Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

By Jeffrey J. Selingo

Walk into the office of any top official on a college campus these days, and you’ll probably find a degree hanging on the wall from one of the classic liberal arts disciplines or an education field. Among presidents, for instance, nearly 70 percent come out of one of three academic areas: education, social sciences, or the humanities and fine arts. Perhaps the lack of variety in backgrounds helps explain why, when navigating the ambiguity of their institutions in an increasingly volatile landscape, leaders tend to fall back on tried and true methods to overcoming obstacles.

Jhaj at Portland State“We go back to our training,” said Sukhwant Jhaj, vice provost for academic innovation and student success at Portland State University, “and solve problems in the ways we know how to solve problems.”

Jhaj is different. Unlike most academic leaders today, he was trained as an architect. So when faced with issues like improving undergraduate advising or serving adults with some college credit but no degree, Jhaj turned to his disciplinary training and the principles of design.

Rather than follow the traditional higher education playbook and appoint committees that might take months, or even years, to find solutions to the problems as perceived by administrators and faculty members, Jhaj turned the process inside out. He realized the end users—the students—were the experts in this case, not university officials. The problems to be solved were discovered through listening and watching the users, not predetermined by officials sitting around a conference table. Speed and constant iteration of new ideas, not inertia and risk aversion, were paramount. Failure was acceptable. And the entire campus community was invited to contribute to an open and collaborative design process.

“Much of our work and design has focused on understanding student needs and engaging the students in problem posing, as well as coming up with the solutions for those problems,” Jhaj said.

Too often, in higher education, institutions copy solutions from their peers or competitors without properly defining the problem in the first place. Not that universities shouldn’t adopt ideas from others—indeed Jhaj encourages it—but, he added, one major design principle is that, “you solve problems in the context they exist.” Most institutions go off track at the very beginning of a change process, he added, by failing to adequately figure out what they are trying to solve in the first place.

Another concern is that universities tend to be linear in their thinking—solve either short-term problems or figure out long-term strategies but not both at the same time. Crises seem to consume leaders on a daily basis, while longer term issues rise to the top of the priority list only on occasion, usually during an institution’s strategic-planning process.

But the pressures facing higher education—demographic, financial, political, and technological— as well as a spate of new competitors, demand incremental change in the short term and revolutionary change in the longer term. “To survive,” explains Jhaj, “institutions must be ambidextrous.” In other words, they need to work on both short-term and long-term changes at the same time.


This ability to continually tweak current offerings while encouraging radically different approaches to educating students in the future is the idea behind Portland State’s reTHINK PSU. The campus-wide effort to engage faculty, staff, and students in identifying problems and designing solutions was launched in 2012, just as higher education observers were questioning the financial sustainability of universities and massive open online courses (MOOCs) were capturing media headlines. At the heart of reTHINK PSU are three key questions:

The first project in the effort was the Provost’s Challenge. It adopted a tournament-like process in which some 1,000 Portland State employees generated more than 150 ideas that had to be submitted by groups of at least two people. The proposals then moved through various selection rounds over five months that included public feedback through an interactive web site where users could provide comments and tag ideas to bring related ones together, helping to continually refine problems and solutions.

In the middle of the design challenge, the campus gathered for a three-day symposium that Jhaj describes as a “catalytic moment for innovation at Portland State.” At the meeting, faculty and staff presented their concepts in five-minute talks in front of top university officials, and colleagues offered real-time feedback. The symposium and the entire process encouraged collaboration as ideas were often grouped together, building larger teams from five to sometimes 15 members.

A campus-wide selection committee evaluated the ideas using a mechanism developed in the corporate world to assess projects on impact and difficulty to execute. The committee also viewed the ideas though a lens unique to higher education by looking at issues such as student needs, resources, and risks. In the end, the university allocated $3 million to finance 24 projects in one of three strategic areas for Portland State: online learning, use of technology across the campus in education delivery, and student success initiatives to improve retention and graduation rates.

“We chose projects that pushed us, but that we could also realize,” Jhaj said. Take online degrees, as an example. “When we began, we could barely build online courses,” he said “Now we’re at a place where we can build entire programs.” To increase access to its master’s degree in social work for place-bound, time-pressed students, the university took a two-year face-to-face program and turned it into a three-year online degree, all within 15 months and for less than $250,000. While the on-campus degree offers direct access to professors and peers, faculty members have found that online students interact much more with each other and with faculty. As a result, the program has provided a model for other online degrees as well as ideas for improving pedagogical methods for traditional courses.

In addition to the projects themselves from the Provost’s Challenge, Jhaj said the effort demonstrated to the campus community that they can innovate and have the ability to do that time and again. “We needed to really build internal capacity of our staff, of our faculty, and for ourselves as leaders to innovate so that we can stay current in our responses to the changing context.”

That culture change resulted in the establishment of a permanent office of innovation at the university and in two large-scale design projects that are still works in progress: to rethink undergraduate advising and degree pathways.

When university officials examined advising practices, they discovered that counselors were responsible for more than 140 tasks; the design activities reduced those to five core practices. “That was a struggle for this community,” Jhaj said, but it culminated in a better system where students have one advisor even if they change majors. Students now receive consistent advice even about issues that they didn’t before, such as financial well-being—an area officials found during the discovery phase of the design process was one students wanted advice on.

Meanwhile, the degree pathways project uncovered byzantine procedures for helping students navigate the curriculum, a process that is often a major hurdle for students trying to remain in school and eventually finish a degree. Degree audit tools that were designed and available only to staff members are now open to students, and in the process were made much simpler. “Our degree audits were six pages long,” Jhaj said. Now the university is developing interactive degree maps, where current and prospective undergraduates could compare academic pathways in relation to time and cost, giving students an effective way to make degree planning decisions.

The design process at Portland State “made what many academics think are impossible, intractable problems and showed them a space where they can be fixed,” said Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 public universities working together to help more low-income, first-generation students graduate on their campuses. Although Portland State is not a member of the Alliance, Burns has watched the university’s activities closely and has offered advice to Jhaj in particular. “We need more people like Sukhwant in higher education who come from a collaborative design perspective and help improve tension points around the key user we often forget—the student.”


Indeed, many universities say they are student-centered but rarely take the steps that Portland State has over the last five years to design systems that actually work for students. A “design mentality” to problem-solving is now infused throughout the campus, according to Jhaj. Faculty and staff members as well as students, he said, now feel as if they have “permission” to solve problems in this way. Visual thinking and drawing is now a common method to working through issues, and so-called gallery walks, where people have an opportunity to see ideas, have become commonplace on campus.

Until recently, the process of design had been thought to apply only to physical objects. But now the process is used in more contexts, particularly in the corporate world, where it is employed for corporate strategy, organizational structures, and new ideas.

For his part, Jhaj is hopeful that the principles of design will better engage a new generation of faculty members and administrators in higher education. When he was completing his MBA at Portland State more than a decade ago, Jhaj recalled a class focused on how businesses learn about their customers; in this particular case it was the food industry.

“I was stunned,” he said. “They knew more about their customers—and they were selling bread— than what we knew about our students. That has to change if we expect to improve access and success in higher education.”

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