A Faculty-Led Movement Inspired by Students

How a small community of UIF mentors are disrupting higher education

by Ilya Avdeev, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Mary Raber, Chair of the Department of Engineering Fundamentals, Michigan Technological University
Miriam Iliohan, Co-founder and Manager of DesignLab, University of Twente
Nick Swayne, Founding Director of JMU X-Labs, James Madison University
Faculty Innovation Fellows program community leaders

Making a difference in higher education is much more fun than one might think. It is about giving and receiving empathy from your community, students and colleagues. It is about showing that you can work together and make bold moves if we trust one another to find the connections.

Our work with students has emboldened us to think about creating our own movement. We all experienced the enthusiasm of our University Innovation Fellows who brought this experience back to our campuses and immediately leapt into action to bring about positive change. This led us to wonder: 

“How might we bring this same sense of empowerment and engagement to our faculty and staff?” 

“What if faculty and staff were introduced to the same tool sets and mindsets of innovative change?” 

“What if faculty and staff were also part of a community of practice where wild ideas are encouraged, experimentation is the norm, and sharing of diverse perspectives is valued?”

Building forward from the successful student-focused UIF program to create a similar program for faculty and staff provided the opportunity for us to explore these and other questions. At our schools, this approach has taken hold and is helping to transform our culture into one that emphasizes collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, the mindsets and tools of design, and innovating to transform the educational experience.

Back when we were new Faculty Champions, during one of our first UIF Silicon Valley Meetups, leaders from Google’s Project Aristotle presented their work on building team effectiveness and system change at Google. We were asked to consider: what is the core element of strong teams and effective system change? The answer was psychological safety.

As long-time Faculty Champions, supporting the UIF experience as it unfolded for our students, we felt the distinct lack of such physiological safety amongst faculty and staff at our schools.  Faculty would certainly have a role in being the institutional memory for our UIF projects, but we didn’t have the same support structures we were providing for students.  

The five of us (the authors plus Katherine Christopher of Grand Valley State University) began meeting regularly, sharing ideas about what was working, how to support each other and how to help faculty at other institutions. Over time, this team solidified into what we called the Fab5. The Fab5 provided a virtual place to recharge and talk, share new ideas, a means of testing concepts and prototypes, but most importantly, it provided the psychological sounding board we needed to build our own movement. 

As a group, we felt a growing pull to support new faculty as they started innovation movements on their campuses. For many faculty, this is a lonely journey. We thought, what if we connect these “nomads” and fuel their passions for change by the energy of the UIF student movement? We tried several technical solutions, added events to in-person meetups, and tested several prototypes of online programs.

It wasn’t until a UIF Meetup in Salzburg in 2019 that the idea to create a program for faculty solidified. There, at one point during the week, a group of Faculty Champions sat in a castle on a mountain top, sharing a personal moment of why we joined this movement. Each story being unique of its kind, we took the time to listen. Time to really listen and reflect on what the other Faculty Champion was telling about their journey of becoming an empowerer of change. The community feeling of empathy grew throughout the day, with hugging, inspiration walks along the river or city excursions just to talk a bit further about what makes us tick.

As a result, we worked with UIF co-director Humera Fasihuddin to launch the Faculty Innovation Fellows Program. Knowing there are others “out there,” having a judgment-free place to share, getting support and encouragement from respected team members has been transformative in so many ways.

The Faculty Innovation Fellows Program is now a two-year experience for Fellows’ Faculty Champions that helps them expand the innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) movement at their schools. Much like the student Fellows program, the Faculty Innovation Fellows candidates design ways to improve their institutions. They connect with a community of like-minded educators from around the world to advance projects, gather feedback, and share what they learn.

There are currently 18 candidates in the cohort. We are a year into the program, and the more we learn, the more we want to explore.

Whose job is to reinvent higher ed? Administration? Students? Faculty? These are uncharted waters for most Faculty Innovation Fellows candidates. Where does what we do here fit? Research, teaching, service? Something else? We are collectively trying to figure this out. We are not expected to spend our time reimagining higher ed by our administration, by our executive committees or even by our peers. And yet, we do. Because we can. Because we have to. 

Faculty Champions from around the world share similar questions: How do I demonstrate to my Dean that UIF can be scaled? How do I incentivize other faculty to join me? How do we make sure that our students take credit for their work (both academically and non-academically)? How do we make others understand our work?

This prototype has already proven that a community of practice is stronger and more creative than the sum of its parts. We can now point to a “portfolio” of pilot projects yielding real gains for students, faculty and campuses around the globe. More importantly, we have created a small (as of now) community of practice.

At our schools, we sometimes look for that explosion of energy that we give on a daily basis, with a warm cup of coffee, to students and staff to empower in their work, and to go beyond. To not see the barriers that the institution can give, but which insights we can give the institution to make change. 

Two years ago, a team of faculty set out to pull together like-minded people in an effort to innovate higher education. Completing their first year of work, the team has realized significant progress. We’re just getting started, but the movement has momentum and the combined energy of the founding faculty. Change in higher ed seems impossible, but it doesn’t have to be, and the Faculty Innovation Fellows are leading the way.

This article was featured in the UIF journal Change Forward 2020-2021. Read the journal here.

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