Becoming Florida's Innovation University

UWF's Innovation Institute is a "flying squad" designed to respond to community needs and challenges through the formation of educational partnerships

Martha Saunders, Ph.D.
University of West Florida

Pam Northrup, Ph.D.
University of West Florida

Background and objectives of the case
Innovation can be a problem for universities, primarily those with regional missions and structures. Still, we are under great pressure to innovate, improve service to local communities and adapt to the changing demographics and demands of today's student population. This case study will outline the progress of the Innovation Institute at The University of West Florida as it became a driver of innovation for the institution and the region.

Background: The UWF Innovation Institute emerged as a result of academic reorganization and strategic planning. The results have exceeded all expectations. Much of the work has focused on solving significant educational challenges. Challenges may be in the form of funded projects, campus-based issues and initiatives from the community, legislature or through partnerships with the military and industry. Solutions developed through a design thinking + systems process created at the Institute -- the IDEA Method -- are typically transformative and may result in a new process or product and possibly require organizational change to implement to its fullest.

Universities typically do not move very fast. The reflective culture of the traditional campus does not lend itself to quick response or fast decision making. Unfortunately, good opportunities don't always wait for us to deploy our usual processes and the window for seizing on a great idea can close as quickly as it opens. At UWF, we felt the need for a "flying squad" designed to respond to community needs and challenges through the formation of educational partnerships. We had talked about forming such a unit for a while, and academic reorganization gave us a prime opportunity.

It made sense to house the Innovation Institute in the Division of Academic Affairs. This gave us the best access to the faculty and research resources and the corresponding top decision makes. In addition, whenever you are engaging in educational partnerships, the credibility of the academic division and the support of the individual colleges matter. Many of the project include direct alignment to academic affairs serving libraries, student admissions, enrolment, retention and graduation as well as building out innovative programs like competency-based education, accelerated programs, shared programs, concierge coaching and more.

The days of universities (especially public universities) functioning separately from the communities in which they exist are totally over. The service portion of our mission extends to economic development of the region. In that regard, we need to be responsive to opportunities as they emerge. In my experience, when a company is looking to locate in a community or a local business is thinking of expansion, the ability of the local higher education institution to provide the needed workforce is key to decision making.

Initially, we had a strong vision for where we wanted to go and garnered a great deal of support. We did not anticipate the significant changes in leadership that would be required. Innovation is necessary and a lot of fun. However, not everyone wants to change the status quo even if it is failing. Another challenge was staffing. An innovative, pioneering, collegial spirit having comfort with the uncertainty of what might unfold, the confidence to follow a path less travelled and the ability to take innovative ideas to execution is not for everyone. There are few innovation organizations within higher education. To launch a similar enterprise, there must be support by senior academic leadership to ensure workflow. Innovation teams must have the freedom to work. The leader of the organization should have sufficient experience at a high enough level in the organization to have breadth and depth of knowledge across the academic enterprise.