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Innovation Seed Money Takes Root


Tom James

Tom James, Provost of Teachers College, Columbia University

The Provost’s Angle

Innovation Seed Money Takes Root

This past fall, in this space, I announced the creation of the Provost’s Investment Fund: seed grants of $20,000 each to support faculty proposals that add value at Teachers College—whether through additional enrollments, research funding or new partnerships with the field—and help to create a genuine cultural of innovation.

As I wrote then, the strategy behind the Investment Fund is to open many paths to invention and growth in academic life, rather than legislating a single highway. My cautionary example of the latter approach was the hundreds of discarded Wang computers that ended up in closets at a university where I once worked—the wonderfully well-intentioned but ultimately doomed idea of a senior administrator who had purchased the machines en masse for faculty, staff and students.

Last semester we funded our first group of Investment Fund proposals, and I am proud to say that they do, indeed, promise significant constructive change at Teachers College.

One particularly strong example is the proposal by Warner Burke and Debra Noumair to transform TC’s current certificate program in Advanced Organization Development and Human Resource Management into an advanced degree program, modeled on an executive MBA. The program, which could include collaborations with Columbia’s Business School, will convene a cohort of 30-40 participants for classes on Fridays and Saturdays, with two weeks of residency. It recognizes a demand that clearly exists and demonstrates our ability to reach out to an important constituency by offering flexible programming in a new way.

Another proposal, by Gary Natriello, is for a course focusing on innovative course design, in which students from the range of departments at TC will use technology to create new kinds of learning environments. Drawing on literature in the sociology of organizations, designed-based thinking and social learning, they will create and pilot courses that can result in new and better educational outcomes. Students might also use the course to create district networks for principals’ professional development, online resources to support evidence-based practice, or tools for the analysis and use of accountability data.

And still another proposal, submitted by an interdisciplinary faculty working group on Latin American and Latino/a education, will bring together experts across the College and region to improve teaching, research and research funding aimed at making public schools more responsive to an increasingly multicultural, multilingual and trans-national student population. Given the demographic trends of schools and other human service institutions, this initiative bodes well for placing TC at the forefront in generating ideas and practices for meeting pressing needs in our society.

There are more, and any one of them could make a dramatic impact, not only at Teachers College, but outside our walls. I will use this column to brag about others in the coming months. In the meantime, I offer my congratulations to our faculty, and I look forward to the next round of ideas.

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