Seeking the Holy Grail of Education: Roger Martin Speaks at Transformation Imperative Kickoff

Roger Martin (right), dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, shared his thoughts on the future of higher education with Philadelphia University Provost Randy Swearer.

Higher education is facing a period of deep disruptions to its business model, and those institutions that do not innovate to keep up with a changing world may be wiped out, business and innovation expert Roger Martin told a packed audience at PhilaU Jan. 9 in the first in a series of talks on the future of higher education.

“My prediction is that over the next 10 or 15 years, there will be a whole lot of universities in this country that are in deep trouble,” Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, said as he and Provost Randy Swearer engaged in an on-stage discussion in the DEC Center Forum.

Higher education as a mature industry is “self-satisfied” and thus complacent, he said, but those institutions that apply innovative educational approaches may excel in such a climate.  “You’re ahead of the game,” Martin said of PhilaU’s commitment to an interdisciplinary, collaborative educational model.

Martin’s appearance kicked off The Transformation Imperative: reframing the university, a semester-long series of talks at PhilaU focusing on the future of higher education.

Martin, an expert in design thinking and business, has led the Rotman School through a period of unprecedented growth in enrollment, academic offerings and faculty positions.  He also is a bestselling author, and his books include Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NHL, which was named a best finance and economics book in 2011.

During his talk, Martin said that disruption to higher education is coming in two main forms: through competition from low-cost online degree programs and the need to redesign higher education curricula to better reflect life after college.

“Real life is complex,” he told the audience. “When you are working, you can’t say ‘sorry, I only work on pure marketing problems.’ It’s not like that. How long would you last if that was your approach?”

“Life is messy and complicated,” Martin continued.  “What you’re doing [at PhilaU] is to make education more like life. You are ahead of the coming crunch.”

Martin discussed what he considers to be the holy grail of higher education: teaching students the skills to relate their individual expertise to the expertise of others—a practice he called interdisciplinarity. “It’s not enough to say we are interdisciplinary,” he said. “That is great, it’s a huge advance over what others are doing, but the holy grail is the basic science of interdisciplinarity —what is the mechanism of taking how you think about something and how I think about something and combining them to get something better.”

Martin talked about teaching design thinking and innovation, praising Philadelphia University’s commitment to integrating those disciplines into the curriculum at an undergraduate level.  The Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce is a prime example of this.

“I think what you are doing is as important as anything anyone is doing in higher education in the U.S.” Martin said. “Just don’t stop at being interdisciplinary.”

Some 140 students, faculty and staff from PhilaU and other area institutions attended the event, taking advantage of the opportunity to hear from Martin and ask questions following the discussion. Martin was asked, among other questions, about the biggest killer of creativity and innovation.

“Two words: prove and it,” Martin said to knowing laughter throughout the crowd. “Nothing new has ever been proven to work in advance.”

For those who missed this event, a video recording will be made available in the coming weeks. Check back for updates.

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