Episode 41: Barriers to Innovation in Higher Education

The current series of podcasts is focused on innovation, and we're excited to showcase ideas from various industries and people worldwide. In episode 41, President Scott L Wyatt and Professor Steve Meredith invite academic entrepreneur Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson, Provost of Bay Path University to discuss how she has fostered innovation in higher education by changing faculty tenure, curriculum development, and increasing diversity in recruitment efforts.

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 in-studio again today, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve.

Meredith: It's no secret, I think, that we've been focusing this last batch of podcasts on innovation, and we're excited to bring in ideas from sort of around the world and around the world of things that people do. But, our guest today is somebody that's right in there with us doing the exact same work that we do. But really, a bright advocate for innovation and change in the academy and we're delighted to have her as a guest. Why don't you introduce her?

Wyatt: Thank you so much, Steve. Yes, we're delighted to have Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson with us today who is the provost at Bay Path University in Massachusetts. Welcome, Melissa.

Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson: Thank you! I'm delighted to be here.

Wyatt: Why don't you give us the two or three minute introduction to you? And then we'd love to talk for a few minutes about Bay Path and then get on to this subject about innovation.

Morriss-Olson: Oh sure, sure. I have been at Bay Path since 2006. I am in my ninth year as provost which is twice the length of the national average for a provost, I'm told.

Meredith: [Laughs]

Wyatt: Wow.

Morriss-Olson: I'm feeling pretty good about having made it this far and I have a blog that is called, The Accidental Provost. It's named quite appropriately because I never planned to be a provost, it was never on my trajectory. And one of the things I have found that I really enjoy about the provost role is that it allows me to look at the student experience in a very broad way. I have experience in higher ed close to 40 years now and I have been a Vice President for Enrollment, a Vice President for Advancement, I have been a faculty member, I've been a Senior VP for Institutional Effectiveness, so I've done a lot of different things. And the provost role really allows you to draw upon all of that experience and think about the student experience very holistically. And so, I am an accidental provost, but a happy provost.

Wyatt: [Laughs] That's a great description.

Morriss-Olson: And the other thing that's probably important to know about me is that I describe myself as an academic entrepreneur. I have been an academic for a long time, but I am highly entrepreneurial, going back to when I was a kid, actually. My parents could have told you stories about thing that I invented and came up with when I was very young, and so that entrepreneurial streak has always been a part of me. I think I inherited it, actually. My father was a pioneer in the pipe industry. He was quite innovative in his own right, so I think it was in my DNA. But then, being able to be an entrepreneur and to innovate and to do really fun and new kinds of things in an academic setting and see those things then result in a better experience for your students, it just doesn't get much better than that.

Wyatt: Bay Path is an interesting school, and as I was looking at your school's basic information discovered that we have something in common. We both were founded at the same time. Southern Utah University and Bay Path both founded in 1897.

Morriss-Olson: Yeah. Yes, very good year.

Wyatt: We have some differences, of course. We are in southern Utah and you are in western Massachusetts and you're a private school and we're a public school. We're a little bit bigger than you are but tell us about Bay Path.

Morriss-Olson: Oh, sure. Well, you know, Bay Path has a really fascinating trajectory. We were founded in 1897, but we were actually founded as a for-profit co-ed business institute in downtown Springfield. And over the course over the past 120+ years, we have changed our name five times. We are now Bay Path University. And we've changed our missional focus. So, we went from being co-ed at our founding time to being women's only on the undergraduate in the 1940s. And we became women's only because a very, very savvy businessman in the area purchased Bay Path Business Institute and was looking for a new market opportunity. And he noticed that the men were going off to war and women were needing to step up into careers and to jobs so that they could have a livelihood, and so he converted Bay Path Business Institute into a non-profit school called Bay Path Secretarial School for Women and relocated the campus to this beautiful estate in Long Meadow which is outside of Springfield. And we have been women's only on the undergrad ever since. We became Bay Path Junior College in the 1960s when women didn't want to be secretaries anymore. Then, in the 1980s, we became Bay Path College, began granting our first baccalaureate degrees. We offered our first graduate program in 2001-2002 and then we changed our name to Bay Path University a few years ago as a reflection as the growth, particularly with adult students and some of the work we were doing internationally. One of the things that's really, really interesting about the trajectory is that from the very beginning, even as Bay Pay Business Institute, we were a very innovative kind of institution. So, back in 1897, we were running a curriculum that was very much competency based. Now, it wasn't called "competency based," but if you look at the old descriptions, the old records, it was very much a competency-based kind of curriculum. We went year-round, the delivery was accelerated, there's a number of things that you can pull out of the early institute that are the exact things people are now talking about in terms of new, innovative ways of delivering education. So, that's kind of an interesting thing. You can pull that innovative thread throughout the entire history of Bay Path, even across the name changes and the shifts in focus. So, we like to say that the innovative spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit, is in the water here. That it really is a part of the DNA and there's a number of things in the culture that seem to just propel and nurture that innovative spirit.

Wyatt: Well, and I think that you've been a speaker nationally at conferences on innovation. So, you've taken that innovation, or you've fueled that innovation at Bay Path, and you're writing a book and you've been giving seminars…so we're excited to talk to you about innovation today.

Morriss-Olson: Well, it's a topic I really am very interested in. And I think, in part, because I've had the privilege of working at two institutions that really live out innovation. And it's not an easy thing to do. In fact, I think in academic organizations, being innovative and entrepreneurial is a very difficult thing to do for a lot of the reasons I think we're probably going to be talking about on the podcast. But I've been very fortunate to work for two presidents, each one of whom is very skilled at leading innovation and creating a culture where innovation can thrive. So, that became an early interest of mine. I did my doctoral dissertation many years ago. I looked at a hundred small colleges over a ten-year period and tried to account for why some were able to be successful and innovate and thrive while others had just the opposite. And out of that really came some ideas and, I wouldn't call them theories necessarily, but some beliefs about innovation that I've continued to work on over the years.

Wyatt: What's the number one thing you discovered?

Morriss-Olson: You know, that's a great question. From my doctoral research—and I have yet to disprove this—but what I found is that when everything is considered altogether, the thing that most defined and set the successful schools apart from those that struggled was the existence of an innovative mindset. It wasn't all the little things that they did, but it was the presence of this innovative mindset that played out a number of different ways that seem to make the difference at the end of the day. And that mindset was more important than any particular skillset. It was that the institution was able to have this mindset and to nurture this mindset that allowed it to be successful, that allowed it to be able to imagine things that more traditional institutions were not able to let themselves imagine. And so, I think that was a surprise. That there were a number of things that would pull together suggested the presence of this mindset. And a lot of them had to do with leadership. That you had a leader who was innovative and who was very skilled at being able to cultivate the nurture that mindset, not just in him or herself and not just among the senior team, but across the institution.

Wyatt: Do you think that innovation is natural for colleges and universities? Or do you think it's something that has to really be fostered?

Morriss-Olson: Oh, I think it has to be worked at and fostered. I think there are …and I have written about this…I think there are barriers—very, very real barriers—to innovation in an academic organization, and I think the pull to keep things as they are, the pull to maintain the status quo, is a very powerful pull. It's a very powerful force.

Wyatt: And in some ways, the faculty and staff at all the universities and colleges, they grew up on universities and colleges and the environment and what was going on is what they fell in love with, and so, they tend to want to keep it exactly the way it was when they were students and they learned from people that wanted to keep it the way it was when they were students. I think that's part of it, don't you? Is this tradition that draws us into the academy? We want to preserve it the way it has always been?

Morriss-Olson: Yeah. No, absolutely. I think that's human nature in part. You know, we have our own experiences that we rely upon for what is good, and I think for faculty in particular who are disciplined—who are socialized in a particular discipline—the pull of that discipline and the norms that come from that discipline can be pretty powerful forces so that even though a faculty member may be working on your campus, he or she is typically connected to this broader discipline that can play a very strong role in terms of shaping the behavior, influencing the behavior of that faculty member. I think, also, that alumni can be a very powerful force for maintaining things the way they are. One of my favorite stories is what happened at Sweet Brier College which nearly closed as you probably remember…

Wyatt: Right.

Morriss-Olson:…in 2015. And it was the alumni of that institution that organized themselves and turned out to be a powerful, powerful force resulting in the administration, the entire board being fired essentially and then rebuilding the institution from the ground up. And I think all of us can probably tell stories of the power that our alumni have or have had on our efforts to try to change things.

Wyatt: They certainly have an impact here as well. When I was hired as the president of Southern Utah University, within the first couple of weeks, I had a lot of community members and alumni and local leaders coming in to say, "By the way, this is our school, not yours." [All laugh]

Morriss-Olson: Yeah.

Wyatt: And actually, that's really sweet, because…to know that they're there and that they'll always be there. Traditions are some of our very best things about universities and they are also some of our challenges.

Morriss-Olson: Yes, yes. And that's so true for almost all of the barriers that I write about is that there is a flip side. And certainly, the alumni loyalty and those traditions are what give richness to a community life and meaning. And yet, if taken too far, they can sometimes detract from efforts to change.

Wyatt: What would you say are the biggest barriers? The largest, most significant barriers to innovation? We've talked about tradition but…

Meredith: By the way, we'll link to your very fine article on this subject on our home page on the podcast, but yes, I'm curious as well what you find the biggest barriers to be.

Morriss-Olson: You know, I'm going to speak a little bit from my own experience, but also from what I see with colleagues. Bay Path is a little bit different than the more traditional college in that we don't have tenure, for example, at Bay Path and so the faculty role is a little bit different than what you might find in a traditional institution where the faculty power and faculty governance is stronger. And so, some of what I'm going to talk about comes from my own experience, but some also comes from what I see in the experience of other provosts with whom I work. And I think the barriers also depend. So, for example, I think that when you are trying to incentivize or encourage faculty to do something new, so, let's say, for example, you're trying to introduce online learning and encourage your faculty to get more involved in perhaps developing and teaching online courses, I think one of the barriers that sometimes comes into play there is risk avoidance. I think particularly for faculty, this risk of being de-skilled and rendered to a position of not being relevant anymore. And I really see this with the faculty of a certain age group. So, the notion that online learning is a good thing can actually be kind of a scary notion to a faculty member whose livelihood has been spent teaching in the classroom in a face-to-face kind of manner. And so, faculty development, any effort to try to encourage faculty to teach differently, to try out a different kind of pedagogy, is oftentimes at first viewed in a skeptical kind of way. So, I call the barrier "risk avoidance," but what it really masks, I think, is a fear that faculty have that they're going to be replaced or somehow find themselves no longer needed if things change too much.

Wyatt: Because the world went a different direction.

Morriss-Olson: Exactly, yeah. Yeah. So, I think that's one. Another one that I see play out here and I think it certainly plays out everywhere is this notion of zero-sum thinking. So, you know, it's this notion of that we only have a limited amount of resources. So, "If somebody else gets more resources for what they want to do then there won't be anything left for me for my department." And where that comes into play is collaboration and partnership. Those are both increasingly important things for us to be doing both within our institutions but also with other institutions, with other organizations, and so, thinking about the assets that we have in a much broader way than just what we have on our own campus. And yet, trying to get people past this zero-sum thinking barrier is quite a challenge, because there is, again, a fear there that, "Boy, if I enter into this partnership…" Let's say we're going to share a curriculum. Let's say our two institutions are going to try to offer a program together. One of the barriers we would face is in bringing our faculty together and maybe the chair's, program directors, there would be a bit of a jockeying to try to figure out who is going to benefit and who is going to gain and who is going to lose. "How is this going to actually work?" If we were to come up with a shared curriculum that might serve both of our populations. Does that make sense?

Wyatt: Yeah, it does. Because maybe your school will teach these things and so the faculty at our school become irrelevant.

Morriss-Olson: Right, exactly.

Wyatt: What's interesting is that this "zero-sum gained" thinking is the opposite of "the rising tide lifts all ships" sort of thinking.

Morriss-Olson: Yes, mhmm.

Wyatt: And it's born out of a fear that the first ship up might be the only ship up. [All laugh] And so, we hear oftentimes that we should be investing in those pockets that can really grow because they'll lift everybody up. And it's hard for anybody to see that at the beginning, it's hard. And I think we've seen, Steve, that play out in jealousies. Not just a fear of loss of revenue but being a little envious.

Meredith: Are you suggesting that there's any sort of politics in higher ed? I'm aghast that you would suggest that. [All laugh] Melissa, I'm the accreditation liaison officer here at SUU amongst other things, and you mention accreditation as a barrier to innovation. I suspect there are some folks that would bristle a little bit with that, but I agree with you and I'm curious as to why you think that.

Morriss-Olson: Well, and you know, I just came from our…I could get in trouble here [Laughs] with what I said because I…and I do believe but at the same time, I have great respect for our accrediting agencies and the great work that they do. And here in New England, our accrediting agency—which is now known as NECHE for postsecondary—is really trying to work with the institutions that are part of NECHE to allow for more innovation and to allow for a little bit more customization, if you will, but where I think the challenges come in in terms of accreditation is that the standards, and this would be true across all of the region accrediting bodies, the standards and the policies all have to do with maintaining a certain kind of excellence or status quo as is understood by the members. And so, what you wind up with is is a lot of similarity, if you will, and what's hopeful…in NECHE, in our most recent revision of standards, NECHE has actually added a standard dedicated to effectiveness that is defined with…it's defined in terms of innovation and allowing for a little bit more experimentation on the part of the institution.

Wyatt: You know, it's an interesting comment that you made. I hadn't thought of it exactly that way, but as we try to impress our peer institutions who make up our accreditation boards, bodies, and site review teams and all that, the closer we look like them, the more they'll be impressed with us.

Morriss-Olson: Yeah, exactly.

Wyatt: The more different from them we appear, the more skeptical they might be or worried about us.

Morriss-Olson: Yes.

Wyatt: And it does seem to tend to force us all to be pretty vanilla.

Meredith: Right.

Morriss-Olson: Yes, exactly. And that's one of the challenges with the program review process. A lot of institutions, and all of our regional accrediting bodies have really honed in on this more in recent years as you know, and so, when your academic departments are doing their program review, the tendency is to go out and get colleagues from like-minded institutions to serve as evaluators of your program. Well, what happens when you do that is that you get…you wind up perpetuating more of what you're already doing as opposed to getting somebody who might come in from industry or somebody who might bring a radically different perspective on what you're doing to add to the mix that might cause you to think about things a little bit differently. So, one of the things we've actually done here in defining the program review process is to ask departments to include external review input that comes from non-academic settings or non-academic sources just to try to encourage a little bit of that non-academic perspective. But it's an interesting…it is an interesting dynamic.

Wyatt: Yeah. You don't get a rogue university showing up because we all grew up in the same culture, same tradition.

Morriss-Olson: Yeah, and we define excellence in very similar ways for the most part.

Wyatt: What else do you see as a leading reason for struggles with innovation?

Morriss-Olson: Well, I think our processes for recruiting people into new positions can also be a barrier. There's a woman by the name of Cathy Davidson who I have been following for quite a long time and she wrote a book a few years ago called, Now You See It and in that book, she suggests that one of the most powerful things that you can do if you want to encourage innovation is to diversify your staff more generally, but beyond that is when you're doing planning processes or bringing people together to work on any kind of a project that you diversify the teams because it makes perfect sense, but it's not something that we think about doing in an intentional way very often. She says she believes—and I have found this to be true—that the more diverse the people are that you bring to the table, the better the outcome that you're going to get because you're going to get much more divergent thinking, you're going to get a process that has to have incorporated a much wider range of thinking and perspective. And that, just by its nature, is going to force the group to come to a better kind of outcome. And outcome that's better vetted. Yes, go ahead.

Wyatt: Melissa, I totally agree with that and it's…and one of the pieces that…so, I have had an occasion to teach American National Government, and I remember the first time that an international student showed up in my class.

Morriss-Olson: Ah.

Wyatt: And all of the sudden, I realized there was at least one person in the room who might not share the assumption that I have and everyone else has about our country being great. Because now here is somebody else that probably things that her country is great. And so, I found myself being more careful and more prepared and thinking trough that somebody is listening that might not agree with my assumptions, so I had to be more on my game. And when we bring in people into committees who think very differently than us, we have to be more prepared, we don't take things for granted, we throw out some of our assumptions. I totally agree, the outcomes are always better. We work harder.

Morriss-Olson: We work harder. And I think that finding ways not only to populate committees with a more diverse group, but also when we're hiring people, finding ways to diversify our staff, our faculty. One of the things we have been working very hard at here at Bay Path over the last few years is to diversify the faculty. And so, now these numbers are going to sound small, but for a small university, they're pretty significant. Over the past four years, we have increased the percentage of faculty of color from 6% to 14% and I can tell you that I can see a real, qualitative difference in how the faculty interact as a result of that gain in diversity. You know, it's quite obvious in terms of the discussions that they have and it just makes for a much richer…not only is it good for our students because our students are more diverse, but it makes for a richer community in terms of all the different perspectives that people are brining into the community and then the impact that that has on our ability to be creative and innovative. Another example I will share…when our biology department—and this was a few years ago—was looking to do some…they wanted to do some new things with their labs and they also were not happy with the jobs that our students were getting, and they weren't quite sure why our students weren't getting the jobs that they thought they should be getting. And so, we were able to get a grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Foundation that gave us money to hire a firm to do research with employers. So, life science employers essentially, and they gave us such wonderful feedback that our faculty wound up revising their curriculum, they wound up applying for a grant that they eventually received in order to create different kinds of lab space and research opportunities for our students. And they saw first-hand the value of getting this input from outside sources and then the impact that that had on our student's ability to be better prepared and it goes on and on and on. So, I'm a big believer—and I think our faculty are too now—of the value of bringing these outside perspectives into the work that we're doing so that we're not so myopic in the decisions that we wind up making.

Wyatt: What would you say the impact of our normal governance processes have on innovation?

Morriss-Olson: That…as you know, because you've read my article, I do list faculty governance as one of the barriers to innovation. And I think that is…it can be a challenge. It depends on how it plays out on a particular campus. I think, as I said before, the fact that faculty are socialized, the faculty socialization and tenure process, can be a pretty powerful hold on maintaining the status quo and so it's a bit of a dance, isn't it? In terms of how administration and the president and the provost in particular, how you work with the faculty governance, the faculty leadership, to try to move things forward while respecting the faculty…the very legitimate desire that faculty have to have input into things.

Wyatt: So, this seems to me to be in some respects one of our greatest strengths and also one of our challenges, because if we can get all of the faculty and staff together, particularly as you've described with some diversity, there's a lot more ideas and energy and excitement and a large group of people will produce some terrific thinkers. But the processes sometimes slow us down because everything goes to committee. And so, the product actually might become better, but it takes time and there's always somebody in the room that wants to get really creative and there's always somebody that wants to keep things the way they have been.

Morriss-Olson: Yes. And that…I think that they…I have to say at Bay Path, we're very, very fortunate in that things get processed fairly quickly. I think that is, from what I understand, it has always been that way here. Things move fairly quickly, and a lot of our faculty actually come from outside of academic organizations. Many of them were in professional sorts of careers, they went on and got a terminal degree and then decided they wanted to teach. And so, we have a somewhat different kind of faculty here and so that hasn't been an issue at Bay Path, but if anything, we probably move a little too quickly sometimes. But…

Wyatt: Yeah, I would say here at Southern Utah University, some of our absolute most creative thinkers are faculty who have been faulty their whole careers. They…extremely creative people and they're fun to spend time with.

Morriss-Olson: Yeah, and that's a real gift for the institutions. It's a wonderful strength. And when you can get that energy focused on something that has the potential to be really impactful for your institution, it can be a wonderful thing. I was going to say that I have provosts who have done some really interesting things to try to spark that creativity. For example, innovation grants. I have a couple of colleagues who have used innovation grants.

Wyatt: Right. Yeah, we do some of that.

Morriss-Olson: Do you do that?

Wyatt: Uh-huh. We actually have a shark tank.

Morriss-Olson: Really? And how did that go?

Wyatt: We've done it every year for the last several years. It's really a fun thing. They come forward with a proposal on how to make the school better and get everything up and written up presented and…

Meredith: Have to show return on investment and all that.

Wyatt: Yeah. We jury it. We're about out of time.

Morriss-Olson: Oh!

Wyatt: And we've got to find a way to continue this conversation sometime. So, the next time I'm in Massachusetts, I'm dropping in for a little visit.

Morriss-Olson: Oh, I hope you will. I hope you will, we'd love to host you on the campus. Especially since we share the same birth year. [All laugh]

Meredith: That's right.

Morriss-Olson: We have a connection we need to continue to nurture.

Wyatt: We need to have a birthday party together.

Morriss-Olson: We should!

Wyatt: And maybe do some joint innovation work.

Meredith: Yep.

Morriss-Olson: I would love to explore that, really. Our students are mostly from our area. I'd love to be able to send them to Utah…

Wyatt: Melissa, let's get together.

Morriss-Olson: OK, let's plan on it.

Wyatt: This will be a lot of fun. We have enough in common and enough that's different that we could have a good time. And it's been a delight visiting with you.

Morriss-Olson: Yes, likewise.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guest today via the telephone Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson, the provost of Bay Path University in western Massachusetts. We'll post some of Dr. Morriss-Olson's writings on our website, so you get to know her a little bit better. Thanks again, we'll see you soon. Bye bye.