Volume V, #3
Recent literature on predictive factors for success has focused heavily on perseverance and resilience – both wrapped up in the term “grit,” which could not be more in vogue. But I haven’t had to read the literature; I learned about it in college, as a keen observer of the great bathroom war of 1992.
Sophomore year, my friends lived across the hall from a suite of unhappy senior women. Why so glum? First, they picked the lowest card of all the seniors in the Calhoun College room draw and were relegated to a room more appropriate for sophomores. Second, and as a consequence, they were to share a bathroom with my friends. So on Day 1 the seniors made clear that the bathroom was theirs exclusively; my friends were expected to walk through the adjoining suite to the bathroom on the other side. That was the first shot in the bathroom war.
My friends fired back not only by using the bathroom, but by becoming energy efficiency zealots, particularly when it came to turning off the bathroom lights when one of the seniors was in the shower. The seniors complained to the Dean, and then the Master, who called my friends in to his office for a somber dressing down. A cold war ensued for a few months, but then became hot one afternoon when my friend Chris came bounding up the stairwell with a fresh, hot pizza, only to lose his balance and pizza as he reached the top of the stairs. As if in slow motion, we all watched the pie tumble out of its pristine box and land toppings-down on the landing that hadn’t been cleaned in months. (To this day, my friends refer to this as “the worst thing that ever happened.”) Naturally, the pizza was left on the ground, shunted to the side of the stairway, right in front of the bathroom.
A week later, one of the seniors, Mimi, complained bitterly about the pizza. Seeing a potential silver lining in “the worst thing that ever happened,” Chris told Mimi that roommate Dave was battling a nasty cough, but his father had been recently laid off and couldn’t afford penicillin. As a result, roommate Alex, a molecular biology and biochemistry major, was attempting to grow mold on the pizza to make penicillin for Dave. Mimi backed away, apologetic, until the next day when the seniors realized the story was too ridiculous to be true and promptly bagged and tossed all male toiletries. But my friends wouldn’t be cowed. That night we all went out for chicken wings and returned with a bucket of bones which – in a gutsy move that won the great bathroom war of 1992 – Chris arranged on the floor of the shower to spell “Hi Mimi.”
Grit is not only essential to surviving bathroom wars in college. It’s essential for colleges to survive.
For corporations, the best approach to managing through a period of rapid market change is to build a broad portfolio of breakout experiments, invest in winners and cast aside failures. But this is easier said than done at universities, where not only is
adherence to tradition a strong inertial force, but where institutions find themselves in a Catch-22. In seeking to develop a portfolio of breakout experiments, universities have two options:
1) Allow experiments to evolve organically from schools and departments; and
2) Launch experiments with institutional sanction and support.
The former approach is what most universities are doing today. Innovative programs and delivery models spout from various founts across the institution. But these homegrown experiments are uncoordinated and provide scant evidence of potential to achieve meaningful scale. As such, they provide little guidance to administrators charged with picking and investing in winners.
Ultimately universities will have to provide central sanction and support if these experiments are to emerge as viable strategies. So the latter approach is unavoidable. The problem is that, ironically, universities are singularly ill-suited to deal with failure. When an experiment with institutional sanction and support fails, the entire innovative superstructure is often jeopardized as a result of the pushback that invariably follows from one of the university’s key constituencies: students, faculty, alumni, trustees; failure is bound to get someone upset. As a result, innovation can be halted in its tracks.
University of California’s Online initiative is a good example of this Catch 22. In 2010, faced with multiple, uncoordinated online initiatives sprouting up on UC campuses, the UC system announced a central initiative to fund, develop and deliver online programs. When UC Online failed as a result of poor execution and faculty opposition, the system’s response was not to launch a new experiment with system sanction and support, but rather to revert to the status quo: multiple, uncoordinated online initiatives across the universities. The failure of UC Online has played a key role in ensuring that UC won’t be a fast follower, let alone a leader, in technology-enabled delivery of higher education.
Contrast the UC Online experience with Arizona State (ASU). At ASU, there are no fewer than 100 distinct experiments with digital delivery that have institutional sanction and support. Some of these have already failed. Early experiments using gaming in online coursework never gained traction, despite world-class gaming experts on the ASU faculty. A highly innovative graduate certificate in sustainability developed with the Army National Guard never achieved sufficient enrollment to become viable. But these failures haven’t jeopardized the innovative superstructure because ASU first laid the groundwork by creating ASU Online, which has morphed into EdPlus at ASU: a university-funded organization charged with making small bets on digital delivery, and with the authority to pick, invest in and scale winners. Failures are viewed as part of EdPlus’ DNA and haven’t generated much pushback on the overall enterprise.
Even with an innovative “skunkworks” like EdPlus, failure will generate pushback if the bets aren’t small. And small means the university isn’t committing a significant level of resources. This is why the vast majority of EdPlus’ experiments are partnerships with private sector technology and service providers, where the lion’s share of the investment comes from the partner. These partnerships allow the university to focus on academic programs while allowing the private partner to handle functions such as marketing, or investing $100M in adaptive learning technology. EdPlus has close partnerships with Pearson and Knewton along with approximately fifty other education technology companies that provide tools that, inter alia, increase interaction, improve assessment and collaboration and make it easier to determine a user’s identity.
Universities that are serious about innovation must develop institutional grit. They need to become Grit U. Grit is the prerequisite for a culture of small bets. But for universities, grit may be more structural than related to the character of their leadership. By creating a separate organization charged with making bets and supporting partnerships to keep the bets small, universities can develop even more grit than emerged from the great bathroom war of 1992 – on the stairs with the pizza, or in the shower with the chicken bones.
University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.
“Combining a flair for numbers with a grasp of the bigger picture, venture capitalist and educational entrepreneur Craig spells out the threats facing higher education in America, among them crises of affordability and governance, “the effects of technological disruption and globalization,” and “absolutely no outcome data related to student learning.” With sportive analogies to pop culture and his own college pranks at Yale University, Craig outlines what institutions can do to position themselves for “the Great Unbundling,” in which students pay for education rather than for faculty research, fancy buildings, and college athletics. Craig’s strategic vision is strictly a business model, requiring institutions to compete for consumers, market their brand, and successfully distribute their products worldwide, but his advice makes sound economic sense: to survive, he argues, institutions need to reprioritize “knowledge creation and dissemination” and provide a good return on investment by cultivating in students the cognitive, self-management, and “creative and critical thinking skills that employers demand.” His suggestions, he admits, take “a ton work,” but his discussion of the existing data, federal policy, and market trends address “clear social [and] economic needs.” Savvy, sharp, and ultimately optimistic, Craig’s book offers an ambitious blueprint that administrators would be wise to heed.”Pre-order the book at Amazon Follow Ryan Craig on Twitter @ryancraiguv