Managing Disruptive Change at the State and Institutional Levels

5 min readSep 19, 2018


Written by: Dr. Peter Smith

When I looked over the final manuscript of my recently released book, Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education, I realized that my conclusions had significant consequences for SHEEOs, state policymakers, accreditors, institutional board members, and presidents, among others.

Before, I thought in terms of what colleges could and should do to better assist underserved populations, including connecting them more surely with appropriate work. That has not changed. But it has been vastly complicated by the emergence of two new realities: one technical and the other human.

New Realities: The Problem We Face

Previously, colleges and universities have always controlled their environments, operating as oases of information and capacity in a relatively information-poor desert (think of the community around them). With this advantage, they could set the rules, organize the curriculum, and decide what was important to teach. And the result was a gatekeeping function between the society around them and the degree or certificate to be offered. This included “knowledge discrimination,” valuing learning based on where it occurred as opposed to how well the learner knew and could apply something. There was virtually no alternative.

That desert, however, has gone green and colleges’ previous advantage has been severely eroded by the technological revolution. The sources and drivers of this revolution lie beyond the control of campuses and their governance. These technologically-enhanced services and programs can be used to enhance and extend the campus in new and significant ways, serving populations new and old. They can also be used, however, to bypass the campus, linking learning, whether for personal or economic reasons, with a more complete life, including work.

In this environment, we have the tools and practices to maximize every person’s potential. The capacity given us by the technological revolution carries the seeds of a revolution that, among other things, ends knowledge discrimination and the enormous waste of human talent that previously has been largely ignored.

One Way Forward: Innovation Contracts

Faced with this emerging revolution, how are SHEEOs, state policymakers, legislators, accreditors, and institutional boards and leaders going to respond? We are, collectively, the stewards of higher education and the opportunity it represents. Having served in most of those roles, either directly or indirectly, I am acutely aware of the multiple tensions that buffet higher education. They include:

· the ongoing economics of campus operations in the face of declining appropriations and a smaller pool of traditional-age students,

· the pressure brought by alumni/ae who believe that their personal experience should be the future experience of others,

· finding and maintaining the right balance between protecting the quality of current operations (and the institution’s reputation) and innovating significantly to respond to the revolution that is emerging.

· Political leaders who, however well-intentioned, can introduce conflicting policies and expectations which make the adaptation and change process even more difficult for institutions and systems offices.

The essence of disruptive change is that it fosters newer and often cheaper and better solutions to the problems that the disrupted institutions were addressing. When he defined disruption, Clayton Christiansen was addressing the brutal hold that organizational culture, economics, and tradition have on any organization’s capacity to respond effectively to new circumstances, contexts, and conditions.

In the world of higher education, the academic structure is an economic structure as well, carrying with it assumptions about personnel, teaching, and learning as well as many other things. And the organizational culture, complete with its inherent assumptions about what a campus should include, such as libraries, laboratories, classrooms and who should be responsible for learning, is at one and the same time, a great strength as well as a barrier to significant change. Why would or should we trade a known way of doing our business for an unknown path which could undermine our core purposes, our perceived quality, and our reputation?

We need to encourage daily operations and significant change in colleges to happen at the same time. We must think freshly about how to foster and support significant change in a public and transparent way. I would suggest that the time for “innovation contracts” has come.

A SHEEO could support innovation contracts by creating a policy which encourages institutions to design, implement, and evaluate innovations without risk from external bodies — accreditors and legislators among others. In this world of dynamic change, institutions need a space in which they can innovate, occasionally fail, and implement the findings that work.

An innovation contract would have the following characteristics.

· It would allow institutions to invest, with or without partners, in developing dramatically new programs and practices, new models for operating that meet the needs and opportunities generated by the merging revolutions in college, career, and education.

· It would incubate the new idea in a research, development, and practice mode, an incubated innovation lab protected from the rest of the institution with a limited number of learners who agreed to be pioneers in the effort. This would protect both the innovation effort and the core institutional effort from each other.

· It would have a fixed time limit, perhaps five years. Long enough to evaluate success and prepare to expand the program to larger populations. But short enough that, if not successful, the effort could be closed down relatively quickly based on the data generated.

· In return for these conditions, it would give the learners and institutions alike the protection they would need to benefit from accreditation and financial aid for the duration of the project.

There is concern that regulation and accreditation, as well as the traditional background of most board members and legislators, will frustrate and obstruct institutions’ ability to respond to disruptive change. The innovation contract would signal that an institution is undertaking significant change in a responsible fashion that does not threaten the existing programs at the institution in question. It would give external authorities a device through which change efforts could be identified and assessed responsibly by all parties. And it would foster accountability for objective results, thus protecting the traditional interests of all involved.

This has been done before, although it looked very different. In its early days, The Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) made awards to significant innovations such as the Community College of Vermont (CCV), where I worked. But as a condition of funding, they spoke with legislative leaders and education leaders in Vermont to be assured that, if successful, there would be support for the ongoing operation of CCV. They got the assurances, and we gained the funding we needed as well as a development partner in the staff and networked resources that FIPSE brought with them. Almost 50 years later, what had been seen by some as a radical and dangerous departure from the educational norm, now stands at the center of a successful statewide postsecondary delivery system.

Innovation contracts can allow institutions to protect their status quo while exploring significant innovation, new services, and new practices for historically underserved populations.

Dr. Peter Smith holds the Orkand Chair and is Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education at the University of Maryland University College. He served Vermont as State Senator, Lt. Governor, and Congressman-at-Large. And he was the founder of the Community College of Vermont, California State University Monterey Bay, and the Open College at Kaplan University. He also served as ADG-Education at UNESCO. His most recent book is Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education (SelectBooks, NYC, 2018).




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