Dean’s Message – March, 2006

Best ideas flourish in a ‘blue-sky’ culture

As we wind down this semester, it appears that the initiatives launched by the Office of Educational Research, and supported by the strategic task force on research and the FPC Research Advisory Committee, have been a resounding success. All the Fien speakers were extremely well received, with standing room audiences at the main presentations and the small seminars. Departments have begun bringing in speakers on special topics related to their interests, and the audience for the faculty presentations at the alumni luncheon series continues to grow. Multiple searches are now drawing to a close, and we have recruited a dynamic group of new faculty who will be joining us in the fall to complement our existing faculty. Several of them have expressed strong interest in the “scholarship of engagement model” and one exciting development is that we are now approaching the point where several departments will have a critical mass of faculty who are intensely focused on incorporating tenets of this model into their research, teaching, and service. The SOE nominations committee also reported that they received 20 nominations for the five awards (PKY chooses its own recipient), a further indication this model is shaping many faculty members’ work.

Building a culture of research can only succeed in an environment where a culture of ideas exists to support it. The term, ‘blue sky,’ has always been a favorite expression of mine, since it suggests an infinite realm of possibilities that are limited only by people’s imagination, giving them the space to create programs and projects that do not yet exist, or to play with ideas even when they seem hopelessly impractical, crazy, or just plain foolish. Innovative businesses and organizations often fund ‘blue sky incubators’ just to remove people from the realm of their mundane daily experiences to get their creative juices flowing. One of the rules for participating in such an environment is that one can never say, “But we’ve always done it this way,” a guaranteed way to deaden enthusiasm almost immediately. Rather surprisingly, universities that one would think of as places where cutting edge research and ideas can emerge instead too often are so enmeshed in traditions that they cannot ‘break set’ and see the world differently.

The factors that enable a culture of ideas to flourish are simple. First, people need to believe that if they present a new idea, it will not meet with immediate and/or difficult resistance. While it’s only natural to be anxious about rapid changes, especially if they seem beyond one’s control, being open and receptive to listening to new ideas is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Second, people need to know that support is available to bring ideas to fruition, either in the form of encouragement, or financial assistance. While I agree that funds for seed projects can be very beneficial, I have often found that some of the best ideas need minimal support in the initial stages, and if successful, often generate additional support at a later point in time. Third, people need to trust that if they present new ideas and even implement them, they will not be sanctioned if the ideas fail. Many people carry inside the child who was constantly told – ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’- until as adults they stopped trying to do anything new at all. The famed developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, studied children’s mistakes because he found them to be better predictors of how children learned. As long as the consequences for making mistakes are not too severe, taking risks can have huge payoffs for moving an organization in new directions.  Judging by the flurry of ideas for new projects and programs I hear about constantly across the College, it seems faculty and students are truly living up to our centennial slogan – Celebrating the past and educating for the future.

Even though our focus this year was on encouraging faculty and students to generate new ideas for research projects, our staff should know their ideas are welcomed as well for improving life within the college. I note that the annual staff luncheon has now been recast as the staff luau, which makes it a much more playful event. I look forward to seeing how Hawaiian ideas get translated into a Floridian context, and the ‘relaxed’ attire no doubt everyone will be wearing. As long as no one expects me to wear a grass skirt and dance the hula, the event should be great fun.

–Catherine Emihovich