Episode 92 - Innovation in Higher Education: Lessons Learned - Introductory Episode

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith kick off the 2020-21 season by introducing this year’s podcast theme: Innovation in Higher Education: Lessons Learned. They preview some of the topics to be discussed, like the partnership between SUU and Southwest Technical College and SUU’s Three Year Degree program.

If listeners have suggestions for innovations we should discuss on the podcast, please email those comments to wyatt@suu.edu  and stevenmeredith@suu.edu .

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 today, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, it's nice to be back in the old podcast saddle again.

Scott Wyatt: It is, that's right. We had the book club over the summer, but we haven't done any of these great topic podcasts…

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: Since last spring.

Meredith: Yep, and I've missed it. This is something that I enjoy doing, so I'm glad we're here. Well, we are…as we join together today, we are at the beginning of fall semester at SUU and perhaps a fall semester unlike any other at SUU, or at least since 1918 at SUU. And we're not really going to spend a great deal of time talking about COVID-19 because it's what everybody is living and every university is taking the tactics that they are, but you and I are here and our students are largely here and we're awfully glad to have them back.

Wyatt: Yeah, it is great to see everyone back and COVID-19 has some application for what we're going to spend the year talking about.

Meredith: Yeah, it does…that's right, it does.

Wyatt: It's a disruptor.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And disruptions always lead an organization or a person into being better or worse at the end of the disruption. So, that's…and the approach that we've tried to take as a university is we are going to be better at the end of this pandemic. But, we know a lot of schools who will be worse, actually.

Meredith: Yeah. Yeah, it's a challenging time. I have been impressed at how much work…as a Cabinet member, how much work everybody on the Cabinet has had to do virtually all summer long, none more than you, of course, and…

Wyatt: Well, some have worked every bit as hard or harder and the committees across campus…

Meredith: All the way across campus.

Wyatt: Faculty Senate, Student Staff Association…

Meredith: As we kick off the year, we would be remiss if we didn't pause and say "thanks" to everyone who has worked so hard this summer to make sure that the campus was ready for our students to come back and that we had the necessary health and safety nets in place, so, we're awful glad to be here and we're awful grateful for everybody that helped us get here.

Wyatt: And so far, it's going exceptionally well. Better than expected.

Meredith: If I didn't have a plastic table top, I would knock on wood. [Both laugh] But yes, so far…

Wyatt: So far a lot better than we expected.

Meredith: So far, so good. Yep. So, you mentioned a topic for the year, and we usually work in slightly smaller chunks for that, but I'm excited for this because this year, we're going to talk about how the sausage of innovation gets made, right? [Both laugh] We're going to talk about innovation and all of its positive and occasionally less-than-positive outcomes.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, we'll take the whole year…we'll have a mixture of things that flow into it, but for the most part, our theme for this year is innovation, and it's going to be, "Lessons Learned." And as we were getting ready to go online, this is not a year that was designed by the PR department. This is a year designed by a couple old guys who've had opportunities to be creative here and in prior organizations. And so, we're going to look at all of the innovations that we're seeing and we're going to try to analyze them. What are the missteps? What went well? What could we have done better? Hopefully this will bring about some really productive discussion. And Steve, we're going to be a little vulnerable with this too.

Meredith: Yeah. Well, as we were talking about this, we mentioned that so often, really new and innovative ideas are trumpeted, as they should be, and we hear all about them. But we don't hear two years later that that company folded or that there was some negative side effect or whatever it was. The follow-up is lacking. And so, that's part of what we're going to be trying to do here is we're trying to follow up on something of the things that we've been involved in and some that others have been involved in and other partnerships and things like that to see how, after the rubber has now hit the road, to see how they're functioning and if they are doing what they proposed to do. And you're right, some of that is going to leave us a little bit vulnerable to criticism, either from self or from others.

Wyatt: Yeah. It's interesting to read a business management book that says, "The following five companies are amazing." And then five years later, one of them has gone bankrupt or another one has been merged into somebody else or they've sold it and then the pieces were divided out. So, hopefully we'll talk about some new innovations, or innovations at least that we haven't discussed, and as you said, follow up on some other ones and take a little bit of a deep dive.


Meredith: So, we can't really say who our guests are going to be yet, partly because we're not 100% sure, but also because we don't want to give away the farm. But, do you want to mention some of the topics or some of the ideas that we've been batting around?

Wyatt: Yeah, so the country's first fully comprehensive and accredited dual enrollment program with Southwest Tech. I think we know that one is going to come on.

Meredith: We do.

Wyatt: And we'll talk about some of the challenges that we've seen and some of the things that have not yet come about that we're hoping for. We'll talk about the three year bachelor's degree, and then there's just a whole list. I think we put down a list of 15 or 16.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And we'll talk about online.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And some of the innovations there and it's going to be really quite an enjoyable time for us.

Meredith: Yeah. I'm actually quite looking forward to it. And as you mentioned, some of these things we've done ourselves, like the three year degree, some we've done in partnership with other organizations, like Southwest Tech, and even though, again, we don't want to name names, I'm sure we'll have guests that will be well-steeped in being about to give us both the positive and the negative outcomes of those things. Because we've been talking about this and I bring this analogy up regularly in my music technology classes, and I need to change analogies because this one is an old one now, but we've talked about the fact that for many years, a staple of the corner strip mall in every American city was a video rental store, I'm going to use the name Blockbuster video just because most people recognize that name. and if you think back even 15 years ago, Blockbuster was an enormous company in 2005 and they literally were as ubiquitous as Starbucks is. And all it took was about 18 months of the Redbox to put them more or less out of business. And then all it took was about 18 months of Netflix finally figuring out what they wanted to do, and the Redbox was more or less out of business. So, in the space of three years, we've seen two complete destructions of what, during their time, were actually really quite innovative ideas. The idea of renting movies was, during our young adulthood, a fairly new thing because VHS was new and DVD was new and to be able to go to a place and rent one was a nice way to spend a weekend. And then it became much more convenient to go to the gas station to get that same DVD from a box. And then it became much more convenient to stay home and just watch it on TV and, as the kids say, "Netflix and chill." So, my point here is that with every innovation that we all agree is so great, there is a group of people or organizations that very often will feel the fallout from that innovation. And it's up to them how they react to that, but there can be little question that innovation is very disruptive. And I know that one of your favorite business thinkers and education thinkers is Clayton Christensen, and he had a lot to say about that.

Wyatt: Right. He popularized the term "disruptive innovation" in his book, The Innovator's Dilemma. What you see happening is, is that organizations, this is an interesting thing for higher education, because…and he's the co-author on the book about The Disruptive University.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: I listened to him give a presentation once where he said that higher education cannot innovate itself. It cannot fix itself or however he…whatever the words…

Meredith: From the inside out.

Wyatt: From the inside out.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: That it takes an outside organization to force innovation. We're just so steeped in tradition, and everybody has been doing similar things for a very long time. And if you look at…part of what he said was, and you can see examples of this but, like the American—I'm not an expert on this—American car manufacturing.

Meredith: Oh, OK.

Wyatt: But I think what happened is, is that you've got the American automobile companies that see these cheap, foreign cars starting to be produced, and they say, "I don't really care about those guys. They're producing low-quality stuff, let them sell low-quality. We're more interested in the big, fancy, fast cars." And this is what Clayton Christensen talked about is, is that you have established organizations, someone comes in at the bottom of the market, the established organizations say, "You can have it. We would much prefer sell the higher dollar items to the more sophisticated buyers. That's where the profits are, that's where the status is. So, Datsun, if you want to go ahead and sell that kind of crap, go ahead." And then these companies that come in at the bottom of the market, they just slowly move up until they dominate. And the American automobile companies couldn't reinvent themselves.


Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: It took some of these companies from Japan and elsewhere to force them and put them on a new path. And he predicted that higher education would not be able to be innovative.

Meredith: So, I'm interested with that analogy, because what happened was sort of a two pronged thing. Not only was there Honda and Datsun and Mazda that came over and began selling inexpensive cars, Subaru, other companies…but what happened to really move the needle for American consumers was when gasoline prices spiked as a result of the unrest in the Middle East and the OPEC oil crisis. So, there was this group of companies that had been making fuel efficient cars that Americans, I think, had largely been ignoring. And then all of the sudden, it made great sense to buy a fuel efficient car rather than a 6 mile to the gallon car from Detroit. And the same thing, I think, that same two prong thing is a little bit what we face in higher education right now. There are outside forces and we've named them in previous podcasts, but COVID-19 has actually given us a giant shove forward, it's that second thing that has forced us to…

Wyatt: Right.

Meredith: Really come to grips with the way that we deliver…I mean, literally, the way we do everything we do virtually.

Wyatt: Yeah, and there's a wonderful example of this in higher education. If you look at what was the reaction that General Motors had to Datsun? It's like, "I know this is low class, low quality stuff." It's the exact same reaction that American universities had to organizations like the University of Phoenix. "Low class, low quality kind of stuff." But then a lot of big, prestigious universities have been hiring all those people away from the University of Phoenix.

Meredith: Right.


Wyatt: To help do the same thing, because somebody woke up and as you said, the accelerator in COVID-19 is that, "Wow, did anybody notice that there's more than 36 million Americans who started college but didn't finish? And who can't leave their jobs or leave their small towns or wherever they are and go to school?" There's 36 million that…many of whom would benefit from a college degree and we're not offering anything to help them. Until along come some disruptors. And now I think it's fair to say probably…I don't know what the number is, but almost every single university is offering some degree or another online.

Meredith: Yes.


Wyatt: Including Harvard. And I…anyway, it's really quite fascinating to see how it is. But that's Clayton Christensen, he was a professor of management of Harvard University who happened to die earlier this year in January.

Meredith: Yeah, that's right.

Wyatt: He was going to be on our show.

Meredith: He was.

Wyatt: But then his health deteriorated and it just didn't happen. But we would have had him on our show a year ago.

Meredith: Yeah, it was…we were both looking forward to that and I'm sorry he wasn't able to join us obviously.

Wyatt: Some of the innovation is difficult for the culture, you know? It's just difficult. "That's not who we want to be, we don't want to be like that, so we're going to resist this disruption that's coming our way." That's one of the challenges. Another one is it's just hard to do.

Meredith: IT is hard to do.

Wyatt: And Plato opened up the first university—I don't know if you could call it a university or not, but I'm calling it one—Plato's Academy.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: In…let's see, Socrates died 399 B.C. and Plato took over, started Plato's Academy, then Aristotle started his Lyceum in Athens. That was…in some ways, I think you could call those the birth of the university, and from then until now, it's been people showing up and speaking, teaching in-person. And when you've got 2400 years of momentum, it's actually kind of hard to see something different.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: But even Harvard is giving out online degrees.

Meredith: Yeah. [Both laugh] That's right.

Wyatt: That tells you how significant of an innovation it was that even Harvard is giving out these degrees. But here's…so, part of what we're going to talk about this year is the difficulties of innovation and if you look at the private sector, we had…last year, we had a couple of pretty neat innovators on our show.

Meredith: Right. Rich Christiansen and Allen Hall.

Wyatt: Very successful entrepreneurs, good friends, but we're talking about innovation within the public sector. It's very different. And there are some ways that it's easier to be entrepreneurial in the public sector and there are some ways where it's much more difficult. So, one of the ways that it's easier is that public employees have a salary, and if they're innovative, they're innovating with someone else's money.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: Now, sometimes entrepreneurs are doing it with other peoples' money too.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But at the end of the day, Steve, if you and I try some creative thing and it's not successful, our paycheck is the same and we go home and everything stays the same. As long as we haven't broken any laws, we still have our jobs. And the culture that we live in is a culture where we encourage innovation, so nobody gets punished for failing. It's like, "Good try, good try."

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But you still get groceries. [Laughs] So, in the private sector, you're at risk. Great personal risk. That makes it really hard.

Meredith: And whether it's your money or venture capital from someone else, there is risk of not getting groceries.

Wyatt: Yeah. My dad was a researcher and was doing a lot of grants and he always felt that he was one failure away from unemployment, even though he was a college professor. Because it was the grants that covered his salary and his programs and he just always felt that…so, we're talking about some generalizations here. But he had migraines and stressed and would work every night late to try to make sure that he was successful in some of these big projects. So, there is stress and there is worries if you're being creative and entrepreneurial in the public sector, but it's a little bit less worry I think.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Than the private. That's one thing. Another thing is that in the public sector, there are really no rewards. You propose change of any form and there's typically not much in the way of a reward. If you're kind of in an entry-level position and moving up and you do something really creative, you know that you're going to irritate somebody and you're going to make somebody happen. So, as long as the right person is happy and the right person is irritated, then you might get a promotion.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But we don't pay bonuses.

Meredith: Nope. There's no year-end bonuses.

Wyatt: We don't give salary increases for people that are creative, we don't give a bonus to anybody like that. But as you move up the ladder and get to the top, so you're at the point where you can be the most creative and influence change the most, it seems like in the public sector, that you also tend to irritate more people. And, as we say in politics, "Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate."

Meredith: [Laughs]

Wyatt: And so, you…my experience has been that the higher up in the ladder someone goes, the more likely they are to resist change, be very conservative and careful, because it's almost as if the goal becomes keeping that job.

Meredith: Right. Well, for…

Wyatt: How's that for [inaudible]?

Meredith: Yeah, no, you and I have had that conversation before that working with you is much more like working in the private sector, in that you are willing to take on much greater risk than others of your same type in my experience.

Wyatt: Well, we've…both you and I have been in the public sector for quite a while.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: You longer than me. Actually, not necessarily.

Meredith: Yeah, we both have been in and around the private sector too.

Wyatt: Yeah, I was totally in the private sector for nine years and public for the rest. But I've sure seen a lot of people in the public sector who resist change simply because they're trying to keep it safe.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: And certainly in politics, it's hard to be very, very creative and innovative because every time you do something, it upsets somebody.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: There's no way you can make a change without somebody being disrupted. And the more change you do, the more peoples' lives have been affected, and the more that happens, the more people there are to challenge you or to try to vote you out of office or whatever it might be.

Meredith: Right, right.

Wyatt: But anyway, that's the practical realities. The practical realities of innovation in the public sector is—in higher education or in government—is extra hard because you either are running for office or you're at an at-will position without job security and every innovation is frustrating for somebody. Every single one. I was talking to somebody the other day about this and…it's just interesting. I think everything we do in the sense of making change creates winners and losers within your organization.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And so, the momentum is always against change. So, when you don't have incentives like bonuses…

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: It's easier to innovate in the private sector. That's the bottom line. The bottom line is we're going to be talking about public sector innovation this year—the good, the bad, the challenges, what's gone well, and overlaid in all of that is we're talking about public sector innovation, and I think that's where it's the most difficult.

Meredith: I agree. And you and I have been on both sides of that. [Both laugh] So, we have some personal experience with both the ups and the downs, right?

Wyatt: That's right. And we're old enough we can talk about some of the downs.


Meredith: Yep, yep.

Wyatt: But we both have a few singed hairs.

Meredith: For sure. [Both laugh] Well, that's going to be fun. I'm really looking forward to this year, President. And we'll be back, for our listeners who are tuning in, we're going to be back for our regular Monday release schedule. We're also this year going to have, we think, some live podcasts that will take place as both podcasts and campus forums on various topics of importance. We think one will be a COVID related one with our director of health from down here, but we also think that we'll have some stimulating discussions about free speech and some other things that will…where we'll actually invite live input from people in, if not a studio audience then a virtual-studio audience.

Wyatt: Yeah. How do we create a diverse and inclusive campus while allowing first amendment rights? How do we do those kinds of things?

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: We've got some fun topics over the course of the year and we'll see how we can weave those in.

Meredith: So, our regular Monday podcasts will be about innovation highs and lows and we'll have some special topics that we'll insert periodically along the way that seem to be…that are clear and presently need to be discussed. And then we'll also have somewhere in here a hundredth podcast episode where we invite our listeners to tell us what their favorite episodes from the past have been and we'll play a few clips from those things. It's hard to believe that we're sneaking up on 100 episodes, but we are. So, anyway, it's going to be a really fun year.

Wyatt: Yeah, and let's say this. As we've scheduled this out, we don't have complete control over everything that we're doing because some of it we're hoping to get help from others that would be able to speak better…

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: More direction at some of these things than us. But if there's a particular innovation that any of our listeners would like, please send it in to us. Let us know.

Meredith: Yep. In fact, we always love to hear from our listeners and our listener base is actually I think maybe larger than some people would think. It's not just your wife and mine. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Your wife is still listening? [Laughs]

Meredith: She is, every morning as she exercises.

Wyatt : My email is wyatt@suu.edu. If you have a topic that you wish that we would weave into this year, send it to us. Or you can send it to Steve.

Meredith: You can. I'm stevenmeredith@suu.edu. Steven with a "V." Anyway, we always, always look forward to hearing from our listeners. So, that's the year. That's what's coming up and this will conclude this episode, which is our introductory episode for the '20-'21 academic year. President, thanks for the stimulating conversation, and this should be a blast.

Wyatt: this will be fun. And I do want to add something because pieces of this, as we have described it, are less than encouraging. There are real difficult challenges to innovating in higher education or education generally, the public sector generally. You and I have both had the opportunity to have our hair singed a couple of times…

Meredith: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Each. And we've both had the opportunity to do some things that we're just delighted with and have had the opportunity to work with some wonderful people. Most of the time those that resist change are wonderful people, but it's that paradigm, right? I mean, it sometimes is just hard to see the possibilities until you're forced to. I think that's what Clayton Christensen was saying was, is that when we're inside Blockbusters, we can't see that Netflix is coming.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: We just don't see it. We listen to our friends…we don't see it. So, it's all good intentioned, good people, but sometimes that forms the greatest resistance to change.

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 hope that you've enjoyed listening to this introductory podcast and we hope you enjoy listening to the rest of them that are coming up. Thanks so much, we'll see you again soon. Bye bye.