President's Blog

Critical doing

I recently wrote an article (“Critical Doing”, Presidential Perspectives: Innovative Concepts to Achieve Campus Transformation) where I argue that critical thinking, the hallmark of American liberal education, is not enough.  If we want to produce creative problem solvers capable of driving change and finding new solutions to our most pressing problems, we need to find ways to educate not just for critical thinking but for critical doing.

Take climate change, the archetypal example of today’s “wicked problems.”  To even grasp the basics of the climate change puzzle one has to pull in insights from geophysics and biology; industrial, civil, and agricultural engineering; energy and transportation policy; demographics; and international relations. To act on the problem, one has to apply a global mindset and be able to collaborate with individuals and institutions across sectors and national boundaries. None of the disciplines can explain the phenomenon nor lead to a solution by themselves. Only leaders who can think creatively across disciplines and collaborate with others from various backgrounds will have a shot on goal.

And herein lies our problem–universities have their own wicked problems.  Traditional academic structures, pervasive in today’s leading research universities, are notoriously inadequate to produce the kind of learning–multidisciplinary, experiential, problem-led, collaborative–that will help students become the change-makers we so badly need.

To be fair, there are commendable initiatives popping up here and there.  Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Center for Social Innovation (watch this YouTube video), UC Berkeley/Haas Institute for Business and Social Impact or Georgetown’s Beeck Centerfor Social Impact and Innovation are good examples.  Georgia Tech offers a project-led undergraduate track inspired by the Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges and, closer to home, Mason has offered a number of multi-disciplinary, experiential programs for two decades through its New Century College.  The challenge still remains to build scalable programs that can serve thousands of students, not dozens or even hundreds. It won’t be easy.

In the Critical Doing article I mentioned earlier (as well as in a related presentation I gave at SOCAP in San Francisco last October), I describe our efforts to build a School of Social Impact and Innovation that would offer this kind of learning experience to scale.  The new school would build on our New Century College, would bring together additional faculty innovators from other departments and schools across the university, and would offer innovative, multidisciplinary, experiential, challenge-based undergraduate and graduate programs that would leverage the size of a 34,000 student-strong public research university and the unique resources available in the National Capital Region.

Since I wrote the article and gave the talk, our work ran into a proverbial (and predictable) wall.  Doing what we wanted to do challenged existing academic structures and power relationships, creating a conflict that we were not able to solve.

So we had to take a step back and rethink our approach.

For the moment, two faculty members from two different departments will start offering a Social Innovation Fellowship, a semester-long cohort-based program for students from different majors–an important first step that may serve as a laboratory for more ambitious programs to come.

We are also building a large entrepreneurship and innovation space in the heart of our Fairfax campus.  The space, which we are currently nicknaming the MIX (Mason Innovation eXchange) will host a number of business and social entrepreneurship programs engaging students, faculty and industry mentors across disciplines.  A smaller version of the MIX is already operational and shows great promise.

Lastly, I am scheduling a dialogue with faculty interested in being part of this movement, to take stock of what we have done and learned so far and discuss realistic next steps.

No one said developing “critical doing” skills would be easy!