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Making Radical Change a Reality

10 Tips for Implementing Curricular Innovation
University Business, Dec 2008

Major curricular change?and the internal cultural shift required for such change to occur within higher education?is not easy. Over the past two years, the Villanova School of Business (VSB) has worked to reinvent its undergraduate program. The school has successfully achieved this objective, and now, in the fall of 2008, a bold new curriculum has been introduced to first-year students. The VSB community has learned a great deal from this experience, and still has much to learn as the new curriculum evolves.

The highlights of VSB’s two-year curricular innovation process are captured below, in the form of 10 tips for institutions that may be considering a curricular redesign at this time.

Dramatic curricular change is easier if timed to occur at a point of exceptionally positive momentum in your school’s history on the non-curricular side. Examples of such a point include:

-a new building or other major facilities improvement;

-a major gift to the school or a marked increase in financial giving;

-new leadership at the school; or

-a sharp increase in public recognition, e.g., through rankings or media coverage.

Such momentum leads to positive cultural energy and excitement. Such an environment can foster a collective attitude that deeper, larger-scale changes are both possible and desirable.

Identifying your school’s strategic priorities in a vision statement?and communicating this vision statement clearly and repeatedly so that everyone in the community truly owns it?underscores the importance of investing in these priorities. It also provides a larger strategic context for curricular change. There is almost no incentive for implementing curricular change simply for change’s sake. However, when such change is part of a larger strategic objective?and leads directly to the long-term well-being of the school and its students?then there is a very real impetus to get it done.

VSB established a vision to “be a globally-recognized, premier business school, and to leverage its strong undergraduate program and multi-dimensional faculty to achieve as such.” This vision provided focus to the community’s curricular innovation efforts. It highlighted the importance of investing resources and energy into a flagship program and established the importance of faculty within those efforts.

Even in the midst of dramatic curricular innovation, your school is defined and anchored by its fundamental tradition and culture. These differentiating attributes are likely to be, in large part, the very reason that your students, alumni, faculty, and staff were attracted to the school in the first place. If the nature and content of curricular changes?and the process by which they occur?reflect the distinguishing characteristics of your school, then they are much more likely to succeed.

For example, the Augustinian culture at VSB has always been one in which personalized education and holistic development of students?intellectually, personally, and professionally?is the highest priority. Respect for this cultural tenet was critical in making the case for dramatic curricular changes. Once VSB faculty members were convinced that such changes would lead to higher educational quality for their students, their support was easier to obtain.

Curricular innovation should provide new opportunities to faculty members with genuinely diverse strengths, interests, research areas, backgrounds, and priorities, and such faculty should be empowered to make curricular changes and to vet these changes with the faculty at large. Through faculty empowerment and self-regulation, turf battles tend to be resolved, mostly through trade-offs. Innovation can thereby create a scholarly work environment that is more energizing for faculty, which in turn can create an academic experience that is more energizing for students. Since faculty is the primary source of imagination and planning behind your school’s educational offerings, they should be the primary owners of the innovation process.

At VSB, the establishment of different committees allowed a range of faculty to be engaged in creative planning and decision-making. Before its implementation, all VSB faculty members were invited to participate in open discussions about the recommended curriculum. Lastly, as dean, I provided guidance and made final decisions as appropriate?but I refrained from participation on the curricular innovation committees.

The overall college experience of students is just as heavily influenced by non-academic factors as it is by academic ones. Therefore, your school’s most talented administrators who work directly with students should be an integral part of curricular innovation. Enthusiastic high-level administrators should own the change process side by side with their faculty colleagues to ensure that corresponding student services and operations are in alignment with the curriculum.

VSB is fortunate to have an exceptional associate dean of undergraduate programs, who was an instrumental part of the school’s curricular changes and their implementation. She was also integral to the planning process with respect to the impact of the new curriculum on VSB’s student services, operations, staffing, admissions, and registration processes.

Non-curricular changes?especially organizational ones?could present outstanding opportunities for your school to strengthen its curricular innovation process.

At VSB, for example, in tandem with curricular change, the community undertook faculty reorganization consistent with the school’s strategic vision. A task force set out to identify new approaches for structuring VSB faculty that would enhance efforts across research, teaching, and innovative approaches to business education. Its goal was to provide faculty with new opportunities through cross-disciplinary collaboration, course creativity, fresh research streams, and freedom from traditional academic silos. The result of the group’s work was the establishment of four new interdisciplinary clusters of faculty activity to support collaboration, called VSB Strategic Initiative Groups (SIGs): Analytics, Business Innovation, Financial Services, and Corporate Social Responsibility. Since the establishment of the SIGs, nearly one-third of VSB faculty members have become affiliated with one?thereby adopting the same cross-disciplinary approach infused into the new curriculum. The SIGs have become a key source of new ideas?incubators of sorts?that generate a variety of course concepts and pedagogical approaches.

Talk with your school’s faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, and corporate recruiters and ask for their thoughts on curricular strengths and weaknesses. Where does your school fall short? What areas could you strengthen to fulfill your school’s educational charge and role in society more effectively? How does your school’s culture need to shift so that the community may recognize these areas and decide to collectively address them?

After completing this listening and research process, VSB identified four learning areas to be addressed at a higher level through the new curriculum: a global mindset, innovation, ethics, and technology. In addition, VSB determined that it needed to strengthen its technology, mathematics, and analytics offerings even more, and that these topics would need to become increasingly rigorous to prepare VSB graduates to successfully compete for jobs.

Many people are surprisingly willing to change, especially faculty who are genuinely empowered to utilize their skills to make their school a better place. Furthermore, many people get excited about actively moving the curriculum forward, and are willing to work out compromises in exchange for having that opportunity. Finally, as described in Tip #2, many people are highly motivated to make curricular improvements within a larger strategic context. Just as there is often a top 15-to-20-percent group of people at every school who are consistently willing to step up to the plate?through service, teaching, and research?there is often a group of people, usually around 10 to 15 percent, who are unwilling to change for the wrong reasons. It is important to not let this group derail your school’s efforts to make positive change. Some members of this group will leave, some will make waves, but one thing is certain: when the majority of community members is working to make positive change happen?and is being trusted and financially supported to do so by the school’s leaders?then the impact of the naysayers is minimal.

Nothing will bring a lively discussion about big-picture, blue-sky, strategic, curricular innovation to a halt more quickly than a detailed discussion about course numbers, credit hours, and the registrar’s policies and procedures at your school. Although these details are undoubtedly important, they should play a minimal role in initial discussions about creative change. The faculty members working on curricular innovation must be committed to keeping their initial discussions “out of the weeds” and focused on entrepreneurial thinking and high-level brainstorming. There will be plenty of time for logistics later in the process, but these logistics have no place in the generation of imaginative, cutting-edge curricula.

Curricular change generates a great deal of excitement. Sharing frequent news about such change presents an excellent opportunity to engage your school’s stakeholders?including students, parents, and alumni?in the innovation process. It also provides school leaders with an opportunity to highlight the great work of faculty and staff members, and to express genuine gratitude to them for having the dedication and courage to make radical change a reality.

James Danko is dean of the Villanova School of Business (VSB). Prior to his Villanova deanship, Danko held leadership positions at some of the most prestigious b-schools in the United States, including Michigan, UNC-Chapel Hill, Babson, and the Tuck School at Dartmouth. He regularly publishes articles on business school strategy and leadership issues, and works with industry organizations on initiatives to advance management education and practice worldwide.

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