LIAUTAUD: Yale’s innovator’s dilemma

In 2008, Gary T. DiCamillo gave a talk at the School of Management discussing his experience as a former chief executive of Polaroid. The story he told was neither rare nor revolutionary — a large firm choked by its own inertia and falling prey to leaner, meaner market competition. In the case of Polaroid, the company went from producing the most innovative camera on the market, the iPod of early personal photography, to filing for bankruptcy in 2001. Why? By the time it noticed the dawn of digital cameras, it had become too weak, too slow and too dependent on a single revenue stream to play in the new field of photography.

Polaroid’s dilemma is often cited in business circles, but it offers a pertinent lesson for Yale. Our dawn is not the digitalization of photography, but rather the globalization of communication and education. In this context, we face the same opportunity and imperative to innovate.

When Polaroid started, its founder Edwin Land defined its purpose as making cameras that “go beyond amusement and record-making to become a continuous partner of most human beings.” Somewhere along the way, Polaroid encountered the innovator’s dilemma: The company lost Land’s core vision in a fog of short-term financial pressure and secondary distractions.

Yale’s mission, on the other hand, is “to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge” under the banner of “Lux et Veritas.” In 2013, the University’s financial commitments have never been larger and its distractions seldom so numerous. Yet a focus on international engagement can and must provide a strategic compass for staying on mission in the coming years.

The reasons for this are twofold. The first is characterized by opportunity. Yale is strong now — we must continue to grow from this position of strength. Our current prominence and prosperity affords us the ear of almost any educational institution, corporation or government in the world. With admissions policies and programs such as Yale-NUS, the Global Health Leadership Institute and Yale World Fellows, President Levin’s tenure has already started to use this advantage.

A lesser institution would sit back; we must recognize more needs to be done. The College’s international student population still sits at only 10 percent; we can raise it to at least 25. Yale’s portfolio of partnerships with top schools and professors around the world, such as the recently closed Yale–PKU program, remains modest. We can expand this network, and support studying abroad by removing Yale’s two-course credit cap for non-Yale programs. Financial aid students have trouble paying for summer job opportunities outside of the U.S. We can help alleviate the summer financial aid contribution. We are looking on as others use the Internet more productively. We can gear our Web efforts towards creating global conversations rather than growing the lecture hall.

International engagement does not decorate Yale’s leadership; it decides it. Our pursuit of knowledge is limited only by our ability to attract the broadest perspectives. For centuries, this institution has dug the trenches at the frontlines of liberal education. We built our first library with donations from a Welshman’s riches garnered in India. We welcomed the first Chinese national to matriculate at any U.S. college or university. We are one of the only institutions to offer need-blind international financial aid. It is because of this track record that we can afford to debate the merits of two new residential colleges, an NUS partnership and public interest in our MOOCs.

The second reason is thus characterized by imperative — the stakes for losing focus now are high. Technology is universalizing discourse in concrete ways. Universities are partnering around the world at ever increasing levels. The Web is transforming funding structures for cutting-edge projects. The highest-quality debates occur as much outside of universities as within them. As we reflect on so many international spring break trips, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that there will always be a place for Yale to lead as long as each college has its own plates or a cappella groups sing at Mory’s.

This is our Polaroid moment. We have tough choices to make as we shape President-elect Peter Salovey’s agenda in a changing era. We can either recognize global diversity as the bedrock of our excellence, or confuse protectionism for purpose. If Gary DiCamillo was here, he’d tell us we don’t have that long to decide.

Cristo Liautaud is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at cristo.liautaud@yale.edu .

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