Higher Education Leaders Face New Mindset Challenges:

with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Dr. Philomena Mantella | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 085

Table of Contents

Higher Education Leaders Face New Mindset Challenges

Higher education leaders face new mindset challenges after working with the same approach for such a long period of time. While more federal money is being poured into higher education than ever before, there are concerns arising throughout the sector that higher education will attempt to revert to its previous mindset and approach.

An alliance of six public higher education institutions is focusing on embedding innovation into their work through an initiative called Rapid Educational Prototyping for Equity, Change, Communities and Learners (REP4). This effort is trying to ground and prototype ideas based on current and prospective students’ learned experiences, and once tried out, share them among the six schools.

This effort engages pre-collegiate students and their schools to identify ways to meet those needs through programs held at or supported by the universities. REP4 allows each higher education institution to get fresh ideas while students identify ways that they need to be grounded in new skills and deeper thinking about their education. Ultimately, this combination can help accelerate educational change.

Mindset Challenges Around Personalization

Traditionally, the education system is structured as a supply chain for the industrial era. Students start at the beginning and move through the system. Funding, accreditation, and other key elements are wrapped around this structure.

However, this system isn’t working today because of the increased movement to personalization. Higher education needs to adapt to meet the needs of every student, who brings a unique background, set of experiences, learning style, and aptitudes.

REP4 creates a holistic space that encourages the energy of innovation while also helping the institution see and experience these efforts. This initiative is a collaborative effort between six public universities – Grand Valley State University, Shippensburg State University, San Jose State University, Boise State University, Amarillo College, Fort Valley State University – from different regions of the nation. These institutions share a passion for innovation, putting learners at the center of the work and hearing students’ voices. These institutions also share the public mission of higher education. This group is also committed to making this effort an open architecture that can be widely shared.

The concept is a network of networks. Each institution has a network of high schools or community agencies. REP4 is not a best practice model, but instead a shared framework model. Each institution has agreed to host a learner-designed five-day summit that involves cohorts of students from high schools and communities connected to the work. These summits use design thinking and human-centered design, which focuses on ensuring that everyone has a voice.

Teams of students decide on the issues they want to work on, whether that’s barriers or new opportunities. These teams then design experiments that higher education can use to improve offerings in any area, including admissions, life skills, or instructional methods. These student teams also have support from experts and faculty. At the end of the summit, each team pitches ideas to undergraduates, who provide feedback. Campuses can choose to embrace every idea that is presented or select a few to implement.

The top 12 ideas – two per campus – are taken to a national convening to be shared more broadly. Each institution also uses the national summit to talk about the work and model the approach, struggles, and worries.

All the ideas are to be shared so other institutions can benefit. This removes competition and encourages collaboration and innovation. Additionally, institutions can partner to prototype and bring ideas into fruition. Project data also is collected and shared on the platform, which allows for refinement of the work.  

Piloting Products Help Usher Mindset Shifts

Grand Valley wanted to build a minimally viable product (MVP). The university is piloting two ideas – a  theme-based curriculum and the life-skills transition curriculum – that emerged from two teams of students that participated in the summit.

One of Grand Valley’s partners, an area charter school, has stepped up to pilot the theme-based curriculum. This initiative calls for high school teachers across the various disciplines to focus their instruction on a common theme for a specific period of time.

The life-skills transition curriculum is designed to provide support to students, many of whom are first-generation college attendees and come from lower-income families who struggled during COVID. The team’s students said they needed more education on life skills, including study skills, financial literacy, and college readiness. The life-skills curriculum is being implemented through Grand Valley’s summer bridge program.

Gaining Faculty Buy-In

Grand Valley is inviting faculty buy-in for this new way of working. For example, the deans of the College of Education and College of Arts and Sciences continually presented this concept to the faculty and had multiple conversations about why it was important.

Faculty are assuming key roles in this work. For example, some faculty are working on high-impact teaching practices and learning design while the math faculty are exploring new ways to teach the subject.

The hard part for faculty members has been letting students do the early work first because this flips the model that faculty have always used. Still, more and more faculty are gravitating to this work and learning how to understand the change.

Gaining Board Buy-in

Boards are typically risk-averse. In comparison, Grand Valley’s board continues to be supportive of REP4. The board was looking for someone to lead an innovative approach to improving education during the university’s presidential search. The board’s early conversations with Dr. Mantella were about positioning innovation alongside strategic planning and infrastructure planning.  The board continues to spend significant time talking about what is emerging from the innovation efforts.

The board also reviews data from REP4 that show the difference this effort is making for the university. This will be helpful in approaching potential donors and funders. Additionally, the data will provide information to other higher education institutions that are considering implementing some of these innovations.

Approach Challenges

While business and industry use this design approach continuously, it is new to higher education. The main challenge is for higher education stakeholders to realize that people who are not yet embedded in the system—high school students–could influence and improve the system.  However, this challenge will go away quickly.

The long-standing challenge will be the executive time needed to sustain momentum and interest. To make this innovative approach part of the institutional culture will require about a decade.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Look at the concept of working in alliance with others. Don’t let institutional structures define the alliance.
  • Consider innovation like you do deferred maintenance. There needs to be a constant reinvestment; it’s not a luxury.
  • These innovative efforts can be great channels for high-potential people who want to be at the forefront of their discipline.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides governance consulting; strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting, and accreditation consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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