Change Incubators

When a large institution like the City University of New York looks to pilot significant change, they set up new structures rather than challenge the existing ones. These new structures serve the purpose of “incubators for change” within the larger university. For example, when online programs needed to be expeditiously rolled out, the School of Professional Studies was used to initiate the CUNY Online B.A. programs rather than attempt online programs at one of the 20 campuses. The reason is clear. The SPS online programs, like the exemplary Honors College, and innovative New Community College all needed more flexible and nimble governance/ organizational structures to successfully innovate.

What type of nimble structures or policies are needed for change? For example, all SPS faculty, whether they teach full-time at other CUNY schools, are considered adjuncts. Colloquial online faculty replaced a traditional faculty Senate in terms of governance. Such colloquial faculty are usually the ones advocating for and teaching online courses and are typically more open to change than their respective colleagues on campus. These and other changes in policies and governance foster SPS innovation which may develop without the constraints of faculty, unions and other stakeholders’ objections.  The lesson here, if you want to innovate, do it in the margins, not on the main stage.

Marginal Change

True innovation in teaching challenges existing policies or programs, and as such, will be resisted by those impacted by the change.  We see this in any discussion about online learning. The first question asked is,  “Will online negatively impact, or even displace, the existing faculty?” If faculty perceive online as a threat, they will resist it, undermine it, disparage it–all prior to experiencing the realities of online learning. Studies (see references below) consistently show that faculty who have not taught online are the most adverse to online learning. In contrast, for the many academics that have embraced hybrid/online learning, many report that their teaching has improved and even their enthusiasm for the profession has been enhanced.

At institutions with a long history of management and union discord, or those with a range of stakeholders in a decentralized organizational structure, change will not happen quickly, only incrementally at best. A variety of stakeholders must be consulted to get anything done, and invariably this process gets bogged down into a “what’s in it for me” mentality that ensures endless debate and postponed actions. In this type of institution, change can be “piloted” or be deemed “experimental” in an attempt to marginalize its impact on campus.  Without strong advocates for change at all levels of the institutional hierarchy, there will not be sufficient momentum to overcome the inevitable obstacles, hence relegating change to the margins of the institution.

Technology as Change Agent

Christensen’s concept of “disruptive technology” is worthwhile to consider in this context. Certainly teaching modes have been impacted by a host of technologies over the years including course management systems, video and web-conferencing, student response systems (aka clickers), blogs and wikis, presentation software, and a plethora of other technologies.  In the past decade, hybrid and online learning have become mainstays in the higher education landscape, but not equally across institutions. Alas, CUNY has allowed its online focus to be carried primarily by one college, namely the School of Professional Studies.  Although every CUNY campus has hybrid and online offerings as part of their pedagogical mix, entire online programs are only implemented at this one campus among the 24 within CUNY. The one exception to this rule will be a new online degree program for John Jay College which is being developed for a rollout in the fall of 2014.

In closing, I believe CUNY needs to develop more incubators for change on all campuses — involving entire online programs, not merely dispersed courses. SUNY, our sister institution in New York, has been doing a better job of incorporating technology innovation at the core of its educational agenda (future blog post on this) in terms of online strategic planning and rolling out online programs across all SUNY campuses. As I’ve written in the past, a centralized CUNY office of online would be a first step toward incorporating a CUNY-wide plan of action for online learning and technology innovation. Ultimately, if we are serious at CUNY about imparting 21st century technology skills to our students, we need institutional structures that put innovation at the center of university planning, not at the periphery.


Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., Lederman, D., & Jaschik, S., (August, 2012), “Digital Faculty: Professors, Teaching and Technology, 2012,” Inside Higher Ed and The Babson Group. Retrieved from:

Bacow, L. et al, (May 2012) “Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education,” ITHAKA S+R, Retrieved from:

Christensen, Clayton M. (1997), The Innovators Dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail, Boston, Massachusetts, USAHarvard University Press.

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