Where’s the R&D in Higher Education?

A February 26 NY Times article that carried the title “Now Is No Time to Cut Research” starts out thus:

Steve A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, says hard times are no time to cut back spending on research and development.

The article goes off in other directions, eventually, but does make an important point: during economic slowdowns, some companies lose their taste for speculative projects, but they do so at their peril.

The current economic crisis is, I believe, sending us a message about fundamental changes in the way the world works. Yes, a lot of the crisis is due to faulty regulation and ill advised behavior on the part of players with very large footprints, but we need to be sure not to miss the signals that are buried in this thunderous noise. Those signals are about structural re-adjustments. We’ve been fond, for the past decade or two, of saying we are living in a new world. What we haven’t done, though, is a whole lot of rethinking of the institutions (higher ed, for example) that world depends on. The signals are there, but how will higher education listen?
Will higher education make the mistake of cutting back on R&D at just this critical moment when real innovation is called for?

The answer is easy: NO. Higher education can’t cut back on its R&D because it doesn’t have any.

Now, if you google “higher education and R&D” and variations thereon you will stumble across a few programs at schools of education (mostly focused on K12 pedagogy) and a number of references to research and development for industry that happens within universities. Of $324million in department of education budget under the heading “R&D,” 231 is for education sciences, 86 for special education, and 7 for post-secondary education. And the latter is down 12.5% from the year before (AAAS).

Nobody, I suspect, would argue with the claim that the new century demands new ideas and practices in higher education. But where in our system would you find the higher education innovators? Ours is a system pretty much designed to prevent any innovation at all from disturbing the status quo. What experimentation and invention does occur is, for the most part, the work of individual faculty members tweaking their courses or taking the initiative to invent new ones. Added to this are initiatives here and there to change the way a whole department offers its courses (see, for example, “At MIT, Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard“). But at the end of the day, ours is not an industry known for wowing the world with any “next big things.”

Even when we do get it in our minds to make changes, often as not it comes in the form of “curriculum reform” and the first thing we do is form a faculty committee. Just for a minute, imagine GM having a conversation with the White House:

WH: So, we expect you to be innovative, to adapt what you are doing to new realities…

GM: Righto. We have formed a faculty committee. Can we have the bailout money now?

WH: Fuhgettaboutit!! (to assistant offstage) Larry, get out the nationalization protocol!

At my own school, Mills College our mission statement says that the school “encourages openness to experimentation in the context of established academic disciplines.” But what does that mean? Is there any structural support for innovation? What’s the closest we have to an analog of the department at, say, GM that’s developing electric cars or the one at Google that’s working on new products? And if we don’t have a separate department, where’s the material or structural expression of that “encouragement” that would have faculty all over the college trying out new ideas?

It wouldn’t take a whole lot, I don’t think. Mostly, the faculty and administration need to build a procedural infrastructure that gives the faculty room to try new things and to set a tone that welcomes out of the box thinking. The latter is not simple – lots of administrators say “we want your ideas and input” and never get any. I’ll put forth some concrete suggestions in future posts.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com. I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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