10 Fears Stifling Innovation in Higher Education

As Lee Gardner noted in “The Barriers to Innovation” in The Chronicle of Higher Education ( 2019 ), “universities often flounder at innovation because they are not really meant to change.” The notion that institutions are inflexible is disconcerting at best. If innovation is considered impossible, no incentive exists to even imagine change.

Nonetheless, outdated approaches and strategies are no longer adequate to serve the customers of higher education. Institutions who cling to the status quo risk survival. From the readings I’ve encountered in my doctoral research, coupled with insights from over four decades of experience working on behalf of colleges and universities, I’ve identified a common thread of fear that encumbers institutions and academic communities from achieving the health they need amid new economic, post-pandemic, Great Resignation and enrollment shortfall challenges.

Here are just a few of the many fears that hamper innovation on college campuses:

  1. Fear of failure. While a tenet of learning is to fail early and often, conceiving and implementing new ideas can threaten one’s standing in the community.
  2. Fear of cost. At a time when budgets are challenged, making new investments must pay off; there is insufficient room for error (adding to the weight of the fear of failure).
  3. Fear of effort. In “Academic Entrepreneurship: The art and science of creating the right academic programs,” Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson suggests that innovation can be perceived as being too difficult, requiring too much effort to see change to fruition on a college campus.
  4. Fear of reputation. Campus employees put emphasis on personal reputation (just think of your last slip-up using the wrong title or credential!). Being an innovator can be characterized as being overzealous by setting the bar too high for others. And failure can label someone as an impractical dreamer.
  5. Fear of perception. Institutions crave being perceived as stable. The very word “institution” suggests “establishment.” Innovation can sometimes be perceived as flighty, too experimental and not sufficiently serious.
  6. Fear of success. The opposite of fearing failure, some leaders fear success because it raises expectations.
  7. Fear of the spotlight. Relatedly, success may yield greater scrutiny and attention, and elevate personas to uncomfortable places.
  8. Fear of change. Perhaps you’ve seen that Twitter thread from Bill Holohan about how the width of horses’ backends have influenced the spacing of railroad tracks and the width of tunnels. The influence of our habits makes it comfortable to resist change itself.
  9. Fear of the unknown. Because it may lead to something new or at least unfamiliar, change can thwart innovation ironically.
  10. Fear of responsibility. Once innovation thrives, new responsibilities emerge. The care and feeding of ideas come with costs (time, money, effort, e.g.) that add weight to the leader’s shoulders.

All of these fears can stand in the way of freedom to innovate. It behooves leaders in higher education to create an environment that welcomes creativity, values failure and provides an aura of confidence to the community.

Maybe you need an external partner to offer support or counsel to amplify, verify or inform your innovative ideas for the sustainable future of your institution. If so, I encourage you to call on the expertise of RHB consultants in enrollment management, executive counsel, institutional marketing, and Slate technologies who stand ready to help alleviate any fears that may be holding you back from success.

A colleague to help you cross the street (or launch a courageous new endeavor) is always a good choice.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.