This is a continuation of Creativity and the Research University
II. The creative faculty
The issues are different here from those encountered in looking at student creativity, because we are dealing with a class of accomplished scholars who have already shown capacity for creativity. Thus the environment in which the faculty work becomes a critical determinant of whether or not they can reach their creative potential.
Amabile describes some of the environmental conditions that help to promote creativity. Among them are:
- stability of employment - this lowers attention to problems not related to the main tasks of research and teaching
- low bureaucracy - similarly, this enables faculty to keep their attention on the important things
- encourage rational intellectual risk taking, accept failure
- encourage interdisciplinary conversations - this help connections into different networks of knowledge
- expectations high but reasonable
- rewards not controlling - faculty choice in tasks, methods
In many ways, we see that the university is set up relatively well to meet most of these conditions. Tenure, for example, provides the desired stability of employment - for those who have it. Faculty are given broad choice by the university in how they will carry out their tasks. However, even here there are reality constraints that can lessen creativity. For example, funding for the research component of the employment is increasingly difficult to obtain, and faculty generally find themselves devoting larger fractions of their effort to finding needed research funds. The funding, when found, often is narrowly defined and can squeeze out any significant creative flights of fancy. Worst of all, many universities push their faculty to have the largest possible grants at all times - it helps the rankings. Such controlling pressure probably does not lead to the highest creativity. As Amabile has pointed out, the external funding can be most useful if it comes after the “aha” moment of creativity, since at that point it is not controlling, but facilitating. Thus some relatively small internal funds to support research through the necessary first idea steps ultimately could lead to increased creativity of proposals.
In addition, other improvements need to be made in the existing university structure. Bureaucracy, unfortunately, has grown significantly in universities over the years due to both internal and external pressures. Universities tend to have very intrenched administrative systems and groups, and in many institutions strong leadership will be required to create the kinds of administrative restructuring needed to create organizations that more closely meet tomorrow’s needs. For example, on many campuses I hear very vocal complaints about inefficiencies in the research offices, which seem not well organized to meet new requirements of the Federal Government, alert faculty to new research opportunities, provide timely grant financial data, etc. Internally, the important principle of shared governance has often led to a profusion of sometimes overlapping faculty committees that both demand considerable time on the part of the participants, and lead to frustration on the part of other faculty who feel that their ideas and innovations are being subjected to unfair or confused scrutiny.
Finally, many of our leaders do not do as good a job as they should of creating a supportive atmosphere of high expectations in their institutions. Distinguished senior faculty are the most important players in creating this atmosphere of supportive expectations. For example, I.I Rabi was a Nobel-prizewinning physicist at Columbia, one of the founders of modern quantum mechanics. He was legendary in his ability to stimulate his colleagues to “try harder”. One of his colleagues was quoted in Rabi’s obituary as saying “The most spectacular thing about Rabi was that during a 15 year period there were four Nobel Prizes all in different fields of physics at Columbia. Although Rabi wasn’t involved in the specific work, he was the key motivating person.” According to a widely quoted (and perhaps apocryphal) story, Rabi would roam the halls of the department, dropping into offices to ask about the latest research of individual faculty. When it had been explained to him, he would ask, “ Is this the most important problem in your field? If not, why aren’t you working on the most important problem?” With more senior faculty helping to define expectations like that, we would have a much more creative atmosphere!
One of the areas where universities generally are not really good is in encouraging interdisciplinary conversations. Many claim to do it well, but when you look at it closely, few are actually good at it. It is interesting to look at the brand new King Abdulla University of Science and Technology (see my comments here and here), which is organized with the goal of actually being at the forefront of interdisciplinary knowledge creation:
The KAUST approach is obviously not the only one for increasing interdisciplinary activities and conversations. However, it does give some feeling for the elements to be considered, and the significant organizational changes that might be required to maximize interdisciplinary exchange of ideas.