Living on the Edge: Design Thinking for a New Era in Higher Ed:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 208 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Cesar Santalo

Table of Contents

Changing Higher Ed podcast 208-Living on the Edge-Design Thinking for a New Era in Higher Ed with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Cesar Santalo
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

21 May · Episode 208

Living on the Edge: Design Thinking for a New Era in Higher Ed

34 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

Hear how Lynn University dared to be different, harnessed design thinking and bold hiring to shake up higher ed. Innovation thrived; limitations crumbled.


How can your university keep pace in an era where higher ed institutions are racing to understand and cater to the needs of digitally savvy Gen Z students and the shifting demands of enterprise? The answer for Lynn University, a small private college in Boca Raton, Florida, lies in a bold embrace of design thinking across the organization. By appointing an accomplished creative professional as the dean of its College of Communication and Design, Lynn has signaled its commitment to infusing fresh perspectives and innovative problem-solving approaches into the heart of its academic model.


Bringing Fresh Perspectives to Higher Ed Strategic Planning


The university found its innovative leader in Cesar Santalo, an accomplished creative professional with over two decades of experience as an award-winning designer and creative director for major brands like Telemundo, NBCUniversal, and Univision. Santalo’s eclectic background, which spans everything from rebranding initiatives and live productions like the Latin Grammys to immersive experiences for Cirque du Soleil, equipped him with a unique perspective on navigating complex challenges through creative problem-solving.


When Lynn’s leadership recruited Santalo to become a dean in 2019, they deliberately sought out his fresh perspective as a creative industry leader. As Chief Academic Officer Dr. Katrina Carter-Tellison put it, she wanted Santalo to “live on the edge” and infuse the college with innovative thinking. This open-minded, risk-tolerant ethos set the stage for Santalo to drive design thinking initiatives across the university.


As Santalo explains, “I’ve been an artist my whole life. I think like an artist. I can take ambiguity and make sense of it.” This capacity to tackle ambiguity head-on and find patterns in complexity is a hallmark of design thinking and one that Santalo has leveraged to powerful effect in his role as dean. 


Engaging Stakeholders as Co-Creators in the University’s Strategic Planning Process


One of the first significant initiatives Santalo spearheaded at Lynn was weaving design thinking into the fabric of the university’s strategic planning process. Rather than crafting a vision for the future in an administrative silo, Santalo and his fellow leaders embarked on an extensive, year-long listening tour to gather input from all corners of the Lynn community.


Over the course of the 2020-21 academic year, the team conducted in-depth interviews with more than 650 students, faculty, staff, alums, parents, and community partners. Santalo recalls, “It took them a year to do all of this work. And they got a lot of information they weren’t expecting.”


The insights harvested from this deep stakeholder engagement profoundly shaped Lynn’s strategic priorities. Students expressed a desire for more hands-on, experiential learning opportunities that would prepare them for the demands of the 21st-century workplace. There were also calls for greater flexibility and personalization in the curriculum and stronger connections between the classroom and the wider community.


Guided by this richness of perspective, Lynn’s leadership collaborated to craft a vision for the university’s future that placed stakeholder needs at its center. Critically, the highly participatory nature of the design thinking process engendered a deep sense of ownership and enthusiasm for the strategic plan across the Lynn community.


As Santalo shares, when elements of the plan were subsequently implemented, “people across campus would proudly point to the ideas they had contributed.” From the decision to establish the Navigate program, which provides personalized academic and career guidance, to the relocation of the Career Connections office to a more prominent space on campus, the Lynn community could see their fingerprints on the university’s innovation agenda. By engaging the full range of stakeholders as co-creators – rather than simply the recipients of change – Lynn achieved profound buy-in and energy for its vision.


Dialogues: Reimagining the Academic Experience


Building on the momentum of the strategic planning process, Santalo has worked to infuse design thinking into the heart of Lynn’s academic model. At the undergraduate level, this has involved a sweeping redesign of the core curriculum, known as the Dialogues.


Launched in 2018, the Dialogues emphasize interdisciplinary, project-based learning and real-world application, grounded in fostering the skills and mindsets needed for success in today’s market expectations and future pacing strategic planning for tomorrow. The new curriculum was heavily informed by student input and feedback, exemplifying Lynn’s commitment to placing learners at the center of the educational experience.


A cornerstone of the Dialogues is Lynn 101, an immersive first-year experience that empowers students to explore their passions and purpose while developing vital capacities like critical thinking, communication, and creative problem-solving. The course features community-based projects where students partner with local organizations to tackle real-world challenges, putting design thinking principles into practice.


As Santalo explains, even something as simple as the icebreaker activity in Lynn 101, where students reflect on the question “Why do you like your name?” can have an outsized impact on the student experience. He shares the story of one student who described the exercise as “life-changing,” forging meaningful connections with classmates she might not have otherwise met.


Experiences like these underscore the transformative potential of a design thinking approach, which prioritizes fostering empathy, collaboration, and experimentation. Through courses like Lynn 101, students develop the creative confidence to tackle complex problems and the resilience to learn from setbacks, preparing them for the challenges they will encounter in their personal and professional lives.


Building an Ecosystem of Industry for Job-Ready Students


Beyond the classroom, Lynn has leveraged design thinking to reimagine how the university collaborates with industry partners and the wider community. Pulse Agency, a student-run creative consultancy housed within the College of Communication and Design, embodies this innovative approach to experiential learning and community engagement.


At Pulse, interdisciplinary teams of students work on real-world branding, marketing, and communication projects for local businesses and nonprofits. Guided by design thinking methodologies, students conduct user research, prototype ideas, and iterate based on client feedback, developing vital professional skills and a competitive edge in the job market.


As Santalo emphasizes, Pulse is more than just a vehicle for hands-on learning; it is also a safe space for risk-taking and experimentation, where “there were never any bad ideas.” By giving students the freedom to test unconventional approaches and learn from failure, Pulse cultivates the kind of creative problem-solving that is essential for success in today’s increasingly evolving business world.


Lynn has also developed deep partnerships with industry leaders like Brandstar Studios, a Deerfield Beach-based video production company. In 2018, Brandstar opened a state-of-the-art studio facility right on Lynn’s campus, providing students with unparalleled access to cutting-edge technology and real-world production experience.


The collaboration has been transformative, with dozens of Lynn students contributing to Brandstar projects and several recent graduates being hired by the studio. For Santalo, these immersive industry partnerships are essential for preparing students to thrive in the 21st-century workplace. As he shares with prospective parents, “When I tell them that most of the majors, at least in my college, require an internship, their eyes light up.”


Key Takeaways for Higher Education Leaders



  1. Bring in diverse perspectives: Santalo’s background in the creative industries equipped him with valuable design thinking skills and a proclivity for navigating ambiguity. By recruiting leaders and faculty with wide-ranging experiences and expertise, institutions can inject fresh thinking and boost their capacity for innovation.


  1. Engage stakeholders as co-designers: Anchor strategic planning and curriculum redesign efforts in extensive outreach to students, faculty, staff, and community partners. By deeply involving stakeholders in the design process from the outset, institutions can develop responsive, learner-centered solutions that generate enthusiasm and support.


  1. Fail Fast: Cultivate a culture of experimentation, from piloting new academic programs to carving out space for students to test and refine ideas. Lynn models the value of thoughtful risk-taking. By normalizing experimentation and productive failure, leaders can foster a culture of continuous learning and strategic adaptation.


  1. Break down silos: Champion collaboration across organizational boundaries and partner with colleagues campus-wide to embed design thinking into programs and initiatives. By facilitating cross-functional teamwork, institutions can unleash untapped wells of creativity and expertise.


  1. Develop robust external partnerships: Build a thriving network of industry and community partnerships to accelerate student learning and expand the university’s impact. By leveraging design thinking to build reciprocal, value-generating relationships, institutions can amplify their relevance in an interconnected world.


Ultimately, as Lynn’s example powerfully demonstrates, design thinking is a vehicle for transformation, not a panacea. However, by committing to an ethos of empathy, collaboration, and experimentation, institutions can position themselves as agile, resilient, and responsive in the face of a changing higher education landscape.


Today’s digitally native students are accustomed to companies trying to understand who they are. To serve this new generation of learners, institutions must pivot from an ‘ivory tower’ paradigm to one of deep engagement and responsiveness – with design thinking providing a roadmap for the journey ahead.


About Our Podcast Guest

Cesar Santalo, Dean of the College of Communication and Design, is an award-winning visual communications professional, artist, animator, and educator with over 20 years of experience. He has taught at prestigious institutions such as Miami Dade College, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and the University of Miami, covering subjects ranging from traditional and digital drawing to project budgeting and advanced animation. 

Santalo’s impressive portfolio includes collaborations with Telemundo/NBC Universal on the Quibi project, as well as roles at Univision, where he served as art director for corporate marketing, promotions, and digital content. His artistic contributions have graced live performances for the Latin Grammy’s, Premio Lo Nuestro, and renowned artists like Calle 13, Carlos Vives, Cirque du Soleil, and Marc Anthony. Santalo’s pursuit of a doctorate at St. Thomas University and his Six Sigma Green Belt certification demonstrate his commitment to continuous improvement.

Cesar Santalo on LinkedIn


About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a higher education consultant specializing in governance, accreditation, strategic planning, change management, and mergers.



Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 208 with guest Cesar Santalo


Introduction to Cesar Santalo

Drumm McNaughton: Thank you, David. Our guest today is Cesar Santalo, Dean of the College of Communications and Design at Lynn University.


Cesar’s Unique Background

Drumm McNaughton: Cesar comes to higher ed on a different path. He’s an award-winning visual communications professional artist, animator, and educator with extensive experience directing, creating, and implementing a broad range of revenue generating design and animation projects.

He’s worked for Telemundo. NBCUniversal and Univision, and has illustrated, designed, and animated live performances for shows such as the Latin Grammys, Premio Lo Nuestro, and Cirque du Soleil. In short, his background is very different than that of a traditional academic, one of the reasons that has enabled him to become an expert in design thinking.


Design Thinking in Higher Education

Drumm McNaughton: Caesar joins us today to talk about how universities and colleges can use design thinking, or as we call it, systems or holistic thinking as a model for organizational change. One that enables rapid innovation while mitigating resistance to change. Caesar, welcome to the program.

Cesar Santalo: Oh, it’s my absolute pleasure, Drumm. It’s really an honor to be here.

Drumm McNaughton: Thank you. I’m looking forward to the conversation.


Understanding Design Thinking

Drumm McNaughton: You are an expert when it comes to design thinking theory, and you’ve been applying that at Lynn University, where you are. Give our listeners a little bit of a background on who you are and how you came to be such an expert.

Cesar Santalo: Sure. So, I’ve been an artist my entire life, since I was,

Drumm McNaughton: Oh, wait a minute. An artist. I don’t know, what does that mean? No, I’m just

Cesar Santalo: I know, right? No, it’s, it’s actually, it’s interesting because I always say you’re not going to meet many Deans that are actually artists and that are going to have their doctorate degree. And so that’s why, that’s why I love Lynn so much that they took a chance on me. They took a chance on an artist, a designer. Someone who is from the industry, but I’ve been an artist my whole life. I think like an artist. I can take ambiguity and make sense of it. Not only am I an artist, Drumm, but I’m a collage artist. I’ve been a collage artist since my time at Pratt Institute over 30 years ago. And again, what I love about design thinking is that it’s great at taking ambiguity, ambiguity is something that designers can process better than anyone.

And so when I left Univision, and I think it was 2019, and I left for Telemundo to work on the Quibi project, I’ve always aspired to get my doctorate, and I’ve been a leader at Univision for over 20 years as art director for marketing, for programming, for entertainment, you name it. And I learned a lot about myself during that time. I learned that as a leader, what’s more important than anything is being a facilitator and helping other people be their best. It’s all about them.


And in speaking to my dissertation chair at St. Thomas. She said, Caesar, there’s something here. Cause I really wanted to do a dissertation about my experience of who I am as a person and the way I think. And the more I read about design thinking, the more I said, wow, this is exactly who I am. This is exactly the way I process information. And I’m very human-centered, Drumm, I really enjoy working with people, and I love to bring out the best in them.

Drumm McNaughton: Thank you for that background. That’s really good, and it helps explain because as we get into what design thinking theory is, we’re going to discover it’s, it’s very user-centric. Right now, we all know there’s serious problems going on in higher education. There’s a lack of innovation. We’re not being responsible to our customers. In fact, many higher ed institutions don’t really understand who their customer is, which we’re not going to go into today, we could spend four hours on that. But we’re not turning out graduates that are ready for the job market. Design thinking theory, whereas it’s not an end all to be all. It certainly helps us to get past some of those things. So let’s get into that just a little bit, if we may.

Cesar Santalo: Sure. So, let’s say, imagine you’re facing a problem and you want to tackle it using design thinking. So this is basically how it may play out in a real-world situation. So basically, design thinking is segmented into five different sections.


Empathy in Design Thinking

Cesar Santalo: So the first one is empathy. Again, what I love about being a leader and something I’m very good at is empathy. That is the first stage. You dive deep into understanding the people who are affected by the problem. And a lot of times you can bring in, for instance, in higher ed, it’s not just about how the faculty feels. You bring in students, you bring in partners, you bring in businesses, and now that you bring them all into the same room, so you’re not just looking at stats or data, you’re talking to them, you’re observing them and really putting yourself in their shoes. To get what they’re going through.


Defining the Problem

Cesar Santalo: Then the next stage is that once you’ve got a good handle on what’s going on from the empathize section, it’s time to really define the problem. And this really relies on the person’s point of view. The person who is conducting the actual design thinking exercise. This isn’t about you. It’s about the obvious. It’s about distilling all of the empathy work into a clear, actionable problem statement. And you’re narrowing down the focus to make sure you’re addressing the real heart of the issue.

Drumm McNaughton: Let me just interrupt quickly. So the empathy is understanding, from other people’s perspective, what the problem is and how it’s affecting them. Do I have that right?

Cesar Santalo: Correct. And you use open-ended qualitative statements. You’ll say, what’s the problem? You basically phrase it like, how do you like to learn? Right? Because we don’t want to ask them, for instance, what are some of the bad things that are going on? No, we always approach it in a positive way. How can we make things better?

There’s a famous statement by, I believe, the mayor of Miami, Suarez. And he said it best. I think he said this on Twitter in 2020. He said, how can we help? And that’s the way I believe leaders in higher education, that’s the way, that’s the attitude one needs to have. And that’s why design thinking is so perfect for the situation that higher education is in.

Drumm McNaughton: So it’s the empathy piece and then it’s defining the problem based on multiple perspectives to get down to the gestalt. Really, what is the key issue that’s driving everything else?

Cesar Santalo: Absolutely.

Drumm McNaughton: Okay, so the third portion of this


Ideation and Creativity

Cesar Santalo: So, actually, now comes the fun part. It’s the ideation part, and this is where you let your creativity run wild. You brainstorm tons of ideas, no matter how crazy they may seem. And then the goal here is to do quantity over quality. You want to generate as many possibilities as you can. And then, sometimes, these exercises may give you eight to 10 minutes to come up with eight crazy ideas. And it’s funny because as you go from one section to the other in design thinking, you’re going from having a lot of information to narrowing it down. And then you go from narrowing it down to opening it up. So you have to expect that kind of tendency in the design thinking process.

Drumm McNaughton: Okay. It sounds very similar to Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. Are you familiar with that?

Cesar Santalo: No, I’m not.

Drumm McNaughton: Basically, it’s six different types of hats, and one of them is brainstorming, one of them is narrowing down the funnel, one is critical thinking, the other is idea generation, etc. You know I don’t have all the hats correct, but it sounds like there is a definite process by which you brainstorm ideas, and then you narrow them down to see what is the most viable and, in this case, what the issue is. Is that correct?

Cesar Santalo: Correct. And the great thing about design thinking is that you don’t have to work, you know, in a linear format, going from this step to this step to this step. Sometimes, you can go back and forth, back and forth, and really, when you come to the end of it, you want to start the process again because there’s never a perfect system. The system is always evolving and you’re going to have to keep that lifeline of speaking to students and faculty and everything open, because you always want to, I think it’s what you said the other day, it’s like Lexus, “the pursuit of perfection”.

Drumm McNaughton: Yeah. I wasn’t going to give them the commercial, but thank you, I appreciate that. They’re not a sponsor of the podcast, but that’s okay. So ideation is about getting the ideas and sharing the ideas, and everybody’s ideas matter. There’s a voice in their participation. What’s the next step?


Prototyping and Testing

Cesar Santalo: The next step is prototyping. So once you’ve got a bunch of ideas on the table, it’s time to start bringing them together, bringing them to life. You can create prototypes, rough drafts, or markups of your ideas that you can actually test out in the real world. And then, this isn’t about perfection, even though we did mention Lexus; it’s about getting something tangible that you can learn from.

Drumm McNaughton: Understand. You create the prototype, you’re doing the testing. That’s the fifth step is the testing. And then you mentioned something that I think is really key, whether it be design thinking or whether it be systems thinking or what we call holistic thinking, is that feedback loop.

Cesar Santalo: Exactly. So I always say like the first. When the iPhone first came out in the 2000s, it was great. It was amazing. 

Drumm McNaughton: It was a game changer.

Cesar Santalo: Yes, but what’s great about it is that it learns, it learns who you are, what you like to do, and then it updates the software every so often. So again, here’s that pursuit of perfection. And that’s why, for instance, electric cars are so incredible because they’re learning who you are every day and they’re constantly improving, constantly. There’s never a time that we’ve arrived.

And so, I think, in my personal opinion, higher education has to have the same model. The students that are going to be arriving at Lynn’s doorstep are students that are completely digital. And we’ve heard this a million times. You know, they grew up with the iPhone, you know, as babies. They’re used to companies trying to understand who they are. It’s just the way it is. Whether you’re using TikTok or Facebook, they’re learning who you are. We have to do a better job at doing that.

Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, so those are the steps for design thinking, you know, the empathy, getting the customer’s perspective, defining the program, ideation, prototype testing with the feedback loop. It’s never perfect; it’s always improving.


Traits for Effective Design Thinking

Drumm McNaughton: To be able to do this, you’ve got to have some very specific traits, personality traits, and some of which, frankly, they’re not going against human nature, they are human nature, but in higher ed, we tend to be locked into certain models.

What are some of those traits that you look for when you’re going to be doing design thinking with an institution?

Cesar Santalo: So again, I, and I’m going to use this word a lot. Empathy. That’s something that designers and artists, it just comes natural to us. And whether it’s end users or their team members, we really, really like to listen and make decisions based on what we hear from our users.

And then there’s actually a bunch of them. I’ll probably only mention two or three, but being open-minded, it’s all about thinking outside the box. And like what you said before,there’s the great thing about design thinking, there were never any bad ideas.

And then again, comfort with ambiguity. If there’s something that I thrive on, it is ambiguity; that is my source of energy. If you’re fine with not having all of the answers up front, then sometimes you just have to dive in and figure out things as you go. And I love doing that.

Drumm McNaughton: That really goes against the nature of many folks in higher ed is we want everything, you know, and you think about committee structures, they want everything nailed down within that committee before they pass it on. Versus, you know, we’re 80 percent of the way there. Let’s build a prototype, let’s test it, let’s get the feedback, and figure out where we could improve this. Does that make sense?

Cesar Santalo: Oh, it makes total sense. I mean, just trying to get the curriculum passed. And the funny thing is in higher ed, you may have an expert in curriculum, but then someone else says, no, this is the way you do it. No, this is the way you do it. No, this is the right procedure. And sometimes implementing curriculum can take a year and a half and, you know, business doesn’t work that way.

So how do we fix that model?And another thing that I think I’m really great at, and the best businesses are that, and what I want to say to institutions of higher learning that are small. Because you are small you’re better able to adapt to the environment that you’re in. You’re more nimbler, you’re more quick, right? You’re less bureaucratic.

Drumm McNaughton: Hopefully.

Cesar Santalo: Hopefully.

So even though you may think, how do I compete against these large public institutions, right? But you do have some advantages. I’ll give you an example of that.

Living on the Edge at Lynn University

Cesar Santalo: When I started here as dean about three years ago, Beeple sold his original artwork called “The First 5,000 Days” for 60 some million dollars at Christie’s auction house.

And I went to my chief academic artist, Dr. Katrina Carter Telles, and I said, you know what? I think that Lynn needs to be all over this. I go, I’m an artist. I know how important this is and we should probably create the first NFT museum, probably in the world or in the country, in higher ed.

She said, go for it. And I was kind of surprised by that. And she said, Caesar, I brought you here because I want you to live on the edge. And I said, what? You want me to live on the edge? I go, that’s been my whole life. I mean, that’s, that’s who I am. And Drumm, when I talked to parents, when I’m talking about Lynn, when I’m talking about my college, I said, how many deans, how many of your managers or you as managers in the room, how many of you have told your employees to live on the edge?

And guess what? No one raises their hand, but at Lynn, the chief academic officer said, I want you to live on the edge. And you know what? If students are paying $30-$40,000 a year, you better live on the edge, because there’s an expectation that they want to receive information that they wouldn’t normally get.

But at Lynn, you’re going to get this, you’re going to get this culture of innovation. You’re going to get all of these partnerships. You’re going to get all these opportunities, and you’re going to have a job when you leave here. But it’s our job to live on the edge for these students.

Drumm McNaughton: Yeah well living on the edge doesn’t mean jumping over the cliff, you know. It’s got to be a controlled edge. I remember years ago going through leadership training and things along those lines. There was a question the facilitator asked, they said “Where is your circular error of probability, or where’s your error zone. And everybody put it up there, thinking about a dark board and they go to the bullseye,and everybody, where does your bosses. Oh, it’s smaller than that. And everybody in everybody’s boss in the room just shook their head and said, no, it’s probably five times that

 Obviously they don’t want you jumping over the cliff, but they want you to be innovative. They want you to take chances. Controlled, smart chances to do things. And it also comes back to Edison, who’s probably the single greatest innovator in the history of mankind, or at least in the inventing area. They asked him why he was so, innovative. He says, “I learned how to fail fast.” It’s like, go out there, if something’s not working, pull it back, regroup, do it. Don’t keep trying to push to make a bad solution good.

Cesar Santalo: Absolutely. I totally agree. And then she’s always told me that it’s her job to keep me grounded. Of course we do calculated risks, but I always feel like we’re always trying to do it with the best of intentions. But the fact that I feel, here, at least at Lynn, that my creativity is something that flourishes here.

You know, I’m a Dean, but I work on so many projects here and I think they’re smart because I’ve been an art director, I’m a designer. And so I help other colleges too. And actually they helped me too. So anything I would tell presidents is don’t silo each college. Make it more like a laboratory, everybody working together, we’re all in this together and leverage the skill sets from the best and brightest of each one of those colleges.


Examples of Design Thinking at Lynn

Drumm McNaughton: That’s a good segue into some examples of putting design thinking in practice. You’ve done that at Lynn. So what are a couple of the things that you’ve done that illustrate the effectiveness of design thinking?

Cesar Santalo: This is the work done before I actually arrived at Lynn. This was done in 2020,uh, headed by president Kevin Ross and our chief technology and strategy officer, Chris Bonaforti. They basically created the strategic plan for 2025 using design thinking. And I met with him just to make sure that I got the information, right.

Cause it’s pretty incredible. It’s actually took, took them a year to do all of this work. And they actually interviewed over 650 students, faculty members, partner, business partners, you name it. And they came up with strategic plan for 2025. And they got a lot of brain information they weren’t expecting.

And actually, what’s really great about it, it brings in all of the stakeholders. So if you want buy in for anything you’re doing in your university, use design thinking because it’s going to, it’s going to require a village, not just an ivory tower type of concepts.And for the Lynn strategic plan, what happened is, is that after they started implementing all of these things at the university, professors, students would be like, would say, Oh, that idea with the navigate program, oh, that was my idea. Or, or putting career connections on the second floor. Oh, and as you go up the, that was all design thinking and those, that these ideas came from the faculty, from everyone. So it’s a really, really beautiful process

Drumm McNaughton: So it’s interesting because you talk about structure changes with that. You know, moving floors, things along those lines. When you’re doing organization change, you’ve got your output. We call it the iceberg theory of change.

You’ve got your output above the water; just below that, you’ve got your processes; below that, you’ve got your structure, and then the water itself is people’s mental models. So your process changes people’s thinking because you’re getting so much stakeholder input into it, and then as you’re going forward with your solutions, you’re changing structures, which forces changes in the process. Does it does that make sense?

Cesar Santalo: It does. It does. And, and not only that, whenever you can get buy-in from everybody and whenever people feel like their voice is heard, it just creates a more innovative environment in general. And it’s very difficult to have an innovative environment when only a couple of voices are heard. And I believe it makes for a happier workforce.

Drumm McNaughton: People support what they help create. That’s our byline here at The Change Leader.

When we do strategic planning with institutions or shared governance or whatever work it is, we have a core planning team that starts the process, but each step along the way, we go out to the key stakeholders, both inside and outside the organization, to say, are we on the right track, and then there’s certain portions of the planning process that are instigated and started with the stakeholder group just like your interview process there. It’s a top-down, bottom-up approach, and that’s what design thinking is.

Cesar Santalo: Absolutely. And, actually, Drumm, my field, again, higher education, is going to be a partnership with the students, with the faculty, with everyone. That’s the way that we have to structure the curriculum. That’s the way we have to structure majors. It’s that kind of thinking and that kind of team building that I think we’ll give higher educational institutions a competitive advantage.

Drumm McNaughton: There’s another institution that I know of, actually it’s an initiative across the country called REP4, Rapid Education Prototyping for Change. It’s led by Philly Mantella, who’s the president up at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. It’s a consortium of seven schools that are doing just what you’re thinking about.

They’re doing innovation, they’re testing it at their own schools, and then they’re bringing it out to the larger group. She did something like this up at Grand Valley, where they interviewed high school students, folks who thought they wanted to come to college, and ask them what they envision the learning experience was. Brought it back to the faculty. They made significant changes, which has improved their enrollment rates, their graduation rates, and their persistence rates.

Cesar Santalo: That’s incredible. Maybe we should join that consortium.

Drumm McNaughton: Talk to Philly, she’s an incredible visionary for higher ed.

Cesar Santalo: Excellent. That’s, that’s wonderful.

Drumm McNaughton: So what are some of the other examples that you’ve seen that have been very successful with design thinking?

Cesar Santalo: So the strategic plan was very successful and they started saying, you know what, where else can we interject, design thinking processes, right? So we have this thing called Lynn 101, and it was to inspire students to think about what they need and how to design a solution for it. It was a one credit course and it’s to basically introduce students into Lynn. The technology, the people that are at the university, but they decided to actually interject design thinking into the process so that students could find out who they are, what makes them tick.

And then they said, wait, wait, so we have this. And then right after that, they have to take another course that deals with citizenship. So now that the students know what makes them tick, that knows what they’re passionate about, they now, in Citizenship, pick a not for profit that suits these things that they learned in Lynn 101.

Yesterday I actually spoke to a student that said that Lynn 101 was a life changing experience. And even the process, because in design thinking, you usually start out with, icebreakers and you say, why do you like your name? And she says, just that icebreaker. She was able to meet new friends that she didn’t even know she had. And she said, again, life changing experience for her. Another thing that, as far as design thinking and how we’re using it at Lynn, when you’re conducting an exercise in design thinking, you basically become the facilitator of the group. You’re not just standing in front of a room and telling them what to do. All of the learning outcomes are coming from them. So if you can structure a course just like that. Oh, my goodness.

So we did that. It’s called Pulse Agency. So we have about 30, 40, 50 students from all over the university, and we created basically an advertising and public relations agency, and we work with outside partners. So one day we’ll get Nicholas Children’s Hospital, or we’ll get the Boca Raton Museum of Art as one of our clients. And yet most of their problems, or they go to us and they say, ” Pulse Agency, how do we attract and retain Gen Z employees?” And, Drumm who knows that better than the Gen Z students that we have in Pulse Agency?

Drumm McNaughton: You mean the boomers don’t understand this? Ha!

Cesar Santalo: It’s incredible. So, so, yeah. And then when I tell them, cause the other day I was in the Boca Raton Museum of Art, because I’m on one of their ad hoc committees, and I said, I think this would be a great fit for you because that comes up in the meetings a lot. And they said, but how much is it? I said, “No, no, no. It’s free.” “Excuse me. It’s free?” “Yeah.”

So I told him you need to come give us a presentation, talk about the things that you need help with. And then in three to four weeks, we’re going to have an entire advertising and social media plan ready for you. And then at the end, we have about four or five people in each team, they present, and then we pick a winner.

And what that does is, you don’t usually see competition in classrooms. You don’t, it’s usually memorizing or you’re writing a paper. But this, the component of competitiveness in this course, oh boy, it gets edgy, but that’s what you want. That’s how you bring out the best in students.

And you know that you’re doing something right, that at the end, after they present to these companies, they tell you, “This was a great experience!” I’m like, what? Yeah, this was. We took kids the other day, we took them to the waste management. We’re literally at the dump and there’s flies everywhere and it smells terrible, right. And they’re telling me, “Thank you for bringing me.” I mean, we can’t even get students to take out garbage, but they love to be at waste management, taking photographs. So again, it’s like, if you’re involved with your students and you’re not working from an ivory tower and you’re going into the classrooms, just listen to them. Empathize, be a great listener. The traits of design thinkers is going to give you a competitive advantage.

Creating Job-Ready Graduates

Drumm McNaughton: One of the things when we chatted a couple days ago that impressed me was how you’re creating job ready graduates through your internships and how you’re taking the information that students learn in internships to update your courses. That is design thinking in its purest nature,

Cesar Santalo: Absolutely. When I mentioned to parents, again, it’s not just what the students want, that’s super important, but you also have to think about the parents, you have to think about the faculty members. When I tell parents that most of the majors, at least in my college, it’s required that you have an internship.

Not only that we require an internship by sophomore year. I mean, their eyes light up. And then when I tell them, oh, by the way, you see our studio down here, our studio is called brandstar studios. Why? Because during COVID, they hired 20 and again, we’re not a large university and we’re not a large college. They hired 20 of our students in a matter of months, which was incredible. And again, yes, I helped build that relationship, but that was a relationship that had already been started by a good colleague of ours, Barbara Kambia. So that, and what I would recommend to also presidents, make sure that you’re friends with the best and brightest companies in your area. Make sure that you bring them and you talk to them and you interject things that they say that they can help with curriculum. Right? I forgot the expression you use, but you need to make sure that what you’re teaching them works for the employers that are waiting for them. The talent supply chain.

You know, what employers are looking for right now? And they’ve, already told the people in career and alumni connections, “We’re looking for students that know how to prompt an AI”. So if we’re not, if we don’t have courses or assignments that have this, how can we say that we’re getting our students to be ready the real world, for the business world?

Drumm McNaughton: Caesar, this has been fascinating. I mean, we’ve, we’ve gone all over the world of design thinking, and it’s been a great conversation for me.

Key Takeaways for University Presidents and Boards

Drumm McNaughton: You’ve started to touch on these a little bit, but as we wrap up, what are your takeaways for university presidents and boards?

Cesar Santalo: It’s funny you mentioned that because it’s, it’s something that keeps me up at night. And I think that for any leader in higher education is don’t be afraid of failure and foster an environment where people feel happy and they feel that their voice is being heard. And really, if you want to be innovative, not just talk about it, don’t be afraid to fail. Because with design thinking, you just go back and you fix it, you fix it and you fix it until you get it right.

 I also strongly believe that, that faculty, allow them to live on the edge a little bit. Listen to them. One of the first things I did when I got to Lynn, I met with every faculty member in my college and I listened to them and I said, what can I do to help you? And then also, and I’ve said this throughout our conversation, is create partnerships and relationships with local businesses that hire students and provide internships for your students. This is music to the ears of students and parents. Because they are paying a lot of money and higher education isn’t getting cheaper by the day or by the year. This is something that is going to bring equity to higher education.

Drumm McNaughton: Great. Thank you. Those are great takeaways. So what’s next for you?

Future Plans for Lynn University

Drumm McNaughton: What’s next for Lynn?

Cesar Santalo: Well, I just broke the news to my faculty yesterday that we’re going to be

Drumm McNaughton: You’re retiring. No, I’m just kidding.

Cesar Santalo: No, no,

Drumm McNaughton: I’m waiting for a guest to announce his or her retirement on the show. I thought maybe you might be the first

Cesar Santalo: I don’t want to give my boss, my bosses, a heart attack. So, no, not yet. Not yet. It’s funny. I’m not somebody to ask me today. I don’t, I don’t plan on retiring. I’m getting better. I mean, I’m, I’m almost at my peak. Drumm. So it’s not happening anytime soon.

Drumm McNaughton: It’s the “pursuit of perfection”, right?

Cesar Santalo: Exactly. I haven’t gotten there yet. So, again, I told the faculty this yesterday,

I said, “we are going to be implementing design thinking for our college to develop our strategic plan.” That’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s, it’s more work for me, but I got to interview my students. I got to talk to my parents. I want to get this right. And not only that, this is something that we need to do every year, or maybe even six months. The world is changing fast, and this is a way for us to have a competitive advantage. And also, we’re going to keep on developing more internships throughout most of our majors. We’re going to try to increase study-abroad opportunities for our students. This year has been a record year for our college, over 10 percent of our student body is actually going on study abroad, which is just incredible. And now we’re going to Japan. I think it’s just going to be an incredible opportunity for all of us; I think we have three majors that are going there.

And then implementation of sustainable development goals and curriculum events. And we’ve already started doing this in our curriculum, we’ve done it with our end of team museum, we’ve done it with our fashion show. we’re actually leaders in this area. Yeah. And then a possible amendment of the strategic plan after 2025, something to take a look at.

Drumm McNaughton: Well, that’s quite a bit on your plate for both you and the university.

Conclusion and Farewell

Drumm McNaughton: Cesar, I want to thank you for being on the show. I’ve enjoyed our conversation very much. I look forward to the next time we get a chance to hear more about what you’ve been doing with design thinking at Lynn University.

Cesar Santalo: Thank you, Drumm, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Congrats on all of your amazing work.

Drumm McNaughton: Thank you very much. Take care, my friend

Cesar Santalo: You too, thank you.

Drumm McNaughton: Thanks for listening today, and a special thank you to our guest, Cesar Santalo, for his sharing with us how Lynn University is using design thinking, or as we call it, systems or holistic thinking, as a model for organization change that enables rapid innovation while mitigating resistance to change.

Join us next week when we welcome Dr. Deborah Pomeroy and F. Joseph Melino to the program to talk about how they’ve used a form of design thinking and change management to create more effective higher education structures and business models.

Thanks again for listening. See you next week.



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