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Creative Competition

How to infuse creativity in faculty and liberal arts institutions
University Business, May 2009

As we look across the landscape of private liberal arts education in the United States, we understand that change comes slowly. Recently there have been a spate of writings about the need to develop more creativity in the graduates of our colleges, and in the faculty and the way they teach at those smaller institutions. Howard Gardner of Harvard writes about the five minds necessary for the future; one of them is “the creative mind.”

How does a liberal arts institution develop a faculty that is capable of imbuing its students with creativity? How does a liberal arts institution provide the environment that allows that creativity to emerge that is inherent in each of us?

In recent discussions we have uncovered a belief in that the United States will not be able to out-teach India and China in the areas of “content.” The graduates of institutions in India and China, many believe, will be more skilled at the content of the calculus, basic mechanical engineering, or foreign languages. If Americans are to compete with the large numbers of graduates beginning to emerge from institutions of higher learning in those countries, then America must develop more creativity in its population so that we can “out create” those who are skilled in content but have not had the freedom to explore alternative ways of thinking.

When I visit liberal arts campuses, it is obvious that the faculty ranges from young to old but the students are more adept at technology and will always feel superior to even a 28- or 30-year-old faculty member in the uses of the technologies. How does an institution with a number of 40, 50 and 60-year-old faculty members develop the creativity in them, and the desire in them, to learn how to teach with new technologies or how to bring project-based learning to the curriculum in meaningful ways? Many believe that the answer lies in more interdisciplinary cooperation.

Project Kaleidoscope and its sister, NITLE, under the dynamic leadership of Jeanne Narum, have brought interdisciplinary cooperation to the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) at many U.S. liberal arts institutions. PKAL has essentially remade the way we do undergraduate science in a matter of 15 years. NITLE is trying to do the same thing with uses of technology. Throughout the Project Kaleidoscope’s efforts is a stream of thinking associated with interdisciplinary cooperation among and between the sciences, mathematics and others.

It is time for a methodology to emerge that allows any institution of higher learning to develop more creativity in its teaching and learning by following this simple idea.

Each president and vice president of academic affairs at an institution should go across the campus and find one large, high space--perhaps 1,500 square feet in size--to which technology and power can be brought with little effort. This space should be taken offline and become proprietary turf of the VPAA and the president. They will then solicit proposals from faculty who will write up how they would use the space, if were they to be given it, and a stipend for one semester. Our idea is that the president and the VPAA would receive faculty proposals and the space would be awarded for the best “idea” of how to use it for better teaching and learning and/or technology usage for one semester. The winning proposal would be awarded a bonus of $2,500 per participating faculty member and $12,000 to reconfigure the space for one semester. The $12,000 may be used to purchase furniture, technology, reconfigure smart boards and screens or whatever it takes to do what the space usage requires.

The proposals would be graded, or looked upon more favorably, by the president and the VPAA were they to be interdisciplinary. What if very different departments could join together to teach in the space for a semester? This competition should generate many new ideas across the campus for creative inquiry that is not now evident in middle aged faculty at institutions slow to change. Think of the excitement that could be generated by having something very unusual happening.

Not everyone can afford the Teal Lab at MIT, and this suggestion will cost the institution some up front infrastructure money, although that would be minimal, to bring power and technology to the edges of the space. Thereafter, it would cost the institution $12,000 per semester plus the bonuses to the participating faculty; essentially one tuition for each new idea. After the space has been in use for a while and different ideas have been tried, those methodologies can be disseminated to improve all teaching across the campus.

What if a sculptor and a mathematician got together? What if a mechanical engineering group and an English professor got together? What if a political scientist, a biologist, and a philosopher got together? All kinds of opportunities might emerge that would allow them to develop creative minds through inquiry-based learning. Look at what the University of Sussex calls its “InQbate” space at The Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Creativity as shown on its website at What of the Cayman Islands building, all new high schools full of Da Vinci Studios where art, science, social studies and engineering, will be explored simultaneously in one space? What kind of experience will the project teams working on each of those projects have by being exposed to students working on something very different only a few feet away? Let our liberal arts institutions explore more forcefully the need for interdisciplinary cooperation by offering incentives to staid faculty members to do something creatively. The results will be surprising.

Thomas C. Celli, AIA, is president of Celli-Flynn Brennan Architects and Planners in Pittsburgh, which specializes in architecture and campus and strategic planning for college and universities. The firm’s TotalSphere planning process addresses a wide range of issues across college and university needs.