June 13th, 2010

Fellows Explore University Innovation during FT2

Posted by: Samantha Leigh Miller in Reflections, Thinking / Comments (96)

At ASU, we are only just now beginning to understand our capacity to shape our world into a place where everyone has the choice to lead healthy, productive lives. Where compassion and collaboration is simply assumed in the normal course of daily operations. And where new ideas are met with only eagerness and joy. This is true transformation. This is university innovation at its best.

But what is university innovation? Joseph A. Schumpeter, the economist who coined the phrase “creative destruction” defines innovation as “the carrying out of new combinations.” Sociologist Everett Rogers speaks broadly of it as “an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new.” But most applicable to the kind of social impact to which ASU aspires, might be H.G. Barnett, an anthropologist who talks about innovation as the “basis for cultural change.”

The question of university innovation is one that all of us at ASU are called upon to answer. And it’s one that will only be defined as we move forward and explore the area for ourselves.

For the sake of this type of exploration, the fellows took part in Fellows’ Training 2 (FT2) a few months ago and our journey toward discovering the answers to the question of university innovation during this time led to some unexpected places—HALO Animal Rescue for example.

Family-founded in 1994, HALO’s mission statement is “Helping Animals Live On through increased adoption, sterilization and pet care education.” Most of the pets at HALO come from local animal shelters where many of them were scheduled to be euthanized.

The university innovation fellows toured the HALO facilities—a former DMV in the west Valley whose cramped quarters saw more than 2,500 homeless pets come and go in the last year alone. The space was bright and cheerful, as were the workers and volunteers who greeted the fellows. The animals were quiet and obviously well cared for, some in cages, some playing in pens placed around the room. Some romped outside in a light rain.

So what is there to learn about university innovation at an animal rescue? Plenty.

Animal lovers often turn to Gandhi who said “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” and there is certainly truth to the notion of measuring the success of a community by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. But in the realm of university innovation, an organization like HALO offers more lessons to be learned.

“I believe the best way to create systemic change in your community is to focus on a particular geographic area and collaborate with all agencies involved to best utilize your collective resources in addressing the issues at hand,” says president and CEO of HALO, Heather Allen. “In this way, there is less duplication of effort and therefore less waste. This collaboration leaves an organization like HALO free to focus on animals who aren’t ready for adoption by the local shelters, while other organizations can target puppy mills, dog fighting and proper pet ownership.”

Ideas such as these lead to the kind of social innovation for which President Obama continues to advocate. The joining of altruistic efforts and resources for the betterment of our communities is something in which ASU has a vested interest and is something community organizations like HALO have much to teach us about.

“ASU offers the ability to provide its students and faculty participation that is a bit unique to your average volunteer,” Allen goes on to say. “General volunteers are great and we always need them, but the need for educated individuals with marketing, business, writing and PR backgrounds is immense. These are needs you can’t hand over to a general volunteer, as sometimes their desire to help doesn’t meet the requirements of the project at hand.

“It seems like ASU could help with this by helping to direct students to specific projects with specific time commitments. This would give us the ability to train them, realizing the more time they can commit, the more training we can give them. This would also help us get the help we need, but can’t otherwise afford. And it would be a great help to students who are interested in real-life experience. For example, if a student were to head up an event, he or she would be able to see event management from start to finish and be able to appreciate everything it takes to get an idea off the ground and running.”

Student volunteering is a tradition nearly as old as the university, itself. But Allen describes a different type of volunteering, one that involves more than the mere presence of an able body on a Saturday afternoon. ASU’s service learning opportunities are working to address this need by collaborating with community organizations and creating varied opportunities for ASU students to learn and grow via community engagement.

But these opportunities tend to be structured to meet the rhythm of the university, not the community, making collaboration difficult and responsiveness from the university to immediate community needs nearly impossible. Compounding the issue is curriculum that, by its very nature, allows little room for the acquisition of knowledge gained outside classroom walls—especially when this knowledge doesn’t always align easily with scholarly research. If innovation is the “carrying out of new combinations,” what new combinations would be necessary for the university to better balance the needs of its students with its commitment to our communities?

“I believe everyone has a responsibility to create positive change in their communities and ASU is no exception,” Allen says. “As the definition of a non-profit agency explains, we are created by the people for the people. We are doing the work of the community for the community, fueled by their dollars, doing the work they feel is needed. When it comes right down to it, the ultimate decision on how efforts are spent in our community is decided by the members of the community, itself. This is most clearly evidenced in where they put their financial support and time commitments. Fortunately, there are enough people in this world with enough different interests that the areas of need have advocates across the board.”

So how are decisions like this made at the university? Who determines where we focus our energies, how we spend our time? If university innovation truly has the ability to become a “basis for cultural change,” then how do we shape this potential and to what ultimate outcomes? 

University innovation is a complex concept that all of us at ASU need to address. As we continue to transform ourselves into this “New American University”—one that responds, rather than reacts to the issues facing society today and as this transformation leads us into the hazy realm of “university innovation,” then fully understanding its potential to impact society positively is something for all of us to explore.

(read the full interview here)


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