People and Places

Welcoming Michelle Weise

Posted on July 8, 2015

By way of introduction, I’d like to share a letter written to the campus by our new Executive Director of the Innovation Lab, Michelle R. Weise. Michelle is a nationally known researcher, thinker, and writer in higher education and it is a real coup for SNHU to land her in this new role.

In her letter below, Michelle wanted to take this opportunity to introduce and clarify the purpose of the Lab. We’re using “Innovation Lab” as a placeholder for a yet-to-be-determined name. In the coming weeks, Michelle and her team will be holding a university-wide contest to determine a more fitting name—if there is one—for this space. But in order for everyone to brainstorm, it’s helpful first to understand the purpose of this new division. Please feel free to reach out to Michelle directly with any ideas you may have. She has recently relocated to New Hampshire and is engaged in a 90-day listening tour—committed to getting a feel for the projects that departments and groups are working on that might fit into the scope of the Innovation Lab. Please join me in welcoming her to our SNHU and New Hampshire.

 Letter from Michelle Weise:

 I’m thrilled to be joining the SNHU community. One of the reasons that I was drawn to SNHU and uprooted my family from the Bay Area in California to Manchester is the uniqueness of this university. In my prior work, as a senior research fellow at a think tank called the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, we often featured the strides that SNHU was making, bracing for and often driving disruption in higher education. This particular university stood in sharp contrast to the many thousands of academic institutions struggling with tremendous inertia and resistance to change.

Not many universities have been able to use the lessons learned in Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma to set up separate and autonomous business units in order to foster innovation from within. By relying on the theories of disruption as a playbook for innovation, Paul LeBlanc has been able to foster “breathing room” for SNHU’s University College (UC), College of Online and Continuing Education (COCE), competency-based College for America (CfA), and now Motivis Learning.

Many of you may recall that the first iteration of SNHU’s Innovation Lab ultimately became CfA. In this reboot of the Lab that I will now be leading, the “Innovation Lab”—a name, which will simply be a placeholder for the moment—will operate as the research arm and driver of innovation in service of SNHU’s overarching strategy.

It’s easiest to think of this endeavor as a two-pronged effort:

  • Internally, to work with you to wrestle with issues internal to the university;
  • Externally, to grapple with big-picture ideas in higher education.

Higher education as a whole finds itself navigating a tumultuous new terrain that is complicated by economic urgency, public disinvestment, rising tuition and student loan debt, as well as the rising cost to stay competitive as a college, and increased scrutiny on student outcomes. SNHU is one of the few institutions that has the incredible advantage of being able to leverage its experience with different student populations and distinctive learning environments to rethink the role of higher education, instead of being merely reactive.

An Internal Consultancy

As part of its research function, the Innovation Lab will think critically, in concert with the Office of the President, about thorny issues of decentralization and integration within the university, rethinking and improving our processes, and simply being better at everything we do.

From modest roots, the university has now grown to house over 70,000 students across its three “campuses.” This strategy of keeping each unit separate has worked well for years. In fact, the autonomous growth of all three units is precisely what distinguishes SNHU from the rest of the institutions out there today. Yet all organizational models have advantages and disadvantages.

The Lab will begin to explore questions such as: What are the ways in which we must preserve autonomy, and how might we decrease inefficiencies by integrating across silos? How can we leverage the different campuses to serve unmet needs? What will we do to serve a changing demographic of college-going students? Are there ways in which we can attend to a growing Latino population and other underserved populations of students?

I’ve only just begun a listening tour across the university, and already I’m hearing recurring and dovetailing concerns about the challenges of mentorship, coaching, alumni engagement, the needs of the students, and job attainment. Each of these issues cuts across all three business units. Part of our task will be to help find university-wide solutions and implement them where they make the most sense.

Indeed, as I listen to many of you tell me about the time, energy, and resources allocated toward these important issues, it is clear to me that there are ways in which the different units could become even more transformative or impactful by working together on challenges—especially those that center on the student experience.

Although each campus targets different segments of the college-going student population, each group thinks critically about student learning, increasing student engagement, and augmenting student-support services in order to deliver a high-quality educational experience. Everyone—irrespective of the campus—zeros in on the same question: What’s best for our student? Our task is to work with you to better answer that question by finding new answers, leveraging the considerable strengths within each area, and balancing the efficacy of our decentralized organization with a focus on students and transforming higher education.

The Innovation Lab will serve as a safe space for experimentation—a place for the faculty and staff from UC, COCE, and CfA to come together to collaborate on common challenges. This will be your space. Individuals and teams from all departments and units will have access to a state-of-the-art facility to flesh out ideas. There are so many excellent ideas out there, but let’s put some data around them to see if these are projects that we can actually pursue.

Our Lab team will be as high-touch as you need: we’re here as a resource for research and development, data analytics and data modeling, iterative testing, and project management. We will help facilitate gatherings, ideation workshops, and scrum sessions. We will provide you everything from a simple, creative gathering space to full research and meeting facilitation. Ultimately, in its ideal form, the Lab will enable the cross-pollination and galvanization of efforts across our multiple campuses on clearly articulated challenges ahead.

Anticipating What’s Next in Higher Education

For its outward-facing role, the Lab will concentrate on what comes after “next” in higher education. Only a handful of institutions are positioned strongly enough to be thinking about these kinds of emerging questions: How do we break new ground in higher education and incubate new and alternative business models of higher education?

To begin, we’ll focus on questions like: How might we bring programs into international markets going forward, so that we continue to increase access to populations of students to whom attention is not paid? How does the global market relate to the students whom we currently serve? We’ll also consider our role in the next generation of learning assessments and immersive learning environments.

With some of these projects, we will partner with government, business, and industry to find solutions to the country’s most pressing problems in higher education. Once we identify a viable opportunity through intense research and development, data analytics, and AB testing, we will push that idea out as its own business unit or into the existing business unit where it best can thrive. Meanwhile, the Innovation Lab will continue to generate new work.

I am deeply honored to be working with all of you. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with your inspired ideas. Now that you have a better idea of what we’re trying to accomplish in the Lab, we invite you to collaborate with us and brainstorm a clever name for the lab. Innovation labs now abound and are common to the point where the term really doesn’t mean anything. We’d like for you to help us think of names that perhaps implicate or touch on the elements of the lab described here. Here are just a few of the fun suggestions we’ve heard so far: WeLabs, Blackbox, Breakaway Labs, etc. We will give you till July 24th to email us your ideas. Your input now could have a huge impact on how we present ourselves to the world. Perhaps even more enticing: the winner will receive an Apple Watch (Sport) (Sorry, not the $17k version).

The construction of the physical space will be completed by December of 2015. We will be located on the 5th floor of the Elm Street Office in Manchester. But we’re not waiting for the Lab to be built. We’re starting now, and we’re ready to listen to you. In all of our work—both internal and external—we will be open and dedicated to researching and developing ideas with a coalition of the willing.

Let’s rethink higher education together.

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