliated with a church, they had some sustainability that maybe if they were completely a private, they wouldn't have. Others were affiliated with governments at the earliest times of their creation and have become government entities, and so they had that form of stability. But if you look back over the few thousand years and ask, "What institutions within our society have made it through ways, waves of famine, made through significant societal changes?" It's really the churches, a few governments, and universities. Many of the for-profit companies have come and gone over and over and over again, industries have shifted, but really, churches, some governments—not many, but some governments—but universities have been able to wave off just about any challenge that's been put in their way. And they've been able to do it, as you said so well, without having to change much, and I think their ability to do that has been largely based in this concept of a shared-governance environment in that it's not one group leading the institution, it's everybody coming together to find out what solutions are going to help us in the future? And the role of each element of that shared governance environment has certainly shifted over time, and we're in a new wave now when the challenges in the external environment are so significant, that they're calling into question some of the fundamental assumptions about how the university organizes and how it has over time.

Wyatt: Oxford a few years ago celebrated their 800th anniversary, and they're not the oldest university.

Anderson: Mhmm.

Wyatt: it's interesting to think about how many organizations have survived 800 years.

Anderson: The list is pretty short. [All laugh]

Meredith: Yeah, it is.

Wyatt: Well, let's talk about how innovation should work at a university.

Anderson: Mhmm. Well, it's interesting. If you look at large companies, one of the challenges from an organization standpoint is that as a company grows or any organization grows, it becomes more rigid, more bureaucratic, and cares less about the individual and the individual choices than it does about the health of the organization. If we're managing shared governance the way that we should and the way that we can and hopefully most of the time, the way that we do, it is the idea that everyone, no matter where you are in the organization, has a voice in the process and we bring people in so that they can participate in decision making from the top down. And because it's a collective decision-making environment, each of us having different roles in that process, that shared governance really allows fresh ideas to come from everywhere. And that requires both responsibility and accountability. The easiest position in a university is to be a tenured faculty or a staff member who is disengaged and forfeiting their right to participate in a shared-governance environment. We have at SUU 338 full-time faculty this fall semester, we have roughly 700 members of the staff, and if we're going to create innovation, if we're going to create the best, most sustainable future for Southern Utah, we need all of them coming to work each day with the genuine ideal that they can and will participate in governing the institution. If they defer that just to administration, we will become weaker as an institution, not better. We may become more efficient, but we will miss opportunities to have the best and brightest minds working on the most challenging problems the institution faces. Now, that's not to say that the president or the administration doesn't have a role. There's a document that AAUP put out I think in 1966 on shared governance…

Wyatt: And AAUP?

Anderson: American Association of University Professors. They are an institution that has been around close to 100 years, if not more, that really is focused on making sure that the faculty voice is appropriately recognized in the shared governance process and that academic freedom is respected across institutions of all types. So, AAUP put out this statement and it talks about where innovation comes from, and AAUP…the statement is fascinating to read. I encourage everybody to read it, you can find it online fairly easily, but it talks about how shared governance should happen from the faculty's perspective. And you have to remember, this is a faculty document led by those who are advocating for the faculty voice. They really break down the shared governance into four different parts: the board, which for us, we have the Board of Trustees and the Board of Higher Education; the President, representing the administration at large; the faculty; and then they have a few brief statements about students. That's the breadth of their statement, and they talk about the roles of each. And each…you can think of it as a Venn diagram that each of those entities has one main responsibility, but there is significant overlap in all of the areas. And they talk about planning and innovation and where it should happen. They make this statement about the president—and the administration as a whole, but largely directed at the president—"As the chief planning officer of an institution, the president has a special obligation to innovate and initiate. The degree to which a president can envision new horizons for the institution and can persuade others to see them and to work toward them will often constitute the chief measure of a president's administration." That's the end of that quote. It's fascinating that in the most progressive document about shared governance, they acknowledge and give and defer that to the president to lead that planning process, with the caveat that it's about envisioning and then persuading, and that process is one significant element of shared governance. It also talks about the role of the faculty, and it talks about the necessity of faculty being involved in not only the implantation but the creation of innovations. So, if a university is healthy and innovating in healthy ways, it will be all 338 of the faculty, it will be the administration, the president, provost, all the vice presidents, it will be the students, and certainly the staff even though this document by AAUP doesn't directly call them as a group, and to some extent the students. The AAUP document has some pretty strong language about caveats for engaging students, because they say students are both there to learn and to be taught and they shouldn't necessarily control what happens, but come there as stewards to learn. So, when all of those pieces are functioning well, innovation should ideally come from the faculty, the staff, the students, the president, the administration, the board, all of whom have different entities they report to and different roles, but that shared governance environment. And as we structure it at SUU, we've got a Faculty Senate, a Staff Association, a Student Association, the Administration, and all of those groups work together as smoothly as possible to bring everyone's ideas to the forefront to be shared, to be hashed out, to be evaluated, to see which we should be implementing and which we shouldn't. That's probably a longer narrative than you wanted about it, but I've got lots of other ideas and we could keep going.

Wyatt: [Laughs] Yeah, the things that really resonate with me is, at least in terms of my responsibility as the President is that if the institution isn't innovating, that's probably my fault because I have a responsibility, a direct responsibility, to lead with that. But then, it talks about, in terms of innovating, my role is not to do all the innovating by myself. We talk about leaders who charge down the path and then turn around and realize nobody is following. That's not a leader. But it's to persuade, to inspire, to motivate, to get everybody participating. Not just participating in my idea, but everybody participating in innovation.

Anderson: I agree with that statement, and one of the challenges in implementing that is that all of us get caught up in our own worlds, and staff members each have a job or responsibility, a job description, they show up and do their work. And it's easy for a staff member not to ask broader questions about how the university works, why it operates the way that it does. It's easy for a faculty member often to be more committed to their discipline than to a specific institution. Most of the faculty members that I've worked with first when we ask them what they do, they won't say, "I'm a faculty member at this university." They will say, "I am a biologist," or "I'm a chemist," or "I'm a strategist," and that's their really natural affiliation. And so, helping faculty members have some interest in engaging in building innovation within an institution requires some commitment to that institution. And sometimes that's something that has to be…you have to bring them in a little bit and allow them a real perspective that that work is going to matter, otherwise they'll just choose to put their time and efforts in other places, which is certainly reasonable. And so, it is the president's responsibility to innovate for the institution and to push that, and the question then becomes, "How is that best done?" And as you mentioned, it's best done not by one person putting out new ideas and everybody jumping in line. A lot of that work has to be coming to a shared understanding of the changes that need to happen, and not specific policy changes that I'm talking about, but the changes that are driven by environment conditions that put the long-term sustainability of the institution at risk. And higher education, there's been lots of research that has talked about this, is at a point where the external environment is changing in ways that it has not in the past, and so, as administrators, it's our responsibility to help everyone in the institution see what's going on in the external environment so they have enough information and perspective to engage in joint problem solving. And that's the real key to shared governance is that joint problem-solving. That it's not seen as a place where people go to…the administration or whoever goes to get approval for something, but it's seen as a way in which we can engage the brightest minds solving the most critical problems for the institution's health.

Wyatt: We don't have a lack of bright minds.

Anderson: There is no doubt about that. Or committed faculty and staff. Since I've been at SUU, I've seen more commitment to a specific institution that I have seen a lot of other places. And that's something that's, unfortunately, somewhat atypical among higher education institutions today.

Wyatt: So, in terms of designing a strategy to promote innovation across all of campus, talk to us about how you see that working?

Anderson: There are really two fundamental questions. One is innovations in the strategic direction of the institution, and we're about to kick off the strategic planning process, and that will be the work of that committee leading the institution to ask the long-term, fundamental questions of the university. Who do we serve? Why do we serve this group of students over that group of students? How do we allocate our resources to the right areas to make sure we're serving students, faculty, and staff in the right ways? But those are the long-term questions about how the university fits in different markets and how it competes with other universities who are trying to serve similar markets. That's the first set of questions that have to be asked, and we need everybody thinking on that level. The second set of questions has to do with our operations, and all of us who sit in administrative positions, we don't know enough to know what to fix at every level of the institution. And so, I'll give you a specific example from a former institution. We had multiple sites and we paid faculty to travel to different locations to teach, and we had some in one department who were intentionally scheduling their classes in multiple locations at multiple times so that they could get larger reimbursements for travel. And while I don't fault them at all in being innovative in their minds, they were being innovative in a way that's hurting the overall institution and decreasing our ability to put resources into students and teaching. And I'm not saying at all that we have that issue at SUU, but any time anyone sees something we could do better, in reality, they may be the only person that sees it. They may be one of only a few that see it, and so, part of the culture, an innovative culture in higher education has to be a place in which if anyone sees something that can be improved, they don't sit quietly, and they bring it up. And sometimes that will lead to them…by bringing it up, it will lead to them getting more information, and if they get more information, they may realize their solution may not work and it may not be a problem or there are reasons we do it this way. But having that conversation and having it be a constant flow of communication in the operational side of the institution, that's where a lot of innovation happens, as well as on the strategic level with the strategic plan and the major decisions the institution has to make.

Wyatt: So, where do they take that idea? Do they send an email to the Provost or the President?

Anderson: Ideally, the first question…if someone sees something that's not working well or that could be improved or other ways that we could improve as an institution, usually the best thing for them to do is to talk to the person in the office next to them. And this isn't a complaining talk that says, "Why…the institution is doing this and it's terrible, the wheels are falling off and we're going to end and not have jobs." But it's a conversation that goes something like, "Hey, why are we doing this this way?" And that person next to them may have information that they don't. Maybe they can talk to their department chair or colleagues that are close to them to vet their ideas, and as they start…that's part of the shared governance process, is vetting all of the ideas closely, locally, and as more information is shared and as ideas spread, then the best ideas will then bubble up. And those ideas that may not be good solutions will work themselves out at the lowest levels of the university. And having that fluid discussion across campus about how we can really fulfill the mission of the institution will create a lot of solutions that will come from…will come organically from all entities within the organization. And as we work in that direction, we'll have a fluid, open, organic organization that really respects shared governance and people will want to participate in. And not everybody will choose to do that; people may choose just to show up and do their job and go home and that's fine, but for those who want to participate, we need to make sure the culture is there to engage them.

Wyatt: How do we create the culture?

Anderson: There is a whole literature and multiple courses over 16 weeks we could talk about organizational culture and what it means. And the theory behind organization culture has its roots in some sociological theory and some economic theory, and so there are both a qualitative and quantitative approaches to understanding what organizational culture is. But many definitions would suggest that if you want to understand an organization's culture, you come in and talk to the people and listen to how they describe things operate. And that's the culture, which is a separate issue from how they objectively operate. And if people come in and say, "Generally, people at SUU love to work here, it's a great place, we get along well, sometimes we move quickly, sometimes we move slowly…" Whatever those descriptors are, that becomes the narrative that shapes what the culture is because those are the stories that are shared around water coolers, they're shared in emails and texts, they're shared at get-togethers. That storytelling that happens, those symbols that people share, the meaningful experiences, the historical stories that people share about the institution, that becomes the culture. So, the question then is: How do you shape those stories? And one way to shape it is to have a very open, very transparent, very informed community. And as you do that and innovation starts to take place in meaningful ways and we start to improve things, people will notice and then those small improvements will start to be the narrative that's shared. And the more positive narrative that is shared and the more positive improvements that are made or innovations that are implemented or ways in which we can help students, if those become more of the narrative, the culture starts to get shaped. So, I think it all starts with little successes based on a healthy shared governance environment.

Meredith: John, in your estimation and your background experience, you've suggested that there's the story and then there's the reality, and sometimes those are matched up very clearly, and sometimes they're not. If the story isn't tracking with what's actually happening, what's the role of the administrator there in this particular case? What I mean is, if there's a group of people who are telling the same story, but something has changed and what had perhaps, let's say had been a negative story in the past, there's really no reason to cling to that older kind of outdated negative story that we were telling about a certain element or a certain place. How do people who are in leadership positions help people move past that? I understand what you just said, following on small wins, small things. I often hearken back to a…right when the wall came down, I went over to the then Czechoslovakia and now Czech Republic and sang in Prague, and we…it was very much different traveling there, again, literally just at the end of the communist regime and as capitalism was taking over, and our bus driver who was quite young and was very excited for the change to capitalism said numerous times on our tour, "There's a generation of people who will have to die for this story to change." Is that the best we can hope for? Or do we…do the little things really have enough sway to change a negative into a positive.

Anderson: That's a very insightful question, and I would argue that the worst thing that someone can do when they hear a negative narrative…"We do this around here that way," and "It's always been done that way," and "We're not going to change that," and "No one's really going to…" Those kinds of narratives, the worst thing that someone can do is to try to silence the narrative.

Meredith: For sure.

 Anderson: People have to be able to share exactly what they think and what they feel, because those perceptions are a reality. It may be a subjective reality, but it is a reality. And helping people see a different reality is not about telling them that something is different, it's often about showing them that something's different. And people, I believe, learn things best when they learn them themselves, and that's often best done by questions. And so, if someone says something that doesn't match objectivity, as I understand it, there may be things that I don't know.

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: There may be pieces that I don't know. And so, I'm best served, or any academic leader or leader at an institution, is best served by having meaningful conversations. When you start with a simple question like, "I've heard that narrative before. Can you help me understand where that comes from? Where did it start?"

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: And, "I want to understand." Because I first have to understand before we can work on changing together. And we have to understand. We have to understand exactly what you mean, and I certainly don't do it perfectly, but in conversations I've had with groups of faculty when they start to say, "Well, this is that, and this is that, and this is the other thing, and this is the problem," I really try never to say, "Well, that doesn't match anything that I've ever seen or heard written." I try to say specifically, "Help me understand exactly what you're saying. I want to make sure I understand your reality. Because you may be seeing a different part of it than I am and I want to understand. And as we start to understand, I learn, they learn, we all learn together, and then we can do some joint problem solving. But if you jump right to solutions, it really circumvents that whole process, and universities we mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, are institutions that exist for a long time, and often people who work at them work at the same institution for a very long time, and I think it's very short-sighted for any administrator to say, "I'm going to cut this conversation off because we've got to fix this problem immediately."

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: We really don't deal with life and death very often at a university, right?

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: We have time. That's what a university is. It's a time and a place for shared ideas and joint problem-solving. That's one of the things that I love about the work that we do is we are a part of an incredible group of scholars, and we are so fortunate that every day, you can walk to work and if you choose to and if the other faculty choose to, you can sit down with a biologist, a chemist, a humanist, and argue, debate, explore lots of ideas, and get paid to do it. It's really an unbelievable profession to be in.

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: And so, I think the more that we look long-term, build long-term conversations and keep communication flowing and share information, the information that we have, the realities that other people live in, we're then able to understand our context. Once we understand that context, we can then ask questions about what we should do different.

Meredith: I'm curious about this, because both you and I have relatively new jobs. You've been here five months I guess.

Anderson: Mhmm.

Meredith: And I started a new job about four weeks ago, and I suspect…maybe your experience has not been like mine, but for the first four weeks in my new job, I find that a lot of what I've been doing is listening to the stories of the unit. Listening to people's perception of what they think their job is, how they perceive they are doing that job, and how they fit in the overall unit, and then hearing the stories—both positive and negative—of my particular group as it relates to the rest of the university. And I've been trying very carefully not to necessarily guide those conversations, to just listen. Have you found that that…obviously, we can't just listen, we do have to take action in these kinds of roles. When do you switch from being narrative listener to narrative helper/creator/new crafter? When does that switch in your mind?

Anderson: So, I think I'd ask the question in a little different context, and that is, if someone has a perspective of how things operate and you as a manager want to help them shape that in a different way, in the long run, are you better off jumping in the narrative and correcting the narrative or guiding the narrative? Or are you better stepping in asking different questions? And I think cultural change happens best in the second set. And it can often happen in conversations like this. "I understand you're explaining this and how that kind of operates."

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: "I want to make sure I understand what you're saying." You know, restating and all those things and so we come to a great understanding, and then just ask the question, "Do you think that's how it should operate? Is there something we should do different?" And then it starts the negotiation of, "Well, maybe we shouldn't do it that way." And we hear little anecdotes that kind of shape our view of the world and I'll take a second to kind of share one of mine. We had a state senator speak at a commencement probably a decade and a half ago who shared just a brief story that I've never forgotten, and I've tried to apply it over and over; it's been incredibly helpful. He said when he was first elected to the state senate, he asked an older senator how he could be successful, and the advice he gave was very simple. He said, "Never question another senator's intentions." And I think as we talk about cultural change, that is such a powerful idea. If we always assume that people have good intentions, it's much easier to listen to someone be critical, because you look at it from the lens that they're really trying to help. And if you can get through the conversation to the point where they're saying, "Here's what we need to do different. Here's the problem." Even if they're being incredibly antagonistic, if you can just listen and say, "I believe that that person has good intention. I want to understand." Then you're in a position you can help them see the world in a different place by asking different questions. Does that make sense?

Meredith: Yeah. Yeah, very interesting. That's actually what I've been trying to do is then ask the question, "How, in your mind, how can we do this differently?" And I've been amazed at how insightful the people that I work with are about how they would improve their jobs. It's been a really interesting experience for me. I've enjoyed it."

Anderson: Those conversations can be very uncomfortable at times.

Meredith: Yeah, they can.

Anderson: Because it's hard to be criticized. But really, to be a leader in any format, it doesn't matter where you are in the organization, you have to be comfortable with being criticized without closing off conversation. And then being able to listen carefully, listen carefully and then say, "This person has good intentions. I want to understand what they're saying." And then listening to the point that you do. And then you can start to reshape the narrative by listening and questioning and debating back and forth, and that's really the heart of shared governance.

Wyatt: I love this description that you gave about how innovation should occur on a campus, which is one person coming up with the idea or thought or something that needs to be improved, and then working on it with colleagues and the department or who's in the office next door. I think one of the challenges that I see is if someone comes up with an idea and so then they call someone and say, "I have a suggestion," and then they just leave it with that person.

Anderson: Mhmm. The easiest thing in the world…and I'll say in advance as we have this conversation that this work of shared governance is not efficient, and it is incredibly slow relative to dictatorship styles, and it is very time-consuming, but very healthy. And so, as we work through this, we've got to make sure that people who are engaging in it—and we're asking, faculty, staff, everybody to engage in it—they have to know upfront it is going to take a lot of effort, it's going to take a lot of time. The easiest thing in the world is to walk into a meeting, drop a complaint, walk out, and say, "Somebody else fix it." That's not really being a good steward of the institution. If you see a problem as a member of the shared governance team, I hope that each of us have the confidence and the fortitude to work through the difficult process of shared governance to come to shared conclusions. And that's a lot to ask from a faculty member or a staff member who could just choose to check out. And so, when people come up with ideas, we have to make sure that we completely respect their idea, but also let them know upfront, "It's a great idea. We need to explore it, but I need you to help explore it, because it's your idea and you know more about it than I do." And if someone then says, "Oh, it was just a statement," that's fine and we'll move on. But if someone really has an issue, they need to not only help identify the problem, but also be willing to help in crafting the solution.

Wyatt: Sometimes it's discouraging. Sometimes it's discouraging for a person. They make a suggestion and the answer is, "Well, we tried that last year." And then they make another suggestion and, "Yeah, that's a good idea, but I'm not sure that I'm interested in that because I have all of these other things I'm working on myself." And then after a while, a person who has a bunch of suggestions gets discouraged by the whole thing. And it might be that the first three or four ideas are, in fact, bad ideas. I love a story that former Governor Mike Leavitt told me, and that was he said, "In my office, I've got four file cabinets. And in one of the drawers, I have some good ideas." [Laughs] Because sometimes it's just like an entrepreneur. Fail, fail, fail, fail, and then succeed. I think sometimes it's really challenging for a person to…it's challenging on both sides. It's challenging to continue to encourage somebody if the first three or four ideas don't make any sense to you, and it's challenging for the person who wants to participate to keep working on ideas when they feel like they're not really being heard.

Meredith: You know, and President, it's equally challenging for an older faculty member or staff member who has kind of seen it all and done it all to hold their tongue when a younger faculty or staff member suggests an innovation. The natural tendency is to say, "Ah, we've tried that before and it didn't work" if we have, in fact, tried it before and it didn't work. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try it again or consider it again. The world has changed. We may, in fact, want to do that. And so, I have tried, as I've gotten longer and longer in the tooth to where I'm mostly tooth now and very little gum left in my academic career, I've tried to engage in mentorship rather than, "Hey, let me tell you about the old war days." I try and encourage people to come up with good and new ideas, and very often, they're not new, and very often they're not good. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue to listen to them.

Anderson: And you can compare it to what happens in a classroom. When a faculty member walks into a classroom, they likely know a lot more than the students know. But they certainly don't know every application of what they know, right? And so, a student can come up the first time and hand in an essay and say, "This is my best effort," and the faculty member can just scratch it up and say, "Well, here's 15 things that are wrong, go back and do it again." And that can be discouraging to a student.

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: And the same way when someone brings up a new idea. But if that faculty member pulls aside the student and says, "I want to help you understand not only that it's wrong, but why it's wrong, and I want to walk you through the process of helping you learn how you can do something different. And I want you to help me understand how you can apply that in different contexts." And when that narrative happens, it still is discouraging that an idea isn't accepted or adopted or immediately implemented, but at least there's a resolution, and there's some acknowledgement that, "Thank you, it's a great idea, and let me share with you these seven reasons that it may not be the best thing for the institution to do now."

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: And so, it comes to a natural conclusion, not just a, "Nope, we're not doing that."

Meredith: Yeah. That's critical, I think.

Anderson: And that reinforces that culture. That narrative will change. If someone can walk back and say, "Hey, I was talking to my dean and, ‘I had this idea, we've got to do this different and I'm real passionate about it' and the dean said, ‘No, we're not doing it, and that's it.'" Well, that person is going to leave deflated, and then they're going to go back and say to their neighbor, "The dean doesn't listen to anything." Or the Provost, whoever it is. Or if the dean says, "I want to listen, I want to understand, and then I want to share with you why we're doing it or why we're not."

Meredith: Right.

Anderson: That time is inefficient, but it is the most powerful thing we can do is to keep that shared narrative about how the institution operates alive. So, let's talk about some of those narratives that…and we'll get a little more specific and talk about SUU. And some of the narratives that we need to work on as a campus, and this is not saying that we need to implement different specific policies, but it's a narrative that we need to help inform, and that is we can't continue, as an institution of higher education, doing the exact same things we've done for a long time and expect the same results. Because the market has shifted, and we know the demographics are not in our favor. We've got four or five years left until the population of graduating high school students starts to decline.

Wyatt: So, I've got to jump in.

Anderson: Yep.

Wyatt: Don't we always say, "If you keep doing the same thing, you've got to expect the same result?" Isn't that the definition of insanity? So, you're giving us the opposite. [All laugh]

Anderson: That's exactly right. That's a quote that's often attributed to Einstein, and it's technically correct. But that assumes that all other factors that don't change, right?

Wyatt: Yeah.

Anderson: And so, if we keep recruiting students the exact same way we've done it, what's going to happen over time is that market population is going to shift. They're going to be more interested in social media than they are in letters we may mail them. That market is…and if we don't continue to shift the way that we do things, our results will be different. And that's what happens in our largely technically-driven environment.

Wyatt: In a non-static world, if you do things the same, the outcomes will change.

Anderson: That's right.


Wyatt: In a static world, the outcomes will stay the same. But in a dynamic world, the outcomes are different if you keep doing things the same.

Anderson: That's right. And we, of all people working in any industry, should know that well because we create knowledge. And we know the more we know, that we can act in different ways and have different results because we know more from the beginning. And so, recognizing that market shift, that knowledge shifts, that all of those things are moving outside of our environment, inside of our environment. If someone is frustrated that they keep coming to work and want to do the same thing over and over and over for 40 years and receive the same results, higher education is going to be a frustrating environment for them to be in. and I would say most industries at this point are going to be frustrating for them because so many things continue to shift. And we've got to be able to respond to that. So, let's talk about just a little bit about organizational theory and strategy and how that applies. There was a group of scholars referred to as the Austrian Economists, and they argued a little bit against traditional economic theory in that most economists would say markets seek stabilization. The Austrian Economists say…I'm sure I'll get some of our economics faculty to correct anything I've said, they're welcome to do that, but the Austrian Economics was a small group that said really, markets and firms need to seek and do seek instability. And they have to do it, and this is Joseph Schumpeter who wrote really prolifically in the 30s and 40s, and he argued that the best thing a firm can do is to identify why it creates value over other firms and then to destroy that value creating activity by creating something that creates even more value. So, some theorists would say if you're doing something that creates value, just hold onto it. Keep doing that thing over and over and over. Schumpeter and the Austrian Economists would say that's the worst thing you can do because you've got to participate in this creative destructionism, which was his term, because if you keep doing what you're doing, people are studying you. They're watching you. They're figuring it out. And eventually, somebody is going to come up with some way to do something better. And if you sit and just keep taking advantage of what you're doing over and over and over, someone else is going to "dethrone you" from your place, and they will come up with something bigger and brighter and newer, lower cost, and all of a sudden, you'll be playing second fiddle. And so, they argue, these Austria Economists, that creative destructionism is the process of identifying your strengths and destroying those by creating something that's even stronger and adds more value. And so, as an institution of higher education, we can't just say, "We've got the best experiential undergraduate experience in the state." Well, if you look at what's happening, there are people just south of us, just north of us, just east of us, that are trying to recreate that and recreate that better. If we don't say, "What are we going to do that's better than we're doing it now?" And shift, all of a sudden, we're going to start to look like everybody else and we won't have an advantage in the market. And I think that's a conversation we need to instill in our culture as a campus. The realization that innovation isn't just to have fun. It's just not to do different things. It's just not to teach more students. It's about organizational survivability and our ability to thrive in the future and be sustainable. And if that's not part of what we do, eventually, somebody will do what we're doing better and we'll be watching them do it.

Wyatt: You know, that's an interesting way to describe it, because i remember growing up and there were all of these businesses in town.

Anderson: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And a lot of them kept doing exactly what they had always been doing, and someone came in and outdid them, and all of those businesses went out. And it's almost like the three generations of a business. That somebody creates a business with a lot of effort and work and creativity, and then that person's children take it over and they saw how much work it was and they are successful, and by the time you get to the grandchildren, they destroy it. I think that's a standard kind of deal because they're just reaping the benefits of something someone else created rather than reinventing. But it's the…I can go down main street of where I grew up and just recount all these little businesses that were amazing at one time. [Laughs] And that are gone.

Anderson: And that is true in so many different contexts. A former president that I worked for was a religious theological scholar by training, but had become an expert—he was from England—had become an expert in World War II and World War I and all of the situations that happened in Europe around that environment, and he wrote several books about it. And in it, he argued over and over and over is what happens in places like Europe is it's the fourth generation that really forgets everything that's happened in the past and repeats it. Because usually, people know their grandparents. You've got the parents, grandparents, you have three generations. Very few people know their great-grandparents, and that oral history is lost. And because of that, that fourth generation has to learn everything new and that's why we see cycles and cycles over long periods of time throughout the world. And just like you said, it's that third generation of an entrepreneur's family that kind of has lost that legacy of what existed and how it was created and has to relearn all of those lessons by starting from scratch again somewhere else.

Wyatt: How does that apply in a public setting? I mean, I think what we see a lot of times in government and public universities is we're supported by the government and what we do, we do well and we don't need to be worried.

Anderson: That's a very good question, because working as a state institution, SUU like other state institutions gets a certain percentage of their budget from the State Legislature. And this is a part that's important for the campus to understand: every state, every legislature has different ways of distributing funds. And they are a stabilizing force in terms of making sure that we have equal revenue from year to year, but those formulas don't promote innovation and they don't promote growth. For example, in the state that I worked in for a long time, let's say an institution grew by 10-12% like SUU did this last year. Well, half of that money comes from tuition, the other half comes from the state, but it doesn't come from the state for two years. So, you're serving an increase of 10-12% of the student population on half your budget for two years. And so, if an institution really wants to grow and they get aggressive about it or really wants to change or shift something, it's at least a three year cycle before they see any revenue, and so they're operating on a shoestring.

Wyatt: Every year.

Anderson: Every year, that's correct. Every year and it just gets worse and worse and worse, and because of that, you can't be as strategic as you could be if you had more flexibility over your revenue stream, meaning your tuition pricing and your pricing models, or your funding models from the state. If you had more flexibility in those two areas, you could be more innovative and have a longer term strategy. But being a part of the state actually hinders your ability to do that, however, being a part of the state has one other serious challenge, and that is: if we go to the State Legislature for money, there are lots of great causes that exist in the state of Utah. We have to run prisons, we have to run police forces, we have to run social welfare programs…

Wyatt: Roads…

Anderson: Roads.

Wyatt: Public education.

Anderson: It's all over the board, and some of those constituents are incredibly capable at arguing their point. "If we don't rebuild this part of the infrastructure, the whole state is going to fail." "We need more bandwidth in rural areas." All of those arguments are put into one pocket, and sometimes, it's hard for state legislatures to say, "Well, I can not fund a project on rebuilding this road or infrastructure in my hometown and maybe not get re-elected, but I can divert that money to invest in the future of higher education." Sometimes that's a hard argument to make, and making that argument so those revenue sources match what we're trying to do and innovation is a completely different and much more difficult process to raise revenue than if you were working in private industry. So, it really provides a slow anchor, and that's probably one of the reasons we don't change as much as we could.

Wyatt: There was a time that the university wasn't growing at all, and it probably took a few years to recognize it, but we lost a lot of funding because of that. The state stopped investing in buildings, the state stopped giving us funds for innovative or new projects, there was obviously no money for growth, it wasn't really a very good time. But as you described, there's always a lag.

Anderson: Mhmm.

Wyatt: So, it requires a little bit of a delayed gratification that exists forever. [All laugh] But the gratification continually comes, it just doesn't quite always…you're never really at equilibrium, I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

Anderson: That's, I think, very well said, and that reality is something that needs to be understood well across campus. It's not as if we have enrollment that goes up by 12%, all of a sudden we get an additional 12% from the state. And there's a whole other complex challenge, and that is not all students pay the same amount of money to come to school. We've got lots of different tuition rates, we've got lots of different formats, and parts of them pay different fee structures. And so, as…for example, as international students are down this year because of COVID and all those things and an inability of international students to get…international students pay a lot more tuition than a student from Ephraim or Lehi, and because of that, even though enrollment is up, our revenue is not up 12% which changes the whole model of how we deliver instruction and provide support services. And so, we need to help campus understand that it's not a set of linear algorithms. We get one more student and all of a sudden, this part of the institution goes up and we can spend more money. It's a very complex budgeting model and financial model, and the more we can help people understand the complexity and why we have to make certain judgement calls in that process, the more they'll be able to understand some of the challenges that we face and the waters that we have to navigate.

Wyatt: Well, and the more engaged faculty and staff are, the more we understand where the needs lie.

Anderson: I totally agree. And if…I'll say it this way: I am very grateful for the faculty or staff members who are sitting in an office thinking, "You know, we could really do better in this area or do this better in this area" that have the courage and the fortitude to start to talk to people about ways we could improve things, and start to share those ideas and spread them around, recognizing that we sort it out on multiple levels, and have the fortitude to make sure ideas make it through that vetting process of shared governance and so we can help the institution move forward. And let's say we have 338 faculty, if we have 150 that are willing to invest some of their time in helping the institution improve, that is a huge, huge help to lifting what's next. Because it's easy to think that everybody in Old Main has all of the answers and has a big plan or conspiracy, whatever you want to call it, of what the future is going to look like for SUU, but the reality is we're asking the same kinds of questions that people are asking within departments or within divisions across the institution. And the more we can work on that collectively and the more we can share information and vet ideas and bounce those back and forth, we'll not only have a better culture, we'll have better decisions.

Wyatt: So, what if somebody says, "All of the ideas are coming out of the administration. I'm irritated by that." What's your answer?

Anderson: I think the first thing I would say is, "Help me understand why you feel that way. I want to understand your subjective reality." And I may not ask it like that, but that's really what I'm asking. "Help me understand. What changes are you talking about? I want to understand how this change or that change impacted you. I want to come to an understanding and I see the picture." I think it's reasonable to say it's certainly part of the president and the Old Main administration's ideas…responsibility to come up with some innovations. But in our environment, it's the responsibility of everyone to participate in the process. And if you don't feel like you have an avenue, I either need to help you find an avenue or we need to create one and so whatever ideas you have can come forth with equal fortitude. And so, it's not only the responsibility of the president of the administration to innovate. It's everybody's responsibility, because you have a different perspective of the university than anybody else does and you need to share it and we need your help.

Wyatt: And it's probably true that nobody sits down with someone and says, "Give us all your best ideas." That this is something that has to organically start with each person as you've been describing.

Anderson: It has to organically start with each person, but also there has to be a shared narrative across campus that provides those avenues, and it's really all our responsibility to start that and continue it.

Wyatt: So, in the closing piece of this, what advice would you give to me or any president or leaders of a university? What's the single best thing we can do to help promote a culture of innovation?

Anderson: I think the single best thing that any president of any organization can do is to help every member of that organization realize the complexity in environmental change that we're experiencing and the waters we have to navigate. And then third, to plea for people's help in navigating that and engagement in problem solving. Because once people start to see that, "Yes, the administration is really trying to navigate some challenging things," and everybody starts to see that, the ideas will start to bubble up, and there's enough strength and compassion and effort that's focused on building the brand and building the institution of SUU, there's enough goodwill there that if people understand the complexities of what we're dealing with, I'm fully convinced they'll be able to engage in joint problem solving in healthy and meaningful sustainable ways.

Wyatt: Another way to say that is, is make the hand wringing more public. "These are the things that we're worried about. Help us think through the hand wringing."

Anderson: You said it better than I did. And I think people will, once they see some of the complexities we're dealing with, recognize that we're trying to find creative solutions, and just because one puzzle piece may not make sense when you look at it independently, once you see the picture of the puzzle, the small pieces make sense.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guest today our Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Jon Anderson. Jon, thanks for joining us, this was a great conversation.

Anderson: I really enjoyed it, thank you very much.

Meredith: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back again with another podcast real soon. Bye bye.