What is an innovative university?

I participated in a panel on “Innovative Universities” as part of a workshop on innovation held in September at the Perimeter Institute.  Two questions posed to panel members were:  (i) “What does an innovative university look like?” and (ii)   “Does Canada have innovative universities?”

I suggested that if one wants to know whether a university is innovative one should look to see whether it shows some or all of the following (not necessarily independent) attributes:

  1. It has articulated and advertised a limited number of clear priorities.  To be innovative, you have to have some things that are far more important to you than other things.
  2. It has adjusted its processes and practices to advance its top priorities.  In particular, it had amended and revised its programs and curricula to align with and teach about its top priorities.
  3. It has closed some programs.  Michael Porter reminds us that “…the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”.  You can’t be innovative if you try to do everything; stopping doing some things that are lower priority allows one to focus attention on the high priority items.
  4. It has a budgeting model that allows it to allocate (or re-allocate) resources preferentially to high priorities.  Stating key objectives without putting additional resources behind them is an empty exercise.
  5. It has increased its absolute revenues at the same time that it has decreased the proportion of total revenue it receives from government.  To be innovative requires increasing amounts of entrepreneurial revenue derived from non-traditional sources.
  6. It measures its performance against understood international metrics of excellence.
    When I apply this list of attributes to Canada’s universities I conclude that although there are pockets of innovation (and some of these innovations are exciting and outstanding), Canada does not have many, if any, innovative universities.


Thinking about innovative universities reminds me of an exercise I conducted several years ago when I asked a bunch of university presidents to identify significant large-scale innovations in Canadian universities. Only two were mentioned consistently: the creation of the McMaster medical school and its introduction of problem-based learning; and the establishment of the University of Waterloo with co-operative education integrated as part of the normative undergraduate experience.   It is noteworthy that these two innovations – ones that have been widely implemented or envied by others – were not well received when first introduced.  In fact, it is not clear to me that these innovations would pass the “quality assurance” procedures we have in place today.  The lesson is that being innovative often means bucking the trend.  It means knowing very clearly what you want to do and being committed to it even though you get very little support and are often roundly criticized by your colleagues and peers.

This point is made by Henry Eyring and Clayton Christensen in their article, The Innovative University:  Changing the DNA of Higher Education (American Council on Education, 2011) in which they trace the history of education innovations at Harvard.   As they conclude:  “Harvard’s great strength…is a pattern of innovation that is continuous and focused on the university’s great mission, without undue concern for either tradition or what other universities are doing.”

Canada would be well served by having more innovative universities, which means that more of them will have to take risks and forge out in directions that are different from their sister institutions.  Unfortunately, the Canadian trend is for many universities to try to look the same and for governments to treat them all the same.

What it will take for Canada’s universities to become more innovative?  This question leads me back to the importance of a government policy of greater differentiation of universities.  Developing these arguments here goes beyond the breezy prose expected in a blog.  But this question is exactly what I will address in a lunchtime talk I will give at the C.D. Howe institute on October 18.

Thanks for reading.

3 replies on “What is an innovative university?”

This reminds me the concept of ‘unlearning pedagogy’. We need to unlearn old habits and practices before learning to innovate.

I am two thirds the way through Eyring and Christensen’s book and wondering if it is worth the effort to complete. Evidently, Harvard and BYU have thought of and originated everything in education. What did we do for all those millennia before them? Granted, if other schools had prospective students storming the doors only the brightest could be admitted. Regrettably, the world runs on the average scholars. Personally, I do not think highly of the emperor’s new clothes. Is it that when we hear the name ‘Harvard’ we suspend our thinking and are shameful of our own ignorance? Let us recognize unrelenting self-promotion for what it is. Jingoism.

I should apologize for my previous vitriol, the words were imprudent on my part. One should not submit anything in a state of annoyance. Displaying considerable willpower, I made it all the way through Eyring and Christensen’s book all the while hoping for the best. Sad to say, I was disappointed. Eyring and Christensen gave credit to Harvard and, particularly, BYU for “innovations” that are not new ideas in Canada, or Europe. Existing identical “innovations” predate the authors’ allegations by decades. Granted, there are “innovations” that would be difficult to say who developed them first. In such cases, the authors’ could not be proven wrong with complete certainty – but that does not make them right. Post-secondary institutions are in competition for students, thus are struggling to differentiate themselves. Imitating Harvard does not sound like producing distinct, attractive offerings. One should keep in mind there is another part of the education equation called students. Students continue to range from serious scholars to those who seem intent on exiting unceremoniously from studies. High admissions standards might increase an institution’s reputation. Liberal or open admissions policies afford opportunity for those who have become serious about earning an education. Which is better? An institution’s reputation or one changed life.

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