Innovation and Inertia at Public Universities

by Jane S. Shaw

Two chancellors spoke at a conference on “Creating a Culture of Innovation in Education” at North Carolina State University on November 1. Randy Woodson of NC State and Holden Thorp of UNC–Chapel Hill both revealed a problem with their faculty — faculty insist that students focus on their majors and resist involving students in interdisciplinary education.

Woodson and Thorp think that students need some romance along with the drudgery of narrow disciplines. (“Not everyone is excited as I am by the beauty of the periodic table,” says Thorp, a chemist.) At UNC–Chapel Hill, a minor in entrepreneurship is forcing a bit of “innovation” into the lives of engineers and chemists. UNC also offers Innovation Scholarships, which require recipients to take the entrepreneurship minor.

Another step that UNC–Chapel Hill has taken to broaden students’ horizons is a minor in education. The idea is that students can learn a little pedagogy before they join, say, the spectacularly successful Teach for America (where talented graduates tackle inner-city classrooms with only six weeks or so of training). A degree in data sciences is also in the works — to get the serious student to use computation not for its own sake but as a tool to solve problems. Thorp summarizes the changes: “Preserve the in-depth major but add creative elements.”

NC State’s Randy Woodson said that his school’s approach to the interdisciplinary problem is the master’s degree. NC State graduates, he says, are returning to get a master’s not as a stepping-stone to a Ph.D. but to experience a discipline that is different from the one in which they got their bachelor’s.

It’s interesting that chancellors have to figure out “work-arounds” to solve the problem of specialized faculty. But that’s academia, and maybe the chancellors are making the best of their situations.

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