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Creating a culture for continuous improvement with academic programs is a challenge. As my institution—Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas—prepared for our decennial accreditation review, I found it difficult to motivate faculty to complete the required program reviews for the compliance report. With some cajoling, 41 faculty reluctantly agreed to take charge of the university’s 53 academic programs, but they continued to have a level of detachment. After earning the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges’ reaccreditation in 2018, I was determined to not face this same challenge for the next review. Like all universities, I was searching for a way to maintain these best practices over time and not let academic programs fall into benign neglect. I was eager to transition from a state of mandatory compliance under pressure to a mindset of academic excellence. I was looking for ways for faculty leaders to be inspired to continue their work with academic program reviews and introduce innovation in the programs in a more open environment.

To explore a way to support continuous improvement, the university’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness encouraged faculty leaders to identify their program needs and propose unique enhancements to benefit students. The office developed a financial incentive program for innovation grants in academic programs. As the idea took shape, I shared it formally with university stakeholders including the academic and administrative assessment committee and the president’s executive cabinet and informally with deans, department chairs and faculty leaders. It was designed to address the accreditation principle for universities to engage in “ongoing, comprehensive, and research-based planning and evaluation processes that focus on institutional quality and effectiveness and incorporate a systematic review of institutional goals and outcomes consistent with its mission” (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, 2018) while replacing that extrinsic principle with a commitment to continuous improvement and intrinsic academic rewards for students and faculty.

Innovation Grants guidelines

In spring 2019, the university launched the Innovation Grants initiative with a budget of $8,000. Faculty could apply for up to $1,000 to fund something new for their respective academic programs. The focus of the grants was purposely kept open to allow for the unanticipated (Immerwahr, 2011). There were six key components of the Innovation Grants plan included (Figure 1).

Figure describes six steps of the Innovation Grants process: 1. An open-ended definition of innovation; 2. Simple grant applications; 3. A peer-review process; 4. Leadership and support; 5. Innovation Grants self-evaluations; 6. Rewarding, recognizing, and promoting assessment excellence

Figure 1. Innovation Grant implementation process

Reflections

In the first year, 11 proposals were submitted and funding was available for eight of the proposals. Reviewers were amazed by the creativity of the proposals, which ranged from a library research day for students in the undergraduate English program to a “culture through film” initiative for students in the undergraduate Spanish program. Overall, Innovation Grants affected close to 500 students, and 17 faculty were involved.

The ease of application encouraged many faculty, who had never submitted a grant before, to try. Also, the relatively small award of $1,000 allowed the university to fund more projects and promote greater awareness of the opportunity. The grant design also promoted sustainability. The dean of library and research technologies made the commitment to build Research Day into the annual library budget. Other recipients stated that they were going to explore fundraising to be able to continue their initiatives. The Innovation Grants initiative built connections and forged partnerships across the university.

Through the grant approval process, those faculty who reviewed the grants gained a greater understanding of academic innovations. They were stimulated by the wide range of ideas presented, and they learned the quality indicators of a good proposal by applying the rating rubric.

All of the program coordinators who received the Innovation Grants were very enthusiastic in their evaluation reports. Some reported enrollment increases in their programs. Others stated that the funding allowed them to support students developing research papers and ultimately presenting their findings at national conferences. The Wildlife Management Department, for instance, documented that student field work techniques improved as a result of the grant (Figure 2).

—Purchase: two small cameras (gopro hero 7) for students to wear as a head mount in the field. —Academic Use: The recordings were used in debriefings with students to compare field work techniques and behaviors. —Impact: Through viewing the video recordings, students were able to improve their field work techniques

Figure 2. Wildlife Management Department funded Innovation Grant

Recognition was a critical part of the program’s success, as well. The winning faculty served as models for their colleagues to follow. For some faculty who were initially skeptical of the concept of Innovation Grants, the winning projects demonstrated real-world approaches to innovation for academic programs. An annual Innovation Showcase was scheduled for grant recipients to report on their implementations and findings. This event was well-attended and promoted a greater understanding of wide-ranging possibilities for faculty who participated.

Capturing the momentum

This year, when the 2020 Innovation Grants application window was announced, there were many more entries than last year. For Sul Ross State University, the Innovation Grants introduced a climate where new ideas were welcomed and explored. Truly, the mini-grant program addressed the issues of sustained change, faculty buy-in, financial support for change and using assessment to make evidence-based decisions that promote student learning. Through the mini-grant process, the university successfully transitioned from program assessment dictated by accrediting bodies to program assessment and innovation driven by faculty creativity. The Innovation Grants made academic excellence highly visible on campus. They also afforded conditions whereby faculty became more actively involved in academic program development (Hundley, 2019). Most importantly, the Innovation Grants supported a culture for academic program enhancement. This initiative encouraged faculty planning and provided financial support to make enhanced academic programs a reality. Innovation Grants introduced a paradigm shift at Sul Ross State University where faculty now see academic program enhancement as a creative engagement rather than an accreditation dictate.

References

Hundley, S. P. (2019). The leadership imperatives for assessment excellence: An overview. Assessment Update, 31(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1002/au.30157

Immerwahr, J. (2011). A legacy of innovation: Change. The Magazine of Higher Learning. 43(4), 25–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2011.585302

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. (2018). Resource manual for the principles of accreditation: Foundations of quality enhancement (3rd ed.). SACSCOC. https://sacscoc.org/pdf/2018%20POA%20Resource%20Manual.pdf

Further reading

Powers, K, & Henderson, A. E. (Eds.) (2018). Cultivating a data culture in higher education. Routledge.

Walvoord, B. (2004). Assessment clear and simple. Jossey-Bass.

Jeanne Qvarnstrom, EdD, is an associate professor of education at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. She also serves as the assistant vice president of institutional effectiveness and SACSCOC accreditation liaison for the institution. Her scholarship interests are school climate, student teacher preparation, and academic assessment.