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Bryan Penprase and Noah Pickus on The New Global Universities

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Bryan Penprase, vice president for sponsored research and external academic relations at Soka University, and Noah Pickus, associate provost at Duke University, discussed their book The New Global Universities: Reinventing Education in the 21st Century with Minu Ipe, vice chair and managing director of the University Design Institute at Arizona State University. The book tells the stories of eight startup institutions, located all over the world, which focus on undergraduate education and have innovative models for teaching, funding, and governance. Their conversation took place May 15, 2024, as part of the Academic Innovation for the Public Good book series. Here are the video and transcript of the event. 


This transcript has been edited; introductory and closing remarks from the live event have been removed.

MINU IPE: Bryan and Noah, I'm delighted to be in conversation with you both. On behalf of everybody that is here today and those that may view the recording later, I want to thank you both for writing this book. 

The case studies that you chose to write about are things that many of us in higher education have been watching closely, been interested in, and the details that you're able to bring through, the lessons learned are really valuable for all of us that are thinking about innovation in higher education. 

To everybody that is in the room, please read the book. It is a fantastic read with all kinds of nuggets built in. We are not going to be able to, of course, get to all of them in this brief conversation. But do get your hands on the book. 

So with that, I'd love to jump right in since we have a condensed period of time. Keeping with the theme of this session, academic innovation for the public good, I'd love to start this conversation with each of you talking about two takeaways for new models in higher education from the cases that you've studied. 

We know that these cases were small institutions with a particular orientation, but the lessons learned are much bigger than these particular contexts. So two takeaways for new models and innovation in higher education. Noah, can I start with you? 

NOAH PICKUS: Sure. Thank you, Minu. Thank you, Matthew and Kristen and everyone for organizing this. In some ways, part of my origin in getting involved in this project was from going out to ASU twice a year and to work with Minu and others. 

And as so many of us do, getting inspired by what was going on there and also trying to square innovation there with that — in other institutions. I think that — let me touch briefly on two innovations of different types, and we can come back to them as you wish. 

One is about content, and that is these are universities that often have students and faculty from around the world, or they may be just located outside the US in different parts of the world, but they are — at the heart of what we're doing, many of them identified a need for a global core or a recognition that today's world needed students who were both conversant with global concepts, but deeply rooted in their own cultures and civilizations, and that you had to do that intentionally and not in an ad hoc way. 

And the second example I would give is less an example of content and more an example of process, if you will. Many of the schools we studied developed processes that we call continuous improvement. In other words, it wasn't a structure that said, we're going to do this. We're going to do it once, and then every 30 years, we're going to come back and look at our curriculum. But they tried, often with tensions and struggles, but they tried to find ways to make sure that it was OK to keep iterating and revising and updating and that, that kept it much more alive and less subject to a particular capture at any moment. 

MINU IPE: Thank you, Noah. Bryan, what are your two takeaways for new models or innovations in higher ed? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Yeah, well, often we'll go with rules of three, but in this case, we get four takeaways. So the two that I would sort of add to Noah's partly come from the context of the book. And the global part of the book I think is really important because in the US, we often forget how different the rest of the world is, especially in the dynamics of the demographics and the really enormous urgent need for education in places like India and parts of Africa. Where in India, right now, there's 40 million students needing college education. It's going to grow to 92 million by 2035. And in Africa, 60% of the whole continent will be under 25 another decade or so. And so there are literally hundreds of millions of students needing education. 

So it's sort of a mirror image of what's happening in the US with the so-called demographic cliff. And then in the same line, the mirroring comes in terms of how parts of the world outside the US regard liberal arts. And this was a refreshing and exciting part of the book for us. And we sometimes call it storm clouds and sunshine. That is, there are many storm clouds here in the US but sunshine all around the world, and especially in regards to how they look at liberal arts as revolutionary in some countries — because it breaks out of more colonial forms of education and really enables students to be educated, to become leaders, to think in new ways, to combine knowledge across domains and to work with people from various sectors. 

And that's so important for a lot of the developing countries in the world that need a new generation of leaders that can be more responsive to their rapidly developing countries. So I guess that global context would be one of them. 

And then the other — quickly, the last takeaway I'll point out is a lot of times people talk about disruptive innovation. Especially when they talk about innovation, they think of an app or a technology that will just change everything. And here the technology of these schools is really not so much about software, hardware, electronics as much as in creating communities and cultures. And so here the enabling technology and the disruptive innovation model is the idea of creating a coherent academic culture where there's a unified sense of belonging and ownership and co-creation. And that's what makes these new universities so exciting to be a part of and to write about. 

MINU IPE: You've given us both — both of you have given us good ideas to dig deeper as we get into this conversation, and I want to hear about all of these points that you've made. But before that, how did you land on these eight? What was the process of writing this book like? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Noah, do you want to start out or do you want me to take it? 

NOAH PICKUS: Go ahead. Go ahead, Bryan. 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Well, since I'm from the sciences, you talk about sample selection, right? And I'm an astronomer, in particular, so we're always classifying things. So I sort of think of galaxies of different sizes, different morphologies. And in a way, these schools form something like a coherent sample. They're all different enough to provide variations on the same theme, but they're all intensely focused on undergraduate education as their primary mission. They're all residential in terms of creating living learning communities. And they're all relatively small scale, which for us was valuable because it really allowed us to see the inner workings of how the leadership and how the curriculum and faculty came together. 

So by having this sort of smaller size, it really is a great model for testing out different types of leadership and different types of curriculum. And that's small by necessity too, because when you start, you need to have that sort of agility to be able to innovate, change, and iterate. 

So that's partly what — and then because we knew the sector very well, we all — Noah comes from a large research university but spent time at liberal arts college. And I kind of went the opposite direction. I spent most of my career at liberal arts and moved over to Yale. And so we were trying to find schools that also brought together the best elements from both the large universities and the small liberal arts colleges. 

NOAH PICKUS: And I would just add to that, there was a sort of narrative and personal side to it in that there are a lot of — Bryan referenced disruptive innovation. We could talk all about entrepreneurialism and innovation and change in higher education. But there's this disjunction between the amount — when we talk about great leaders and innovation and the sagas of what happened at Apple or at Google or wherever it might be. We don't often do the same thing in our universities. 

And we thought, in each of these cases, there was a dramatic tale to tell. There was often a founder or founders who were laughed out of the room, who couldn't get traction initially, who had this audacious vision. There were lots of ups and downs in the stories of how these universities were built, the cul de sacs they ran into, the cliffs they ran over. And part of what we wanted to do is just tell those stories. Not — we didn't want to provide PR. When we saw things we thought we should be critical of, or ask questions about, we do in the book. But we also weren't doing this in a carefully controlled academic study way. We wanted this to be the stories that are to some degree inspirational about what it takes to build a university or a knowledge system in today's world. 

And that's partly human story, and it's partly the narrative story of the people who joined this effort. And as you know, if you talk to people in these circumstances, they often report it as the most exciting, exhilarating, energizing part of their life. And we wanted to try and capture that a little bit and not just have the specific takeaways, but more the takeaway of the narrative that you can get. 

MINU IPE: And I think you both did that beautifully here. These are stories of extraordinary courage, of these individuals who are trying to do something radically new in higher education. And I particularly appreciate the way you detailed some of the struggles, right? From the outside, the resourcing, organizing, governance too, then getting into the institution and to build it. There's just so much wisdom and value in us understanding those struggles. So let me go back to your first takeaway, Noah. 

Each of these institutions tried to build a core, right, with a liberal arts orientation. And so much of the struggle was, what goes into the core? How do we build it? Tensions between Western ideas and local content. How do we balance out local history versus European history? What are some things that we can take away for all those of us who believe that we need to really reimagine the core of higher education as we move into the decades to come? What are we taking away from the struggle around the core that these eight institutions work through? 

NOAH PICKUS: I love that question. And I, I think there are a couple of different — let me walk through a couple of different thoughts on that. The first is — we were struck by — many universities have moved away from the idea of a core for lots of different reasons. Some we could judge good or bad. Or they've been left with the core that is, kind of, take two courses in Western civ or take, sample from — well, the faculty don't agree so take three out of the following eight. And we were struck by how almost all of these institutions really felt like that was insufficient to the needs of their students and the needs of the problems that they were trying to solve. 

Andrew Delbanco has this wonderful line in his book about college where he describes the idea of no student need, should be a stranger to another. And you need some degree of common knowledge and some degree of common experience, otherwise you're only bringing your differences when you encounter each other. And so I thought it was — we didn't expect this. So just the very notion that a core at a time when universities are often specialized and driven by majors and disciplines, that there was this embrace of the idea of a core. 

I think a second point would be that some of the institutions, African Leadership University and Minerva University stick out, tried to get around the issue of what's in and what's out of the core by focusing on a kind of taxonomy of skills, right? 

One of the Minerva foundation year — which focuses on empirical analysis, formal analysis, complex systems and different forms of communication — and they all tried to codify what are these 20 or 80 or 150 core skills and habits that are less about what book you're reading. You can fill it with different knowledge, but what is the taxonomy of skills that you need to identify and reinforce across the years as an undergraduate? And I think we found that extremely interesting. I had not been at Minerva but when we were writing that. 

I think the third part though, is because even when you do skills, you have to ask, whose skills? Who's identifying this? Sometimes at African Leadership University, people felt, well, these are all the Silicon Valley skills. Is that really what we need in the African setting? And I think the thing there is to caution our own hubris, whether it's a taxonomy of skills, or it's a core curriculum of some other kind. It is to recognize that they are deeply imbued by a set of Western ideas and ideals. 

And those aren't bad to my mind, but they are often very individualistically oriented. And we don't even know this because it's the water we're swimming in, in the West. And that when you're doing this in other cultures and other parts of the world, it makes it much more interesting to ask, what is the role of communal identity, of religious belief? And not simply of individual choice at all times. And that's a deeper level than what books you're reading. It's how are you being trained to think. 

MINU IPE: Yeah. Bryan, what would you want to add to the notion around this global core? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Yeah. Well, Noah really covered it well, but I might pull out a couple of themes that Noah was talking about, which he mentioned skills, and he mentioned culture. And I think both are arising from the society and time that a university exists in and are also co-creating that society and time that the university lives in. And so what's so exciting about these universities is that they're drawing from the cultures that they're founded in and interpreting those cultures. And so in a sense, the university is sort of a lens by which the country and culture is being expressed or being refracted. 

And the curriculum is that expression. It's something that the faculty and students shape. And so it becomes a common intellectual property that is created at the moment and created for the times. And unlike a lot of universities in their curriculum, which have been inherited and sort of passed down from decade to decade with small bumps and dents and minor revisions, these were created fresh from the ground up, for the moment, for the country. 

And so they're such wonderful expressions of the values, needs, and aspirations of the time and place that they were built in. And so you find this amazing cosmopolitan notion within a lot of the curricula, sometimes expressed in terms of global citizenship but in all cases, blending together works from East and West, from different authors that generally don't make it to the “great works” type curricula in the US universities. And so in some cases, you see courses like a Vietnamese studies course in Vietnam, you see some of the great classics of India being taught at Ashoka University. 

You see African proverbs making its way into the curriculum in Ghana, even lessons that are written on the backs of taxi cabs in Ghana become a part of the curriculum. And so they're able to incorporate so much of the local sensibility, knowledge, and wisdom into these curricula. It makes them very exciting. 

MINU IPE: Bryan, I want to pick up where you just left off and go back to one of your takeaways and that was disruptive innovation. Well, there are a couple of features across. I mean, they're all startups, so they get to start from scratch. They didn't have to undo things historically. But there was also the notion that you would have dedicated faculty to teaching, right? The more successful models did not want to go in the direction of sort of having faculty do research and teach, but the idea that you needed to have people who are committed. 

Noah, you talked about process improvement as a continuous thing with a dedicated group of faculty constantly paying attention, and then of course, the co-design with students. Those were some really wonderful ingredients that appeared in these cases. 

What do we take away from that, for all of us who live in institutions where we are not going to start a lot of things from scratch, where the faculty models are the way they are, our relationships with students are the way they are? How do we think about disruptive innovation in this context of what you're taking away from here for existing universities? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Hmm. Yeah, well, in the case of both companies and universities, there's a lot of pressure to maintain the status quo. It's easy. There's a lot of also very well-deserved prestige and respect that universities have from their past. But in this disruptive innovation model, one of the things that even the best corporations suffer from is the inability to reimagine their product and to imagine other consumers that aren't making it into the marketplace. 

And so I think we all, even in existing universities, have the opportunity to think more imaginatively than we often give ourselves permission to and to maybe step a little bit outside of those circles that we're always moving in — because I'm an astronomer, I'll call them orbits — and give a little bit more imagination to — imagine from the ground up what the university is for. 

And the innovations that you're talking about really come out from paring away a lot of the extra things that universities kind of accumulate and accrete over time. I think that's partly why they're so cumbersome and so hard to change and also, in some cases, so expensive, because they've accumulated little bits of this and that institute, this and that curriculum. And they're very — it's very difficult for them to pare back down to the basics and to really think from the bottom up, why are we here? What are we doing? And of course, you have that opportunity in a startup to do that because you don't have any of those past and prior obligations. 

So I think really it's a time now in higher education where I think we do need to think more boldly, and do need to take more risks, just as the founders of these institutions did. They don't have to leave their institution. I think there's a lot of great innovations that could happen if there is a large enough sort of critical mass of people willing to get outside of their usual patterns of thinking and acting. 

MINU IPE: Noah, before you weigh in, a question in my mind is, is radical re-engineering of pedagogy possible without having dedicated faculty? And that's all that they're doing, right? They're paying attention to the design of the curriculum. They're paying attention to how it evolves. In the existing models, where faculty are both researchers and teachers and sometimes the research components are given more value than the teaching, do you really believe that absolutely radical changes in pedagogy can still happen at scale? 

NOAH PICKUS: So I want to say I think it can be a “both and.” Let me preface that with one comment about the innovation and then connect it. I remember when I was teaching in the ASU Georgetown Leadership program, we often found that sort of radical or disruptive innovation could often be off-putting to people, partly because it was technology, cheaper, that's how you move up, and partly because it just seems so distant from everybody, a dean, or a provost, or a faculty member's everyday experience about the likelihood of that happening in their institution. 

And I think the idea that there's a spectrum, from a kind of disruptive approach to a radical incrementalism, that radical incrementalism just can be a way of embracing an ongoing, continuous kind of change. But you have to empower it. You have to have some kind of internal incubation system that enables people who are looking outside to what's happening at other institutions, not just every 20 years when you do a curricular revision, but in an ongoing way — and bringing that inside so that it is just like, as Bryan said, in the business world, the hardest thing about skunkworks projects and disruptive projects isn't doing them. It's bringing them back into the system. 

So in teaching, for example, I think that I was really struck by the fact that five out of eight of our case studies ended up focusing on teaching as the preeminent role of the faculty member and that the need for understanding the science of learning, right, actually understanding it and working together with peers, with colleagues on this, not as a secondary matter, but as a primary matter and the devotion to constant improvement really did require their full-time attention. 

Now, if you have an existing institution, it seems to me that you can have faculty who are full-time scholars who do some teaching, faculty whose scholarship so deeply invigorates their teaching that they're great colleagues to be part of this. But then you have to have the third part, which is the faculty for whom teaching is something that they are totally devoted to, not in a just I'm an individual good teacher, but how do we actually make this work for our students at the highest level? 

And the challenge is that we often don't have all three of those roles at our university, right? Or we do, but we don't have them equally given status and credibility and legitimacy. And that, I think, undermines what we're — and leads to these questions about, well, what is the value of the education we're providing? Because I saw, you know — I saw what my kid was studying during the pandemic, and that was terrible. That person just lectured for an hour, and it was boring. 

So I think, again, it's a strategic question, and it has to include the part that you've emphasized, if not for the entire institution, then as a strategic part of the institution. 

MINU IPE: I love your phrase “radical incrementalism.” That can be the thing that we all embrace. Bryan, were you going to weigh in? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Yeah, I just want to pull out one analogy because we're all swept up by this AI craze. And one of the things that AI came about through was this completion, like, when you begin a set of words, there's the next word that comes after it and there's probability. And I think part of the framing of so much of student life and faculty life comes from almost, like, this form of sentence completion, that there's an inevitability to where they're going and what they're doing, and they follow in these predictable trajectories. And I think this is something that the faculty perpetuate and the students fall into. And I think all of us really owe it to ourselves and our students to really think more deeply about do I really have to follow that same path that everyone else has or even that I did when I was younger? 

A lot of faculty, when they teach, they adopt a self-replication kind of mode of teaching. And really, if you think more deeply, was that really the best way to teach or is it just the one that I'm most familiar with, and the one that everyone else around me is doing? And breaking out of those patterns, I think, is really something we all have opportunities to do in all of our universities. You don't have to start a brand-new university across the earth to begin that process. 

MINU IPE: And Bryan, I want to come back to the AI idea. When you wrote this book, AI wasn't quite what it is today. Everybody wants to talk about AI. Everybody is talking about technology radically changing higher ed, and it will. 

But so much of the anchoring ideas in this book are focused on liberal arts education, right? Each of these efforts was a way to say there's got to be something about preparing our students to be global citizens, humans that will move the planet forward. And technology certainly will play a role. Now, as you reflect back on these cases, in this current environment where everybody is focused on technology and what technology can do, how should we continue to think about the role of liberal arts? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Yeah, so that's a great question and something I've been thinking about a lot. So AI, first of all, is misnamed. So it's definitely artificial. But I would contend that it's not really intelligence. It's a way of producing facts and retrieving facts and rearranging words. The deeper kinds of intelligence that we need to cultivate now that AI is here will become ever more important. And these schools — thankfully, we focused on what are mostly rather low tech schools where the really important interpersonal dimensions of the teaching and learning — the classroom, the cultures that students create, leadership development — all of those are present in these schools and in the foreground. 

So the presence of AI will replace a lot of the content delivery type of lecturing that is the prevailing modality in a lot of universities and allow for more time for these more in-depth interpersonal kinds of development. And so I think if anything, AI will place a higher premium on those interpersonal types of environments. And these schools, by being laboratories of that, I think will provide a lot of great examples that we can work from. 

MINU IPE: Noah, do you want to weigh in on AI and technology and how that all fits in with the liberal arts education? 

NOAH PICKUS: Just to underscore what Bryan said, which is at one level, as you said, we completed the book before ChatGPT had really launched. And so everything seems different. And at the same time, everything that Bryan said about when you think about active learning — when you think about underlying skills and habits, when you think about a more integrated experience, when you think about cross-disciplinary kind of thinking, these are all the things that what AI, a little like online, are laying bare, is how poorly we're doing on this. 

And so AI doesn't replace that. AI has simply heightened the fact that we're doing a lot of content delivery. And that none of us are or should be anti-content. Content is the business that universities and knowledge preservation — one of the things I think is often neglected in Clayton Christensen's work is that he understood that universities were also about the preservation of memory, right? They were about history and culture, and people forget that. 

But the idea with AI, that you're just going to have different ways of interacting with that content, isn't good enough, I think, that what we have to do is understand the ways in which AI lays bare how we have to do better in terms of what it means to be integrated. Just take one example. We all have experiential education. We all have academic education. And they usually run along parallel and separate tracks, which is crazy. It makes no sense that the ideas and habits you're learning in the classroom shouldn't be reinforced outside and then brought back in. 

And what we all do is say, oh, well, that's what happens. And then you ask how, and nobody can show you. So AI can do the same thing. So we have to actually recommit to that integrative work. 

MINU IPE: So much to be done in that area. I'm looking at the clock here. We want to move to questions from our participants. So I'm going to encourage everybody to drop your questions in the Q&A function. So the first question here is — it focuses on students as partners in the early design stages. So the question from Thomas Carey is, “Have any of them embedded the capability for innovation into their program learning outcomes and/or continue to engage students as partners in continued innovation within the institution?” 

BRYAN PENPRASE: I think I can just sort of mention a couple of examples. So in the case of both Olin College and Ashesi University, the students played a key role in managing big parts of the campus for not only the beginning at Olin College, but ongoing as they make new decisions that students are incorporated quite a lot. 

At Ashesi University, their leadership, their entire student honor code, the entire student judicial process is run by students. So they really allow the students to take ownership of their own education in regards to leadership and governance. And so I think those are two examples that come to mind right away. Fulbright Vietnam also used students in a pattern much like Olin in what was called the “partner year,” where the students come together with the faculty and co-design the curriculum. 

And that really allows for a lot of the bugs to get worked out in real-time as they're developing it so that there's not a big surprise when you then unveil the curriculum with real students. And there's a kind of a corollary to the old saying that no strategy survives contact with the enemy, which is no curriculum survives contact with the students. 

And so having that process in the early days, of constantly refining and testing the students, is super important. But actually, they tend not to carry that onwards as much as they might. I think the pressures of reaching equilibrium have really pushed a lot of other priorities into the foreground. And think, Noah, you might have some thoughts about this, too. 

NOAH PICKUS: Yeah, I think it's a great question, Thomas, because as Bryan indicates, it was so present at some of the founding moments used in different ways by different universities. But then we know what happens, which is you have to actually then manage the thing that you created. And I think we're all sympathetic to that. But I am struck by the ways in which I am hard-pressed to think of a time when I haven't involved a student or students in a process that has not made it better. 

They have — at a minimum, they've brought different approaches than older faculty, like a conversation we've been having at Duke about the question of why students might want more modular learning experiences, is informed by somebody who's 20, different than somebody who is 60. And so I think that one of the things we noticed in our universities was how quickly the core innovations settled in. And that culture of continuous improvement was very hard to maintain. And so I put the student component as a subset of that. 

And so I think a lesson here is it's often the students who will enable you to keep going on that continuous improvement and yet we all, for understandable reasons, sometimes forget to make them part of that. 

MINU IPE: You know, that is truly a challenge that we must all sort and try to figure out quickly as things are moving around us in such dramatic ways. As a follow-up to that in some ways is a question here from Rebecca, who'd like to dig further into the interconnection between community building and learning. How do innovative universities approach this relationship? Can you both speak to that? 

So I mean, there's the student relationship. But what about community building and learning, and how do those go together in these case studies? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Well, two examples that pop to mind right away: in the case of Yale-NUS College, which I was involved in, the community, at least for the faculty, revolved around this common curriculum, which was all taught in teams. And so this was a weekly meeting. Everyone had to appear for the lecture. They had to all co-develop the curriculum. So it was really intense collaboration and all of that. 

On the student side, there are so many different opportunities for students to create organizations, and they too had sort of this entrepreneurial energy. So there at some points, there seemed to be more student organizations than there were students. They were just popping up everywhere. I think when you do kind of level off as a startup institution, the students — because it's a small place where they've had a role in setting the tone, they often do find themselves in more roles that really are affecting change at the institution. And that — I think greater student involvement does help build a sense of shared ownership and community. 

One story in the book that I'm remembering, too, which relates to getting students involved throughout, was at NYU Abu Dhabi, when they tried to revive the curriculum. There was a series of these kind of late-night jam sessions that Bryan Waterman convened with free shawarma. And the students, they would gather for the food, I guess, and the talks. And in some ways, they would mirror that sort of curriculum development process the faculty went through. And that was a great community-building event as well. 

And at Olin, they also recreated the founding of the school with something that was called Build Day where they would call off all the classes. This was something they did after about 10 years to kind of recreate that sense of community. And students would present ideas for new courses, faculty would try out prototypes of classes, and they all had that sort of reimagining kind of moment. So those are just a few examples. But like any culture, they want to set up kind of a rhythm, set up some kind of, almost what you would call rituals to kind of bring together that sense of community. And we saw that in all the schools in different ways. 

MINU IPE: Noah, do you want to add to that conversation on community and learning? 

NOAH PICKUS: I would just — I think the word that Bryan underscored there about ritual is so important. We are communities, and we have — if you've been in an established institution for long enough, there are rituals, right? But you participate in them in ways that are different than calling into question what — they're less open-ended, right? Rituals need to be things that are settled so that they are ritualistic in nature. But I think the idea of creating these kinds of moments, whether it's a Build Day or otherwise, where you can reimagine. 

And people often want to know, well, I want a specific outcome from this. And we forget that the outcome is often the engagement of the community and asking, why are we here? What is our purpose? You know, at African Leadership University, they went through this in a very different way, under much harsher conditions where there was a moment when the university, I think it was 2018, had been identified by — I think it was Time Magazine, called it the Harvard of Africa. 

And so people were naturally happy with that. The problem was to their founder, Fred Swaniker, he didn't want to be the Harvard of Africa because that would mean being like the other institutions that were small and were not creating. He set out to create a leadership cadre for Africa, not to create a set of universities. And so sometimes our rituals reinforce the university rather than the purpose of the university. And having to question that and open it up I think can be a very healthy way, rather than leaving it off to the side. 

MINU IPE: Oh, absolutely. I'd like to combine two questions here. There's one question from Juliana, “How is adaptation built into the transformative design and evolution of these institutions, if at all?” 

And Kristen's question right following that is, “In your case studies, did you see a common infrastructure, processes, governance models, et cetera, that contributes to institutional innovation?” So this notion of, can innovation and adaptation be baked into institutions and what have, what are we learning from these case studies? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Yeah, OK. The one famous saying at Olin is that everything has an expiration date. They have this idea of prototyping classes that they tried to bake into the way that they operated. So there was an actual process for, you prototype a class, and then have it reviewed after three days. And that was really a nice mechanism in the early days, especially for keeping the curriculum fresh and allowing the faculty to try out new things. So that's one example. I guess the most common governance aspect that we saw was that departments tended to get blown up. 

And if you were at any school where you have competing departments, you can immediately see how much energy is put into those battles that really don't serve the needs of the students and often divide up resources in odd ways. So that was certainly a innovation that was widely adopted, and that also comes back to the community idea, because then people are not sort of partitioned off into quite so many little tribes but have much larger groupings that are spanning a lot of different disciplines. 

So I think those kinds of arrangements really do help foster a greater level of communication and awareness among the faculty, which also is a part of keeping the place vital and capable of reinventing and reimagining itself. 

NOAH PICKUS: I think those are the central points because they combine the notion of, as faculty, we are often more connected to our knowledge communities through our laptops, outside the university. And you have to develop structures and rituals that keep people committed internally. Meaning this goes back in part to your question about teaching and teaching-devoted faculty, but it also goes to the structure of things. And one of the virtues of universities. 

If you're a very established, prestigious university, you're unlikely to change the infrastructure around some things, but you have much less to lose around that if you don't have the faculty and the institution invested in that. 

And the notion that here are eight universities, almost all of whom did not create traditional departments, at least initially, thought about a common core to engage each other and then built these models like Bryan indicated, that didn't always last. There are lots of tensions. But the idea is that you could prototype without permission. You didn't have a two-year approval of a course. You just said, we have this idea. We want to try it out. How do we prototype it? And then the last part I'd add, because the questions asked about governance processes, is that is a real challenge. 

Ashoka University both solved it and has suffered from it. They solved the issue in the sense that they really got a lot of different founders involved. They didn't have, in the Indian context where if it's a private university, it's often by one person with one fund, right? And so they really almost crowdsourced the founding. And that meant that the support for the university, the donors could give a lot of input, but they could also be kept at arm's length because they weren't all — there wasn't just one or two of them. 

At the same time, Ashoka is like a lot of institutions in India having to navigate very difficult challenges between academic freedom and the larger political system. And that puts a lot of pressure on — it's hard on any institution, but it puts much more pressure on these small schools that have to be nurtured just to survive. But all of these things is the intentionality of the prototyping and the processes as well as the structures. And we tend to accept the structures we have. And that, I think, is the key thing that Bryan emphasized, that unlocks a lot of things. 

MINU IPE: Couldn't agree more. There's a question here from an anonymous attendee, and this is also something that I was thinking about as I was reading the book, the impact of these innovative universities in increasing access to higher education around the world and disrupting the persistent levels of inequality that exist in the existing admissions processes. 

Now, clearly, you said you set out to study these very specific examples. They are small. None of them were setting out to build a scalable model. And yet what can we take away from the lessons in these eight cases of getting to some of the access issues and the inequality that exists in higher education, particularly in the societies in which these universities exist? Where just as Bryan, you said earlier, just the demographics of some of these regions and countries are so — are huge and the capacity for higher education is so limited. What, if any, are lessons that we can extract here for access and equality issues? 

BRYAN PENPRASE: Yeah, well, in terms of the access, NYU Abu Dhabi, Fulbright Vietnam, and Ashesi all pioneered new financial aid models. In the case of NYU Abu Dhabi, it was free for all students no matter where they were from. And it became something like the world's honors college as students from every part of the earth were able to apply get full scholarships. Olin College also had that in the early days. So having generous financial aid helps, but of course, limits scalability, which is also something that has held Minerva University to a small number of students. They initially wanted to scale. And I know Noah could talk more about this. But it's impossible to scale with full financial aid for anyone. So that's a challenge that some of these schools have. In other cases, the business model had been reconsidered. 

In African Leadership University's case, they aspire to reach 3 million students. They pushed the price point down to only $3,000 a year for this new ALX program. So ALU has an opportunity to really pioneer new low cost models of education that could be really influential across Africa. And Ashesi, by way of what's called the Ashesi collaborative, has been sharing across the entire continent their ideas of how to teach new subjects, how to teach in new ways. And so they're having a big impact much larger than the number of students that are there. 

So I think one role that these schools can have, even if they stay small, is to be a thought leader for how education can be done at larger institutions. And that's something Olin has really taken to heart as they've had workshops they've been offering continuously every year. In the summer, they have teams of faculty from around the world on their little campus in Massachusetts. And I was just out in China actually in January, and I saw one of their fellows, Jason Woodard, giving a workshop to people from Saudi Arabia, China, Kazakhstan. All around the world, they had gathered to hear from them. And so this tiny little school with just 400 students has been reaching dozens of universities around the world and reshaping how engineering education is being done. So I guess the final point there is that these schools can have a disproportionate impact far larger than their number of students by this sort of pioneering effect. 

MINU IPE: I like that idea, Bryan, of the multiplier effect coming not from the schools themselves expanding, but by getting those ideas out there. Maybe no other fuels the radical incrementalism that could happen in other institutions as a result. But I do — would love to hear your thoughts as well on this question of access. 

NOAH PICKUS: Well, I think that's — I think you've got it exactly right, Minu. We do have some examples and maybe African Leadership University is the premier one. They now have opened in New York City and in Palo Alto or thereabouts. 

They're all with partnering with Carnegie for the advancement of teaching. And they have certainly driven down costs, and they are trying to locate, not — they've stopped building universities. They're building regional hubs. And there are a lot of questions to ask about this, but they are absolutely trying to find a solution that will work in the African context, in terms of need, in terms of faculty availability and in terms of cost. So I think there are things to be learned there. 

But the model — to pick up on what you were and Bryan — what you and Bryan were saying is taking things to scale has all kinds of advantages, most especially cost. And so this is not an anti-scale book, right? As I said at the beginning. I've learned so much from just the ASU example. At the same time, we wanted to advance a focus — there's a tendency, I think sometimes, and particularly when you're in the edtech community, where if it doesn't scale, people don't care. It's, you know, what's the app that will solve this? Oh, that's wonderful, but it doesn't scale — as if the idea is we're going to create one giant university run by AI that will be wonderfully scaled, right? And I think we can all see the fault in that. 

And we wanted to advance a more pluralist view, which is if you have 1,000 different institutions doing this kind of innovation and that the people on this call are asking and wrestling with themselves, that's actually a very good system itself. 

But, and here's the but part, it's only if there's an ecology, a network that develops so that what people — what Olin did can be shared with others, and they can learn from that and test that and then bring it — and so the scaling happens by seeing which ideas are disseminated. 

The problem I keep running into is you turn every corner and there's a new founder who has a new idea for a new university. And it's not that it's necessarily a bad idea, but it's so idiosyncratic and it's not picking up on what might we have learned from others and where can we build and advance that. 

So I think there's a lot to say for more pluralism in the system, but we have to harness the pluralism and that's the challenge that I don't think we have a solution for yet. 

MINU IPE: That is a good point on which we bring this conversation to an end. But before I hand over to Matthew, I want to thank you both for such a stimulating conversation, so much for us to think about, so much food for thought in this book. 

Thank you again for writing this book. It was a pleasure to talk to you.