Barriers to Innovation and Change in Higher Education

November 2014
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The environment for American higher education is rapidly evolving in ways that present both large challenges to the status quo and growing opportunities for responses to these challenges. Change in higher education generally has been slow to occur, however, despite pressures to do so. Wide-ranging research on institutional obstacles to innovation and change explains some of the reasons why higher education has moved slowly to meet new challenges. A business model perspective helps to identify key aspects of higher education that heighten some of the universal obstacles to innovation and change. These include American higher education’s worldwide reputation for excellence, which serves to reinforce the status quo—particularly among tenure line faculty who play a dual role by both producing the educational product and participating in institutional governance, thereby exerting unusual control over change.

The business model lens also helps to identify ways in which these obstacles may eventually be lowered. The shifting composition of the faculty workforce to a dominant percentage of full-time non-tenure track faculty focused primarily on teaching, but with a growing voice in governance, is likely to result in less attachment to the status quo. And intensifying demands for outcomes measurement will shed more light on the surrogate measures for quality that dominate higher education today; should those surrogates be found to be of little value, many barriers to change would fall. External barriers, including the role of the member-organization accreditation system in shaping responses to the changing higher education environment are considered, as is the role of politics as manifested primarily through the actions of the U.S. Department of Education.