Boise State’s Innovation Guru Pushes a Start-Up Approach as a Model for Change

September 29, 2016

Boise State U.
Gordon Jones, founding dean of the year-old College of Innovation and Design at Boise State U.: “We’re not just pushing our own ideas onto faculty who never want it to really work. We do a lot of reaching out.”
Innovation models come in many forms in higher education, often driven by factors like culture, tradition, status, and even geography. An Arizona State University becomes known for its willingness to test a wide range of internal ideas and outside partners, using its scale as a vehicle for experimentation. A centuries-old Georgetown University takes a more deliberate approach, relying on a just-beyond-the-campus "skunk works" to nurture and win faculty support for new approaches to teaching.

As founding dean of the year-old College of Innovation and Design at Boise State University, Gordon Jones has brought a bit of both approaches to his new job. The college, created to "leverage the speed, collaboration, and risk taking of a start-up," operates as a catalyst for change at an institution where about half of the 23,000 students are over the age of 25, and many are military veterans.

Mr. Jones, 47, came to Boise State after a four-year stint running the Harvard Innovation Lab, and before that, 15 years of sales and marketing experience in business. That background, combined with the institution’s demographics, its remoteness from other urban hubs, and Idaho’s low rank in the proportion of high-school students who go on to college, may also explain his early focus on ventures that bring work relevancy into the picture.

Among other projects, the college has forged partnerships with a coding boot camp called Revature, the Harvard Business School, and the trendy product-design firm IDEO to provide credit-bearing courses to its students; it has created a noncredit curriculum for employees of the Albertsons grocery-store chain, which has a major corporate presence in Boise; and it helped develop a set of two- and three-credit electives on topics like "basics of coding" and "basics of project managing" to help students acquire skills that can help them land jobs.

Colleges must do more to take responsibility for what happens to students when they graduate, says Mr. Jones, "or we’ll be extremely vulnerable."

The Chronicle spoke with Mr. Jones this week about his approach to innovation. Following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

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Q. You’ve talked about the special challenges of creating an innovation center at a midtier public university. What do you mean by that?

A. In your traditional universities, you have structural and cultural impediments that keep the triples and home runs, so to speak, from being launched. I think there are a lot of singles and doubles, where people will look to do one increment beyond whatever the discipline is. You’ve got a level of conformity, because of, perhaps, accreditation, or perhaps because a lot of power is concentrated down at the departmental level. There’s a lack of either vision, resolve, or interest in going far outside those boundaries.

In my past life, it’s what I would call taking Crest toothpaste, and adding Scope to it, and saying we now offer Crest with Scope, as opposed to a completely new vision for how brushing your teeth might occur or new ways in which you might offer radically new benefits or new pathways. It’s the safer approach. Structurally in universities, too, you’ll place people with "innovation" titles who are under folks who are more wedded to the traditional system, so the conformity that comes out doesn’t really lend itself to original, new ideas.

Q. You’ve said one of your goals is to try to get the academics to own the projects that they create. How do you do that?

A. We’re not just pushing our own ideas onto faculty who never want it to really work. We do a lot of reaching out. We’ve run a number of different, all-faculty-invited initiatives to say, "Come reimagine this university with us. Where can we germinate ideas?" If we agree on that, you are going to be the faculty champion. You are the leader of this, and are you comfortable with that? It’s for faculty members who not only have an interest in an area but feel like this is their chance to showcase their work in a more clear and visible way — in a sense that they really own it.

Q. The model sounds a bit like the way a foundation would work, where the funding runs out after a few years and the innovators have to pick it up on their own?

A. This is about standing up new initiatives that cut across disciplines or represent outside-the-discipline ideas. Once they are "validated" — often validated based on student enrollment or participation — we will seek to "graduate" these initiatives to one of my colleagues in the discipline-based colleges here at Boise State. We have five other colleges. Our goal is to have a catalyzing effect on the university, accelerating the volume and the velocity of experimentation.

Q. How long will you incubate something?

A. In general, I would have a tough time seeing anything staying with us longer than 10 years and more likely three to five. I have one major, for example, it’s already taking off. It’s a gaming-and-virtual-reality major built, pedagogically, on art, psychology, and computer science. That major already is standing up. We have 150 majors, 200 students going through this who are freshmen and sophomores. That major I know will stand up and be a going concern, but we still need to hold onto it.

I need to hand a diploma or two out for a couple of graduations before we’re able to showcase how large, how big all the different ways [we can go] with the model, because they’re already doing some new things in addition to the student learning, some applied labs with industry. We have a deal with DaimlerChrysler’s Freightliner Truck Division doing work around virtual, serious gaming for these driverless trucks. We’ve got all of the hospitals here in the Boise area doing virtual-reality training of nurses and doctors and early-stage training for various procedures. We need to see that in full bloom.

Q. You’re offering courses for credit at Boise State from Harvard Business School’s extension program, an online program called HBX Credential of Readiness. Why do that?

A. We’re saying as a public, non-top-100 university, that we have to be more focused on the outcome of our students, not just the inputs of getting students 120 credit hours — very analogous to the health-care industry. I’m on the Board of Directors of Blue Cross of Idaho, and I see a fee-for-service model and health care that’s rapidly challenging itself, saying, "What are we going to do about patient health?" Ultimately, outcome-based is the equivalent in higher ed. What are we going to do to ensure that our students come out [with] skill sets that can position our students to look back and say that the time and money spent was well worth it? I’m not considering myself a victim having gone to this university. I’m actually a beneficiary of it.

“All those factors combined reduced significantly what I call the 'immunological rejection response' that 99 percent of universities would have at first blush on this model.”
What HBX offers is a credential from Harvard Business School. But we also give Boise State academic credit, and students only pay for the credit hours they’re attending for. And they will, without any incremental cost, also be able to stand for and earn a credential of readiness from Harvard Business School. That, to me, offers that kind of validation and further skill reinforcement.

Q. When this idea was proposed, were there some faculty members concerned about diluting the meaning of the Boise State degree?

A. I have a colleague who runs a business school, and in fact they even offer a certificate of business readiness for nonmajors. [With the HBX course,] we most perfectly represent the potential for conflict and certainly early on, there’s an expression of, "Well, why would we — because we teach accounting or analytics or finance — why would we offer Harvard’s course on that?"

This is an immersive semester — nine credit hours. Our current model in our business school is sequential. So we structured [the HBX course] to be a little different. But more consequentially, I think our faculty also realized that this is putting our students into a cohort, because Harvard does aggregate our learners into a global community of 300, so the Boise State students are also taking this with 270 or 250 other learners from around the world. It’s a window for students who have an amazing work ethic at our university but maybe not a window into global perspectives that we’re never going to be able to offer with a 100 percent in-person course.

It’s not just HBX online. We offer, in person, a Boise State instructor-led course that unpackages what HBX is teaching and creates the local adaptation. For instance, we’re an agricultural-based economy. How does accounting differ in an ag-based economy than how Harvard is teaching it?

All those factors combined reduced significantly what I call the "immunological rejection response" that 99 percent of universities would have at first blush on this model. I also am hopefully doing this in a way that I want to showcase to like universities, that it’s OK to step into collaborations with universities like Harvard.

Q. I’m intrigued by your "Bridge 2 Career" offerings. Are they a way for your liberal-arts majors to hold their own in the job market?

A. We’re very concerned about students walking away from non-preprofessional majors that can really enrich and in fact assist in your future careers — the English majors, the history majors, poli sci, you name it. We’re seeing significant reductions — and I think most public universities certainly are, if not all universities — as students migrate out towards engineering or business.

I sat with the ex-CEO of Boise Cascade, current chairman of the board of Clorox. He’s a history major from Franklin & Marshall. He was telling me how much he loves history and how much it influences some of their decisions. And yet a lot of the hiring managers in these organizations are looking for very practical skills that lead me to believe that these hiring managers never would’ve hired their ex-CEO because he was a history major, and that’s not what they’re looking for.

These [mini-courses] can close the divide. Non-top-100 schools don’t carry the network that can allow a Shakespeare major from Harvard to still get an interview on Wall Street if they really want one, and that’s not going to happen at Boise State. It’s not going to happen at 95 percent of other universities because they don’t have the preferential network that’s going to create the opportunities for those kinds of graduates to get the interviews. Bridge 2 Career is the way to democratize access to skills that may ensure a student a chance to get the interview and allow their major of choice to differentiate itself once they’re in the job.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at

Correction (9/29/2016, 10:55 a.m.): This article originally stated that Mr. Jones led the Harvard Innovation Lab for three years, but in fact it was four. The text has been corrected.

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