Risk taking and higher education: Not an oxymoron

Words like revolution, transformation and risk-taking are not necessarily common in higher education….until recently.  And I’m delighted to see the change.

“Of the iUse of the univnstitutions that had been established in the Western world by 1520, 85 still exist – Catholic Church, the Parliament of the Isle of Man, of Iceland and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and 70 universities. Of these, perhaps the universities have experienced the least change.” (Kerr 2001, p.115 from The Uses of the University originally published in 1982 by Harvard University press).

As indicated above and common knowledge, universities have been slow to change throughout much of history at least through the 20th century.  But the advancements in technology of the 21st century have definitely precipitated change in almost all aspects of the university.  We have seen changes in the teaching and learning mission.  Research and discovery have expanded due to the use of technology as have the ways in which we disseminate scholarship.  Innovation and entrepreneurship have become common in today’s universities.  And of course, administrative processes and communication strategies sometime bear little resemblance to the past.

Although change is occurring, more is needed.  Many books have been written, op-ed pieces published and reports issued about the status of higher education today.  Once such report entitled “An Avalanche is Coming” offered the following:pub-avalanche-130305_10432.693d2106

“Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education as much as it is in the school systems.  Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental” (March 2013, p. 3)

If the “pace of change too slow and nature too incremental”, the leadership for the 21st century universities must be willing to challenge the status quo and take risks.   We must be “futurisktic“.  In that blog (2013), I wrote:

“Being futurisktic is about change.  It is about embracing risk as an integral aspect of      change.  Risk should not be viewed as a negative but risk taking will likely force us out of our comfort zones.  By doing so, it allows us to acknowledge and embrace the meaningfulness and value of change…. Being futurisktic is about pushing ourselves and pushing the limits as is so wonderfully exemplified in the video entitled the future is ours.”

A recent example of pushing oneself and stretching beyond one’s comfort zone is the article about “From safe spaces to brave spaces” by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013).  The discussion of moving from “safe” to “brave” spaces has been especially pertinent to social justice and diversity. Several universities (e.g., UMBC, University of Michigan, Berkeley, UCLA, NYU) have initiated programs, dialogue and issued guidelines.  The metaphor of safe to brave should be embraced by university communities and utilized in considering futurisktic ideas and embracing change and institutional transformation.

I realize that change is difficult for some and especially in higher education where the culture tends to reinforce caution and the status quo.  As stated in “An Avalanche is Coming”, higher education needs transformation and individual leaders who can help lead the way.  “Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth” by Derrick Bell (2002) provides some guidance for these leaders toward this end.  He offers advise for being successful and maintaining a sense of integrity.  His message is simple in that he “urges us to livEthical Ambitione a life of passion, to have the courage to take risks for what we believe in, to rely on our loved ones and out faith for support during hard times, and to have the humility to know when our best intentions go awry” (front cover).

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