The Higher Education Innovation Deficit

“There is a discrepency between the acceleration of culture and the slowness of architecture.” -Rem Koolhaas

This quotation by the architect Rem Koolhaas could be adapted as follows: There is a discrepency between the acceleration of culture and the slowness of higher education.  Culture, learning, and knowledge have in many ways far outpaced our universities.

In many fields, institutions of higher education have been and continue to be places of innovation and invention.  This may still be true in fields of science and technology, where research can pursue ideas without regard to commercial viability, an approach that is critical for making new discoveries.

However, most higher education institutions lag behind in innovation in the creative fields of art and design.  Traditional academic silos have become barriers to innovation in curriculum, in the acquiring of new knowledge, and in teaching students the critical skills required for the contemporary marketplace.  Innovation is happening at a much quicker pace in private companies where new ideas hold more weight than faculty status and conservative curriculum review committees.  The old academic system that used to protect academic integrity now hinders progress knowledge generation.  However, there are some higher education institutions that are breaking out of this rut.

The Arts Lab at the University of New Mexico is one example.  While many institutions pay lip service to “interdisciplinary” studies, few actually do it.  The Arts Lab combines programs from fine art and design with architecture and science that allows it to innovate in fields as diverse as film, new media, simulation, telehealth, game technology, image processing, scientific visualization, national security applications, and new markets for content.  Innovating across this vast range of areas is only possible by putting designers and creative people together with scientific and technical people, which is precisely what the Arts Lab does.

Innovation doesn’t just come from smart creative people.  It comes out of set of conditions that foster sideways thinking through the continuous exploration of lateral possibilities, encouraging networks that are fluid, and the collision of unconnected ideas.  These conditions are impossible within the iron-clad silos of traditional university schools and departments.

Some institutions, like the Savannah College of Art and Design, attempt to breach the academic silos with, for instance, a Center for Collaborative Learning that encourages, promotes, and facilitates cross-departmental collaboration for faculty. But in my discussions with faculty at SCAD this center is only partially successful because faculty have limited “extra” time and art still beholden to duties in their department.

Perhaps the old university model of schools and departments doesn’t work anymore.  Recombinant degrees may also serve to “save” university departments such as philosophy, history and literature that are still vitally important to a liberal arts education but suffer from reduced enrollment numbers and pressures from university administrations.  The Arts Lab suggests a new model, based not on disciplines but rather on synergies.