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Building ‘very low walls’ leads to higher ed innovation

Elon University’s president explains how to foster a culture of “of positive restlessness”
University Business, February 2016
Elon University President Leo Lambert will deliver the opening keynote at UBTech 2016 in Las Vegas in June.
Elon University President Leo Lambert will deliver the opening keynote at UBTech 2016 in Las Vegas in June.

Innovation is a word with many connotations. For some, it suggests technological advancement, while for others it is discovering new approaches to old problems.

For Elon University President Leo Lambert, it is a continual push for improvement, both institutionally and professionally. To be effective, Lambert says innovation has to become part of the fabric of the institution, supported and nourished by everyone.

Under Lambert’s leadership, Elon has built a national reputation for academic excellence across the curriculum, and for its innovative programs in undergraduate research, leadership, civic engagement and more.

He has written extensively about post-secondary education and is co-author of a new book, The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most, to be published by Jossey-Bass this year. As the opening keynote speaker at UBTech 2016 in Las Vegas, Lambert will discuss the importance of shared vision and collaboration in building a culture of innovation.

Define what a culture of innovation means to you.

It’s a lot of things. It’s an environment where people feel free to take calculated risks and to experiment. To borrow a phrase, it’s about having a culture of positive restlessness. It’s about always wanting to keep moving the institution forward so it is stronger on every front.

And it’s about deciding to be bold. We have long-term goals for the entire university to work toward—large-scale innovations and improvements to an institution that are culture changing.

At the heart of it, it’s about resisting the idea that “I’m satisfied about where we are right now and don’t really see the need to move beyond that.”

How is that expressed at Elon?

We are a planning-centered community. Our strategic plan guides the university for a decade, which admittedly is a long timeframe to plan for.

But some of the goals that we have set for institution do take a very long time to accomplish, because they are complicated and multifaceted. For example, one basic commitment to excellence in the arts and sciences that the university made in our last strategic plan was to shelter a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

As you know, Phi Beta Kappa chapters are found in only the top 8 percent of liberal arts universities in the U.S. They are awarded after a very serious examination of the quality of the arts and sciences program on a particular campus.

But when Phi Beta Kappa visits your institution and reviews your application, they are looking at hundreds of different indicators of quality—the quality of the collections in your library, the quality of your honors program, the depth of your foreign language program, the institution’s commitment to tenure and to supporting faculty in scholarly work.

Elon, like many institutions across the country, doesn’t have a bazillion dollars to just accomplish all these initiatives at one time. But over a decade, with sustained focus on making strategic resource and technology investments in the arts and sciences, we were successful in sheltering a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 2010.

So, part of the secret to success here is not just planning, but also the execution of plans. I know many colleges and universities engage in strategic planning, but too often those plans are put in a drawer or are never funded, so they never go anywhere. If you’re going to foster a culture of innovation, it is imperative that you build a sense of trust on campus.

How do you create a sense of trust?

People need to be assured that, if they’re going to start out doing hard work and take on new ambitious programs for the institution, there is going to be follow-through and resources available over a sustained period to do important things that will improve the institution.

Another part of fostering a culture of innovation is about being aware of the work that is taking place on other campuses, and actively exploring how those ideas can be applicable to your institutional environment. But it’s not about blatantly copying ideas—because what fits in one institutional context seldom fits unaltered in another institutional context.

We have labs on campus that are about supporting innovative work. Our Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning serves as a catalyst for effective teaching and engaged learning. U.S. News and World Report ranked us No. 1 as “Most Innovative School,” as well as noted our commitment to undergraduate teaching.

Those are byproducts of places like the teaching center that advance innovative ideas by investing heavily in faculty development and cutting-edge teaching and learning practice.

Having these kinds of labs on your campus that are staffed with talented people is tremendously important. Faculty get emails from the center about workshops they can attend and incentive grants they can apply for.

That kind of stimulus is very important to a culture of innovation.

When we talk about a culture of anything, so much is dependent on the mindset of the people involved. How do you develop that at Elon?

One key is communication. On our campus you’ll find a strong commitment to mission. Our people know who we are and what we want to accomplish. They know what the reward system is and what our values are.

Another plus is that we have hired a young faculty. We had the unusual experience of being able to hire a workforce that was really attracted in part by the idea of doing something differently. They wanted to be part of the experience of building a university that was not finished and that had strong ambitions. That’s a very exciting culture for anyone to be part of.

I’ve spoken with colleagues at other institutions where the ethos is more staid and more risk-averse. They say, “We’ve always done it this way,” or “We tried that once and it didn’t work.”

We have been able to keep our faculty in a very experimental place and we encourage them to try new things. We encourage them to interpret the good work of others in a way that would make sense on our campus—by putting unique twists on other people’s ideas.

You can’t take your eye off that culture because it can change very quickly, so we are always thinking about how we can nourish it and support it.

What roadblocks did you have to overcome to encourage this culture?

I wouldn’t call them roadblocks, but I would describe them as tensions.

For example, one of our goals was to have all our professional schools hold the highest accreditation in their respective fields. So, one of the tensions is that, as you begin to focus on excellence in particular areas of the university—whether it is law, business, communications or the arts and sciences—you don’t want to lose the sense of the whole university.

You want to resist the idea that any one school becomes an island unto itself. The tension is in asking how we can keep this as a place of “very low walls,” as we put it, so the arts and sciences faculty and the business faculty see themselves as part of a common enterprise.

They aren’t a loose confederation of fiefdoms that barely talk to one another. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of universities have become. We work very hard to promote a sense of overall institutional well-being.

Part of that is in our commitment to a universitywide general education program. It doesn’t matter if you are a business major or communications or arts and sciences; you still take the Elon Core Curriculum.

And we encourage faculty from all over the university to teach some of these core courses. It’s one of the things that bind us together and it’s a very important part of our institutional identity.

That shared responsibility makes a difference?

Yes. Sometimes, very little things matter a lot. For example, when our provost was the dean of arts and sciences, he began a tradition where, after the weekly provost council meeting, the deans go out to lunch together. There’s no agenda, but they talk and they build relationships and they find common areas where they can maybe work together.

Part of our success is in that cultivation of personal relationships, even as we grow. We used to be a small college, but now we’ve become a midsize university. Yet we actively try to maintain the culture and intimacy of a small liberal arts college. That intimacy and those personal relationships are really the keys to fostering a culture of innovation.

People from different departments and different disciplines can approach one another and say, “Hey, do you want to work together on this?” That’s only possible if people have personal relationships on which they can build.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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