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Where to Look for Innovation

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Thomas James, Dean and Provost, Teachers College, Columbia University

Where to Look for Innovation

The new Provost's Investment Fund seeks to stimulate academic growth

Many years ago in another university, I arrived as an assistant professor ready to take on all the new challenges of my academic career. When I opened my closet door, I found a discarded Wang computer, barely used at all, but no longer in use or even useable. Within a few days, I learned that many closets-indeed a great many closets across campus-had those abandoned computers in them.

I felt lucky to be working with a new computer on my desk, the competitor's latest, but I was puzzled by the unlucky fortune of all those Wangs consigned to oblivion. It turned out that the corporation, an early poster child for success in the computer industry, had suddenly gone bankrupt and disappeared entirely. Before that happened, our university's administration had made national news with a bold innovation strategy. It had purchased Wang computers for its faculty, staff and students, creating a wider distribution of computing capacity than any other institution of higher education had ever achieved.

When I think about innovation, I often remember this experience-not because I think innovation has to proceed exclusively along technological lines, but because, as an academic official, I have become all too aware that it is possible to create well-intentioned policies that squelch productivity. In the case of that institution where I launched my academic career, the sequel to a Wang in every closet was a new vice president who took a different approach. He created an innovation fund, distributed as seed grants through a competitive process. He invited every unit of the university to generate ideas that they thought would capitalize on the availability of new technologies to increase their productivity. The strategy worked, opening many paths, rather than one highway, to invention and growth in academic life.

At the beginning of this semester, I sent a notice to faculty announcing the Provost's Investment Fund. This fund provides $400,000 for seed grants of $20,000 each to support proposals from faculty and groups of faculty that can add value and stimulate growth in our academic programs. Again, while such proposals may certainly include technology, the net we are casting is much wider. I hope we will learn from the faculty themselves, and from their dialogue with students and staff, what the words "innovation" and "invention" mean for us and for our future as the greatest institution of learning on Earth.

All I know about innovation comes down to this: As an administrator, I don't want to wake up one day and find my own bright idea in every closet on campus. I would rather invite the unexpected and invest in what helps us to become better at what we do. Yes, it's essential to have well-organized systems, consistent standards and reliable infrastructure. But I also like the idea of working someplace in the City where a thousand flowers bloom.

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