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White House: Innovation in Higher Education

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to the White House. The invitation was somewhat cryptic, but basically stated that the focus on the meeting was on quality and innovation. This invite was then followed a week later with a link to a post by Ted Mitchell, Undersecretary of Education, on Innovation and Quality in Higher Education, to help prepare for the conversation.

The event organizers made it clear that no media or social media was allowed during the event in order to have an open brainstorming session. My thoughts below are suitably vague so as to not identify who else was there and the specifics of the meeting. Instead, my comments are more about my personal reactions to the conversation without going into details about who said what specifically. (I was worried that the trip would have to be cancelled as I managed to get food poisoning a few days prior to the event, but fortunately, things worked out).

1. The White House is secure. As a “foreign national” it took me over two hours to clear three layers of security, was provided a special pink badge to identify me as a foreign national and was required to navigate only with an escort (including restroom visits and ultimately WH departure). I’m baffled how people manage to jump the White House fence. I felt watched over with lovingkindness.

2. Higher education generally has no clue about what’s brewing in the marketplace as a whole. The change pressures that exist now are not ones that the existing higher education model can ignore. The trends – competency-based learning, unbundling, startups & capital inflow, new pedagogical models, technology, etc – will change higher education dramatically.

3. No one knows what HE is becoming. Forget the think tanks and the consultants and the keynote speakers. No one knows how these trends will track or what the university will look like in the future. This unknowability stems from HE being a complex systems with many interacting elements. We can’t yet see how these will connect and inter-relate going forward. The best strategy in a time of uncertainty is not to seek or force the way forward, but to enter a cycle of experimentation. The Cynefin Framework provides the best guidance that I’ve seen on how to function in our current context.

4. I was struck by how antagonistic some for-profits are toward public higher education. I sat in one session where a startup spent much of the time expressing intense dislike for higher education in today’s form “my tax dollars are going to bad actors”, ironically to be followed up with “I loved my time in university. It shaped me and made me”. It reminds me of Peter Thiel’s drop out of school and start a company. But what does Thiel expect when his money and his life is at stake? He expects, for his hedge fund: “High GPA from top-tier university; preferably in computer science, mathematics, statistics, econometrics, physics, engineering or other highly quantitative”. I’m worried that the future will have an education system where the wealthy continue to receive high quality education on campuses, but the poor receive some second-tier alternative system that prepares them mainly to work but not to be change agents in the world. This gets at the heart of a challenge in higher education. HE is a system that is deeply embedded in societal realities, including equity and justice. It’s not an ROI equation. It’s a quality of life equation. A startup or corporate entity has a primary purpose of doing what makes sense economically. It’s their job. But it conflicts with the most dominant needs of our society today: how to educate individuals from low socio-economic status. The bottom income quartile of society has seen zero increase in degree completion over the past 50 years. Any meaningful redesign of higher education, for the benefit of individuals and society broadly, has to be primarily focused on helping to move this population toward success.

5. Title IV is the kingmaker. This is the alpha agent in change. Title IV drives federal student aid in the US. Systems that are included have access to students aid funding. Those that are not included (say a bootcamp startup) do not have access. As Title IV funding changes, so will US education. I heard several pushes for voucher systems (i.e. fund the student directly and they decide what to do with the dollars). This is the main space to watch in identifying which innovations will have legs and which ones will fail to get traction.

6. Expect a future of universities being more things to more people. A future of broadening scope regionally and of greater engagement in the lives of individuals. I addressed this toward the end of this presentation, starting slide 28. Higher Education is moving from a 4 year relationship to students to a 40 year relationship

7. Expect a future of far greater corporate involvement in HE. VC funds are flowing aggressively and these funders are also targeting policy change at local, state, and national levels. We aren’t used to this level of lobbying and faculty is unprepared to respond to this. Expect it. Your next faculty meeting will involve a new student success system, a personalized learning system, an analytics system, a new integrated bootcamp model, new competency software, new cloud-based computing systems, and so on. Expect it. It’s coming.

8. Expect M & A activities in higher education. I fully anticipate some combination of partnering with companies like General Assembly, creation of in-house bootcamps, or outright acquisitions by innovative universities.

9. The scope of change is starting to settle somewhat in HE. It’s a more comprehensible landscape than it was a few years ago. We’ve had our MOOC hype moment. The system of universities globally withstood the assault (remember when this was a legitimate conference topic??). Not only that, it was discovered that MOOCs are exceptional for those on campus. Similarly, some solidification of innovative teaching and learning practices is happening and it’s making it a bit easier for leaders to respond. As stated previously, this doesn’t mean that we know what HE will look like in the future, but it does provide a firmer foundation for planning for leaders. Any university that doesn’t yet have some department or committee focused on “responding systemically to innovations and change pressures” is missing an important opportunity.

10. Higher education is a great integrator and subsumer. I fully expect a future of more, not less universities globally. They play too significant a regional and local economic and identity role for regions to not expect a university in their backyard. Look how hard it has been to kill Sweet Briar. The clock is ticking on the nonsense of Drucker and Christensen’s statements about 50% campus closures. We are entering the golden age of learning. Why would we kill our universities?

11. I was stunned and disappointed at the lack of focus on data, analytics, and evidence. In spite of the data available, decision making is still happening on rhetoric. We don’t understand the higher education market analytically – i.e. scope, fund flows, student flows, policy directives, long term impact, – well nationally and internationally. I want to hold both universities and corporate sectors to accountability in their claims of impact. We can’t do that without a far better data infrastructure and greater analytics focus.

12. I’m getting exceptionally irritated with the narrative of higher education is broken and universities haven’t changed. This is one of the most inaccurate pieces of @#%$ floating around in the “disrupt and transform” learning crowd. Universities are exceptional at innovating and changing. Explore any campus today. It’s a new world on most campuses, never mind the online, competency, and related systems. And if your slide deck includes an image of desks and argues that nothing has changed, you’re being dishonest and disingenuous. Repent. Healing is possible for you, but first you must see the falseness of your words.


  1. Love these reflections. Especially the point about that fact that universities aren’t “broken.” True there’s a lot going on in the world of tech. But universities have always been phenomenal mixing bowls of ideas and genuine innovation — and will continue to be so!

    Monday, August 3, 2015 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Hi George,
    Really interesting post. Some brief comments below.

    1. I’m glad you were looked after so well.

    2. Agreed.

    3. Agreed.

    4. Some people that are not for-profit are also antagonistic to HE having been chewed up and spat out by an increasingly corporate university system.

    5. Can’t comment.

    6. I think we’ve got that already.

    7. Hope you are wrong :)

    8. Also expect more semi-autonomous Uni divisions focused on flexible delivery.

    9. Agreed.

    10. Totally agree.See 12 below.

    11. Not just from policy makers but from administrators also.

    12. There is a lot of innovation happening but I still think HE struggles desperately to mainstream those innovations. In Australia our universities are too large. We need more, smaller, more agile universities.



    Monday, August 3, 2015 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  3. I will add that given how much more someone now has to learn beyond a college degree and for the rest of their lives, that focus on improving continuing education is becoming as important as the focus on HE. As I talk to users on our app and others, I am amazed to find how much time is being spent on continuing learning. I believe the quality/relevance aspect of continuing ed will be addressed by the market, however there are significant other gaps including LMSs that cater to this audience, micro-credentials that make sense of all that one has learnt, and a sort of learning store that accumulates what a user has learnt and builds guidance on top of that.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2015 at 12:05 am | Permalink
  4. Warren Apel wrote:

    Absolutely agreed! Too many edtech startups are creating solutions for the problems that they *remember* from back when they were in school, rather than investigating the actual issues that teachers and students face. The system isn’t broken, but there are plenty of improvements to be made. I love your point about data. Schools collect tons of data, but the tools to analyze it haven’t been developed as well as they have in the corporate sector.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2015 at 5:05 am | Permalink
  5. dkernohan wrote:

    Regarding point 12, education appears to be becoming less broken over time ( ). I think that’s a piece of rhetoric that is no longer working as well as it used to.

    “Education is broken” is broken. (somebody should do something)…

    Tuesday, August 4, 2015 at 7:13 am | Permalink
  6. Kelvin Bentley wrote:

    Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts on important topics such as these. My hope is that we can do more to measure higher education’s impact. I do think HE is not broken but it has not done the best job of advocating for itself that it is not a complete black box. We must do more to track our progress and to move in new directions in our use of new pedagogical modesl and edtech technologies and then we need to assess their effectiveness in helping our students obtain the KSA’s needed in our workforce. Yes, preaching to the choir here given your vast knowledge on the subject but what will be our tipping point? The clock is ticking and it’s time we time we start planning to demonstrate we are not entirely tone deaf to change. Hope to see you at UTA for lunch one day this fall given I work for Tarrant CC now ;)

    Tuesday, August 4, 2015 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  7. I think that every higher education leader should read this article and reflect on the points that you raise… but keeping in mind that #3 applies to all of us (just ask Drucker & Christiansen), take each “expect a future” remark with a grain of salt.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2015 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  8. Larry Ragan wrote:

    Thanks George for the reflections, as always, straightforward, insightful and honest. The one concern I have is the lumping of higher education into one big heap and treating it all the same. Not that you are suggesting this but I hear this over-generalization a lot. The changes coming, and those that have arrived, will impact different types of institutions in multiple ways. Higher education, as a field of practice, may be somewhat standardized in some aspects but the mission, culture and context of each institution creates an opportunity for very individualized response. This also makes it very challenging for leadership to construct the “right” response to these forces.

    Working a bit in the leadership development part of our field I find it increasingly challenging for emerging leaders to determine what skills they need to function effectively in such a complex landscape. I guess that dynamic aspect also allows for many of us to “never have a dull day!”

    Wednesday, August 5, 2015 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  9. Scott Hamm wrote:

    Good read. But, what the draw to the conf. keynote if not to reveal the panacea of the next year or so…? The leafy stroll to the freshmen dorm persists, with numbers to boot, while the data suggests the shift of the non-traditional student. Rhetoric is marketable, sells, and fills seats at a conference, data, not so much. Your comment on being stunned was helpful as it keeps a seat at the table for data’s place.

    Thursday, August 6, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  10. Phil Hill wrote:

    Excellent points, and it’s great that you were invited (kudos to ED). While I agree with most of these points, I have a follow-up post about #12:

    The short story is that in my opinion Universities are exceptional at innovating, but they are not exceptional at changing.

    Thursday, August 6, 2015 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  11. Thomas Carey wrote:

    Re point 12, and following up on the comments from Mark and David: the appeal of the ‘disruptive innovation’ lens is indeed wearing out. I prefer John Mott’s use of the ‘scientific revolution’ lens: as we find anomalies where our current model falls short, we have to adapt new models (without throwing out what is working well in the current model).

    Monday, August 10, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  12. Patricia Brown wrote:

    Like Mark Smithers, I hope Mr. Siemens is wrong on #7 also. By definition and by history, a profit-oriented company cannot do higher education except as a job trainer or leisure provider (for profit). I work in an academic library, where downsizing and privatization of resources makes things worse for students and for faculty and for everyone else.

    Tuesday, August 11, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  13. Tim Carlin wrote:

    Could you provide some detail to support #12? I understand that there are initiatives of many types at all sorts of HE institutions. I’m struggling to understand what percentage of the overall Carnegie units are in something “innovative” versus something more traditional? 1%, 10%, 50%? Here’s a slightly dated but still relevant quote from Herb Simon:

    “The University of Paris was founded around the year 1200, when students prepared their own textbooks by copying their professors’ lectures. In spite of the invention of printing not too long thereafter, students still continued to behave in their classes as copyists – assiduously taking notes, recording the deathless words of professors as if they didn’t know printing had been invented and was available. I have heard that there are some universities where this happens even today.”

    Friday, August 14, 2015 at 3:32 pm | Permalink