OSU Spears School of Business Dean Ken Eastman on Higher Ed Innovation

Dr. Ken Eastman is Dean of the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University, where he holds the Norman & Suzanne Myers Endowed Chair For Excellence in Business Administration and the Richard W. Poole Professorship for Excellence. As Dean, he recently embarked on an evolution of the School’s mission, positioning and curriculum to enhance its relevancy in the 21st century. We asked Ken to give us his perspectives on the shifting higher ed landscape and what institutions can do to adapt to it. 


In your mind, what are the greatest threats and challenges facing higher ed. today?

There are a number of threats, but I think most are related to the changing perception of the value of higher education. Some question the need for a college degree, while others question the cost/benefit equation of one. Some perceive higher education as “out of touch” with the rest of society and think the cost of a college education is inflated by universities’ administrative “bloat”. Sadly, the perception of higher ed seems to follow the politically polarized nature of our country, with a majority of conservatives believing that higher education has a negative influence on America and the majority of liberals believing it has a positive one. Higher ed has an image problem that is only getting worse.


Why is it important for schools to embrace change and evolution in order to combat that perception?

We have to be more engaged with our various constituents to show how we are adding value not just to students, but to all of our constituents. We must actively listen to alumni and employers and ensure that we are providing our students with the knowledge and skills that will make them successful today and in the future. We have to become more innovative and entrepreneurial, and to create a unique identity for ourselves. Then we need to do a better job of telling our story.


“Higher ed has an image problem that is only getting worse.”


Why does there often seem to be significant resistance to change in higher ed.?

Academics by design are cautious and tend to be reactive. We are trained to carefully study an issue before deciding on a course of action. We also tend to be skeptics who are very wary of fads — we want to make sure something is a real trend before we act. This approach, however, leaves us vulnerable to the rapid changes we are seeing in education and our economy more broadly. We have a lot invested in the status quo and we are expending too much energy in defending it when we should be open to innovation. Our reluctance to change adds further fuel to our critics who argue we are dinosaurs.


In your experience how have you and your institution combated and faced these challenges?

We have sought to more fully engage our students, alumni, employers and others in the discussion of our future. As an example, we spent two years studying and then changing our core business curriculum. We are also creating awards and funding to inspire people to be more innovative throughout our community.


What lessons or advice do you have for others in overcoming resistance to change?

First, recognize that no one wants to change! It is important to make a clear case for the need to change and the costs of the status quo. Communication and involvement by people is critical. You also have to be willing to deal quickly and strongly with antagonists who fight the change using negative, political tactics.