"We teach students how to get through uncomfortable moments so that they can actually get to really new places. That’s why I think our alumni are succeeding so broadly in the world."  –Rosanne Somerson, President, Rhode Island School of Design

Sunday morning is my reading morning. I like to catch up on the news, read Flipboard, all the papers, and try to understand what’s going on in the bigger world out there, since I’m usually caught in my smaller world of work during the week in higher ed. This weekend was no exception.

On my hunt for news, I ran across the following quote above in Wired Magazine, featuring the new head of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Rosanne Somerson. I’m no art student, but I do know that RISD is one of the best, if not the best school of art and design in the entire country. Two things about this article and appointment that I really loved, which I thought was worth sharing in a post, and in turn led me to writing some really important questions to ask for students shopping for their own college or university experience in the near future:

First, I love that RISD hired one of their own (as in alumna of the school) to head it. There are key advantages to hiring someone to head an educational organization who actually attended it as a student:

1. They know what the product or service looks like on the user end, since they were a consumer of that product or service. (In this case, we’re talking about education.)  As an educator, I’ll admit that I don’t know what’s going on in each and every class on my own University campus.  But, as an alum of my institution, I have a wider knowledge base about what’s going on than others who are brand new to the University.  It’s one thing to talk about it, and something completely different to experience it.

2. An alum not only knows what is or was in terms of the product or service on campus, but they also know what COULD BE for that product or service. They know the challenges, problems and frustrations on the user end, so they can correct and right the ship before others from the outside can.  Institutional knowledge allows leaders to hit the ground running when taking over the helm of organizations, because they don’t have to spend years solving the mystery of all the cultural and political mapping that never seems to end up on paper at that particular University…they can get to what matters more quickly.

Second, the thing I really loved about this new head is her vision on what education really should be. College is really about providing a safer place for failure and experimentation, which ultimately leads to innovation. University should be a respite for learning from mistakes, because mistakes truly can be our best teachers. And last but certainly not least, the one skill I think all of us in the workforce are going to need to get better at over the months and years to come, is truly being comfortable with discomfort.

We all have to get better at going out on a limb, taking some risks, and challenging ourselves to try new, different and yes, sometimes scary things. That’s the only way we’re going to move toward progress. It’s the only way to innovation. And as I’ve said here before, and it’s worth saying yet again: the train to Awesometown goes through Suckville. We must get good with failure in order to try, try again. Even Darwin said that it is not the strongest or the prettiest who survive–it is the flexible, agile and adaptable to change who will make it in the long run. That applies to evolution, and innovation.

So, congratulations to RISD for an excellent choice, although I don’t personally know President Somerson. While I’ve never met her, she and I do share the same philosophy on innovation and failure. And every parent with a high school aged student who is off to college in the next few years should be looking for this very same philosophy every time they visit a potential college or university for their children to attend.  When visiting, ask tough questions like the following:

1. Are failure and/or innovation in the university’s or school’s mission statement? In its values? In the vision statement?
2. How does this institution teach innovation? Provide concrete examples…both inside and outside of the classroom.
3. Does this institution teach courses or have co-curricular opportunities to learn change management? How to work through failure? Describe.
4. Describe 3 recent innovative projects your students have been assigned in a course or courses at this institution.  What were the outcomes?
5. What assignments or real-world projects do students work on without easy or good answers? Provide concrete examples.
6. Ask the faculty and administrators: What is YOUR philosophy on failure? On innovation?  When was the last time YOU failed as a professor or administrator? What did you learn?
7. Do you celebrate failure here? Innovation? If so, how?

If the schools or universities you’re visiting have no answers to these questions…run.  Run and never look back.

Erin Albert is an associate professor of pharmacy at Butler University.

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