Ending Educational Privilege in a Networked World

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and Founding Executive Director, Center for Academic Innovation

No one exists alone, or should, in a networked world dotted by connection. Try as we might to stay ahead of breakthrough technologies in this digital age we find, time and again, that our solutions are simply human. Compassion, critical thinking, and collaboration scaffold our shared pursuit of the discovery of what’s next.

So what kind of connections will we make and sustain?

How will we choose to learn with and from each other?

Which societal problems will we select and solve?

As we establish the new Center for Academic Innovation I’m reminded of what motivated my own journey to the University of Michigan.

I returned to the University of Michigan in the early part of 2014 inspired by a call from former Provost Martha Pollack and Vice Provost James Hilton to join them in a new effort to nurture a culture of innovation in learning. To do this anywhere would have been compelling. To do this at Michigan was a singular opportunity. As the proudest of U-M graduates, I knew what this could mean for students at Michigan and learners everywhere. This was an opportunity to dramatically expand our community while simultaneously making a big place feel small for each of its constituents.

U-M was doing something very rare in elite higher education: thinking critically about it’s unique strengths while also taking an honest look at what was standing in the way of becoming leaders and best. Elite and elitism, as they say, are not the same. “Elite” is about excellence and merit. “Elitism“ is too often about exclusion. What we want is inclusive excellence and to that end, finding pathways to it may be the purest form of innovation. Then, as now, I heard from U-M’s leadership team a clear challenge to our community: to relax perceived constraints and vigorously pursue reach and impact.

It was impossible for me to think of being anywhere else.

My own Michigan student experience some years ago was a marathon of discoveries. About the world. About myself. Across and within disciplines. Exposure to a steady stream of complex problems I didn’t know I needed to understand. An exercise in asking questions and questioning answers. New lights turned on that will never go out. An experience I wish upon everyone.

So if there was ever a doubt that I would commit my professional career to this most special institution, President Schlissel removed it this morning by establishing the Center for Academic Innovation. It is not a $50 million financial investment that alters my view of what’s now possible — though we will carefully steward new resources in the service of our mission — but rather our institution’s unalterable commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion as an engine for innovation and excellence.

This morning, President Schlissel formally established our new Center and issued a grand challenge to our community — that we live up to our potential as a world-class public research university and shape the future of learning and the future of higher education. Together with Provost Philbert — who continuously challenges us to bolster excellence in student learning, in new research possibilities, and in serving the world more effectively — President Schlissel has pointed toward a particular vision of excellence that only a great public research university can pursue.

In the first public talk I delivered upon returning to Ann Arbor I asked what the University of Michigan, with all its scale and breadth of excellence, was uniquely positioned to do in a digital age. It is time, as President Schlissel remarked earlier today, for the Center for Academic Innovation, and our broader university community, to take another step toward answering this question.

To become leaders and best in the field of learning innovation, three values must guide our work — we will extend academic excellence, expand public purpose, and end educational privilege.

With compassion, critical thinking, and a collaborative spirit we embrace the networked world, where no one exists alone and no one runs the same marathon, and we strive to create new models for education that are more effective and equitable, and that provide access to learning experiences that are global, engaged, and lifelong.

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