CLEMENS: An innovation playbook for higher ed 

A sidewalk leads to the South Building on campus at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

When the North Carolina General Assembly established the nation’s first public university, legislators created an innovation playbook: prepare a “rising generation” for life “by paying the strictest attention to their education.”  

Innovation remains both a founding principle and pathway to a prosperous future, and UNC is poised again to change the game in higher education with a new innovation playbook.  


The play is simple: harness the power of our curriculum, practice, people and partnerships to improve an already outstanding taxpayer return on investment. Our state needs a workforce primed for innovation: our students want to be a part of it; and everyone benefits from the play. 

Executing will require discipline and focus in the face of division and distraction, as it always has. From the beginning, universities have been ideologically and politically contested turf — back in 1793, founders William Davie and Samuel McCorkle had stark disagreements about the curriculum at UNC.  

Now as then, we should not let factions within the university and tensions between the university and its stakeholders divide and distract us from the fundamentals of our playbook: nurturing citizen scholars, enabling career development and driving innovation. Those are goals we can achieve if we keep the needs of our students and our state at the center of the conversation. 

Despite a global pandemic, our faculty have made incredible progress on our IDEAs-in-action curriculum as a cornerstone of our playbook. It is organized around building capacities for analysis, creative expression, communication, ethics, quantitative reasoning, natural scientific investigation; but with the overarching goal of reaping the private and public benefits of public education. Its goal is to create “citizen scholars” who have not only encountered the life-changing ideas in a liberal arts and humanities curriculum, but who have developed capacities to put ideas into action, both in the workforce and in civic life.  

Experiential learning — the practices that bridge the classroom and the world beyond ― is a second crucial element of the playbook. Our students increasingly choose to prepare for careers in the sciences, especially applied sciences and engineering. They want practical research experience to complement classroom learning: They understand that undergraduate research is a chance to gain skills needed in the workplace, strengthen critical thinking, practice innovative problem solving and form career-advancing relationships. Through the UNC Office of Undergraduate Research students connect with faculty to find and fund research opportunities both at home and abroad, and they are participating in record numbers.  

UNC is a top-ten federally funded research university, but we cannot rest on those laurels: We will need new thinking and new talent to advance our position as tectonic shifts occur in the federal research landscape. The National Science Foundation has formed an entirely new directorate called TIP: Technology, Innovation and Partnerships that will expand focus on innovation and the societal and economic benefits of applied research. We will need the right people to run new plays.  

As UNC Chapel Hill seeks to hire a new vice chancellor for research and a new chief innovation officer, we can position the university to connect with applied research opportunities that will enhance North Carolina’s ability to attract new industries. With the right people, we can also lead in founding and nourishing successful homegrown companies based on technology developed by our faculty and students. 

But we will not do this alone. Innovation at scale will require new partnerships. In North Carolina, a new public-private partnership called NC Innovation (or NCI) offers an unprecedented opportunity. NCI points out that while North Carolina is second among states at attracting academic and industry R&D funding, we rank 20th in innovation. NCI offers a roadmap for how to do better. Their plan to build a collaborative public-private innovation ecosystem dovetails nicely with the research appetite of UNC students and the objectives in our own strategic plan.  

All of our playbook — curriculum, practices, people and partnerships — requires that we extend our collective focus beyond the campus borders in service of the greater good. Innovation grows out of networks that cross boundaries between universities, between regions, between academia and capital, between industry and academia, and between government and industry. It is a complex landscape that traditional academics do not fully understand, but one in which our students are eager to participate and one I know we can master. 

Change is hard, and innovation demands change. I have found the best tool for managing change is to listen not to the loudest or most agitated voices or those with a political agenda, but to those who place the interests of our faculty, students and state at the center of our work. All these interests align perfectly in the new frameworks for innovation that North Carolina is developing.  

We are listening. 

Dr. Chris Clemens is provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jaraslov Folda distinguished professor of physics and astronomy. 

Any opinions expressed in this article are not to be taken as an official position of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.