When innovation itself is the innovation

Published: February 21st, 2013

Category: Spotlights

Natalia Tamayo for IA promo.

The message was clear to Natalia Tamayo, even through the blur of her tears.

It was after midnight last February, the end of a long work shift at a bookstore. She got in her Toyota Highlander in a Miami parking lot, checked her iPhone, and learned that she had been invited to become a Gator. The caveat that turned what should have been the happiest of days into middle-of-the-night despair was that she wouldn’t be allowed to start until January.

“What was I supposed to do in the meantime?” Tamayo said she remembers thinking. She was to watch as her friends left home to start their college careers.

The University of Florida’s offer of delayed entry to Tamayo was a plant capacity decision. Every year about 49,000 enroll in UF in August, which is capacity in terms of space and resources. However, that number shrinks to 47,000 for the second semester in January. The empty seats represent wanna-be Gators as well as underutilized space. Thousands of deserving students have been shut out of a UF education while too many seats are idle for four months. 

Five years of budget cuts have reduced annual state support for UF by $200 million, an amount too large to offset with program cuts and tuition increases alone. The empty spring seats suggested an opportunity for efficiency, making the best use of what the university already had. 

A program without precedent

Provost Joseph Glover’s plan to fill those seats flies in the face of generations of tradition so entrenched that he could find no precise precedent for the experiment the university began with Tamayo’s first classes in January. The university enrolled 300 freshmen on the condition that they complete their classroom work on a January-through-August schedule, this year and as long as they are UF undergraduates. 

“This could be one of the most dramatic changes to the calendar since the advent of summer school,” Glover said. “By changing the way we organize time, we can give more students access to higher education.”

Tamayo’s tears indicated that UF’s challenge to the status quo does not just disrupt the higher education establishment that bases everything from course schedules to housing on an August-through-May year. It asks students to re-examine their notion of university life. 

Tweaking the traditional calendar can cleave a campus socially. Months before the first January classes, the administrators found themselves arranging a freshman fall for students who were not yet officially enrolled at the university. That meant issuing IDs to the delayed-entry students so they could buy football tickets, encouraging fraternities and sororities not to exclude the inaugural class of spring starters from fall rush, and recreating in January the orientation and atmosphere of fall’s mass move-in to provide the same opportunity to bond with peers in their first heady days away from home.

The experimental calendar also threatened to create a misperception of the second wave of freshmen as second-class students.

“Are they going to feel like they didn’t make the first cut, that they’re the leftovers?” associate provost Andy McCollough asked.

Tomayo was first disappointed she wasn’t admitted to UF for fall admission. Now she’s a willing ambassador for the Innovation Academy, which operates on a spring and summer semester schedule.

Glover and McCollough devised an enticement to reward risk takers for trying something new. They could almost see that enticement from their windows in Tigert Hall, as the gleaming new Innovation Hub quickly established itself as the incubator for dozens of startups, and plans call for a 185-bed residence hall next door for entrepreneurs, researchers and students. At a world-class research university with a campuswide culture of innovation, they found their theme.

The Innovation Academy brings together students from 29 majors across seven colleges for classes in creativity, entrepreneurship, ethics and leadership. Whether their major is anthropology or plant science, they’ll graduate with a minor in innovation. It’s a mark of academic distinction and a resume booster.

Academy seeks students unafraid to fail

As Academy Director Jeff Citty put it, “We’re the incubator for the incubator.”

The innovation theme also signals the kind of student the university wants in the program. Citty said his students are not finding safe harbor from competitive admissions. In fact, the Academy was more selective than the university as a whole last year, as scarcely more than one in three UF applicants who indicated an interest in the Academy was accepted. Instead, Citty said, his risk takers are “students who are not afraid to fail.”

The inaugural class of the Innovation Academy represents a uniquely UF response to the perennial national problem of second semester enrollment declines. Glover and McCollough are trying to do better business. What they ended up with may be a new strain of solid scholarship. 

“I am a part of something new that sets me apart from the 50,000 kids at this university. Yes, being the inaugural class means we are the guinea pigs, but it also means that a lot of the program is tailored specifically to our needs,” Tamayo said. A class is taught in the residence hall where most of the Academy students live, and a professor holds office hours there.

The fall gave Tamayo time to transform from skeptic to ambassador for the academy, in part because she has become a convert to the calendar. Staying out of class, it turns out, does not mean staying out of Gainesville.

“I get to be here in the fall and experience all the excitements of college, including football, without worrying about classes, and in the summer when things are quiet, I get to focus on school,” Tamayo said.

Academy students get what they call a four-month summer vacation in fall that makes them available at a time when most of their would-be competitors for the most desirable internships are returning to classes.

Some of the internships don’t even exist in the summer. Consider the case of academy student and political science major Michael Tamayo (no relation to Natalia), who plans to spend the fall on the campaign trail, not in class.

“Politicians don’t work in the summer,” Tamayo said, because that’s not when they can collect votes. “They work in the fall. 

David Nassau, a business administration major from Tampa, used last fall to network at the Innovation Hub, join at least four student clubs, find a mentor at Santa Fe College’s Center for Innovation and Economic Development, and interview UF administrators from different colleges before deciding to attach himself to the business college. He even explored forming a local arm of the non-profit he launched in high school.

President Bernie Machen welcomed the students in a speech in early January in which he told them that their trailblazing could leave a legacy beyond the University of Florida.

“If you and your class prove this concept a success, it will encourage other universities to remain open, active and filled with students for more of the calendar year. Today, because of the limited number of spots for students attending in the spring-fall semesters, many qualified students are turned away from public universities. Because of you, we will admit more students with no sacrifice to our quality,” Machen said.

Machen quoted Steve Jobs to emphasize one of the first lessons of the Innovation Academy: “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.”

That’s part of why Nassau chose UF, he said. He wants to start traditions instead of just adhering to them. The calendar change has created the opportunity for that to happen.

“I don’t see how this won’t be a game changer. Something similar to this will be the future of education,” Nassau said. “It has the potential to change the way people think about higher education.”

-By Chris Moran

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