Innovation at Trent: 3 Qs with Leo Groarke

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In September, the 10K crew went on location to the 2017 Ontario Universities’ Fair, to interview a dozen higher ed leaders about trends in innovation.

Leo Groarke holds a PhD in Philosophy from Western, and has experience as Provost at the University of Windsor, and founding Principal of the Wilfrid Laurier campus in Brantford. Since 2014, he has served as President & Vice-Chancellor of Trent University. In this special bonus episode, Ken asks Leo to answer 3 key questions about higher ed innovation.

Innovations at Trent?

Leo observes that Trent is proudly focused on the undergraduate experience, and is starting to return to its roots of federated colleges, modelled after Oxford and Cambridge. Trent is revitalizing humanities programs by offering a wide range of double degrees, and has partnered with Swansea University in Wales to offer an international Law and Arts dual degree. The renowned Bata Library is currently undergoing a $20-million renovation, and will remove half of its print collection to make room for an entrepreneurship centre, research and active learning classrooms. And finally, Trent is developing an 85-acre research park focused on environmental science and green industry. The park will generate revenue, advance research, and offer students experiential learning opportunities.

The Decade Ahead?

Leo predicts Internationalization will be very significant for Canadian universities over the next 5-10 years, and not just for revenue but to build global understanding. Likewise Indigenization will be a big priority, although Trent has been working at this since the 1970s when it launched Canada’s first Indigenous Studies programs. Trent’s Indigenous Environmental Science program, in particular, tries to marry the Eurocentric, scientific perspective with Indigenous ways of knowing. Leo dismisses MOOCs as overhyped, having had marginal effect on most university programs, but he notes the growing emphasis on applied learning and work experience: the Ontario government wants 100% of undergraduates to get experiential learning opportunities. But Leo cautions that universities also play an important role as places for reflection. The decade ahead will be “tough times for universities,” thanks to pressure on demographics and government funding, but “necessity is the mother of invention” and universities are good at recreating themselves in useful ways.

Culture of Innovation?

Ken suggests that academic culture tends to reinforce “zero fault tolerance,” which can make it difficult to encourage innovation or entrepreneurial approaches. Leo agrees that universities don’t tolerate mistakes well, and that in itself is a mistake: even failed experiments can lead to crucial insights that move knowledge forward. Universities put too much emphasis on grades for admission, attracting students who have never experienced failure, and are unwilling to take risks. Even researchers tend to be cautious in order to attract funding and pass peer review: the system is stacked against radical disruptive ideas. Higher ed leaders need to support innovators on campus, provide them with budget and moral support. When you have creative people, there is a great deal of opportunity for universities launching innovative new programs.

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