Inspired by Barbara Ganley at FA

Barbara Ganley’s plenary presentation this morning felt to me like a call to arms–a reminder of how transformative blogging can be if we are willing to give ourselves up to the process of “slow blogging” that she discussed.

The word that resonated in my head afterwards was “risk.” A few weeks ago, when Jerry, Steve, and I presented at UCF, I had an interesting conversation with a faculty member afterwards (whose name I can’t recall at the moment) about the fact that at the heart of so much of what we are pushing faculty to do is the willingness to take risks. That willingness transcends personal choice in many ways–I think that the real willingness probably needs to happen at a higher, institutional level in order for it to filter down to individual faculty (and students). What would our lives be like if we all worked at institutions that valued risk-taking and were “okay” with the idea that, sometimes, the outcome of risk is failure.

These days, risk seems like a completely foreign concept to the business of higher education. Institutionally, aren’t we tending to make choices based on “good business models” and “market research?” Can those practices co-exist with risk-taking? I’m not so sure. . .and if risk-taking isn’t a part of the larger culture, how can we ask our faculty (much less our students) to be comfortable with it?

Or, am I wrong? Is part of the essence of risk-taking a grassroots commitment? I’m not sure. . .

9 thoughts on “Inspired by Barbara Ganley at FA”

  1. What a productive insight! First response: the academy is so much *not* about risk. “Tenure” is from “to hold”, not to throw (“pro-ject”), not to try. The conserving mission of libraries, the expertise we see housed in faculty, the institutional preservation we assign to administration are all enormous hedges against risk.

    It’s the students who get to be our risk-takers.

  2. @Bryan: Ironically, conservation and preservation can be powerful enablers of risk. (I know you and I come at this from different angles, though I think we desire very much the same thing in the end.) We need conserving libraries, expert faculty, and institutional preservation–but need them in order to advance conversations and dreams and innovations. Sadly, of course, the bulwarks we build keep ourselves safe only from ourselves….

    Universities are the skunk works of civilization, and we better get serious about it or that task will be assigned elsewhere. And that would be sad, not because I’d be out of a job, but because universities are uniquely suited to be skunk works.

  3. And one more thing. I think this is absolutely right:

    “That willingness transcends personal choice in many ways–I think that the real willingness probably needs to happen at a higher, institutional level in order for it to filter down to individual faculty (and students).”

    A great leadership insight, in my view. Grassroots is great, and may it live forever, but leadership at the institutional level you’re describing can yield tremendous synergies. A team, a cast, a family.

  4. Universities as civilization’s skunk works… what a fine probe, in Macluhan’s sense. I can see this as a term for conversation.

    I love the phrase as a defense of higher ed’s defenses!

    It’s worth thinking about exceptions, like higher ed’s embrace of Macarthyism as a case, or various policing functions ranging from speech codes to religious indoctrination. Like many things, higher ed is a contested ground.

    PS: Gardner, did you see this week’s video at the Draculablog?

  5. I agree with Gardner, the most valuable insight here may be that the best leadership must provide the environment in which a willingness to risk is nurtured and protected. [I know that that that would make it less risky, but we’re really looking for innovation, not bungee jumping off the bell tower.]

    A leadership group that is open to change, risk, and innovation (for the institution as a whole and at every level) would enable universities to be the sandbox (less militaristic than skunk works, but that might be less powerful a term as a result) for knowledge creation.

    Great conversation and one that, having recently been awarded tenure, I’m particularly sensitive too.

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