Monday, July 12, 2010

When New is New

All of us are used to reading ads and seeing commercials for products and services that are characterized as “brand new” or “totally new.”  And the reality often is that these products and services aren’t really new but they aren’t really “old” either.  What they are, and there isn’t anything wrong with this, reflects evolutionary changes.  We know change is a continuum and that over time these evolutionary changes can be an effective vehicle for significant change and enhancement.

Evolutionary change often reflects constraints that make complete or total change (to something totally new) not possible.  On the product level, even if a car looks like it is totally new, the high cost of product development may dictate that the engine, the transmission, and much of what you don’t see is a carryover.  Or at times, much of what you see is unchanged or slightly changed but sometimes with (and sometimes without) new mechanicals; nevertheless, the car is promoted as “the all new” 2010 or 2011.  New is clearly relative.

In education, new is also grounded in constraints.  Programs and majors (and organization frameworks) change and evolve but often the pace is measured and sometimes it is glacial.  A measured pace makes sense to me.  Collegiality is best served by a full airing of the issues.  Glacial, though a comforting thought when the temperature outside is approaching 90, is not a productive approach for change.  A number of years ago, when a unit was unable after years of trying to pass by-laws, I involved the Provost’s office in continuous negotiations with all the different factions until the by-laws (and a framework for shared governance) were a reality.  Do we really need the Provost’s Office involved?  Certainly all the faculty members involved were intelligent and had a commitment to the University. But for some reason there was a long-term inability and unwillingness to talk through and compromise on what were minor differences.

 Tenure, for all its positives, is also a constraint.  As needs change in different areas and programs, the ability to respond to those changes is sometimes limited by a workforce that brings tremendous strengths to one area but doesn’t have the expertise in another area.  Having a structure that includes untenured faculty as well as adjunct faculty helps you maintain needed flexibility.

I have had the pleasure over the years of being in a lead role for the establishment of two new schools on the Hofstra campus (the School of Communication and Honors College) as well as numerous programs and other initiatives.  In virtually every case, “new” was built on an existing framework and existing constraints. I think the end results were excellent and moved the University forward but the magnitude of change had to be limited by the reality of constraints.

Just now, on the Hofstra campus, another new school has been formed.  The Hofstra University School of Medicine in partnership with the North Shore/LIJ Health System has received preliminary accreditation and will bring in its first class for the fall 2011 semester.  The School began with a broad vision from Hofstra’s President, and that vision was translated into reality by a Dean and his team.  This team designed an innovative curriculum that was much more integrated and patient centered and brought in those individuals that fit best with that vision. The end result is a new vision of medical education that would have been virtually impossible to implement at an existing school.  Yes, cost is still a constraint (as it is in everything we do) but the magnitude of change and progress at this new school is stunning.

The new medical school is an exception; virtually all change is evolutionary.  But we should all make a commitment, within the constraints we operate under, to make as much meaningful progress as we can.  Glacial for the sake of glacial just has a chilling effect on a college or university campus.

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