“We created a conference that we’d want to attend.”

That was the driving creative force behind an innovative new event called Big Ideas in Higher Education, explains Tony Doody, director, programs and leadership, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Held on the Rutgers campus May 17–18, 2012, the meeting broke all the rules of traditional higher education conferences. In doing so, it tapped into something big—enthusiastic attendees who were also looking for something different.

“They put disruption into everything—the physical setting, the content,” says attendee and presenter Mike Brown, founder, The Brainzooming Group, a strategy consultant. And that’s a good thing—Brown calls it the best conference he attended all year.

Frustration: The Mother of Invention

Doody and his team, which includes Courtney O’Connell (left), assistant director, leadership and training, at Rutgers, had the opportunity to create a conference from scratch—and took full advantage of it. The blank slate made it easier to innovate and incorporate new ideas. “We didn’t have anyone saying, ‘This is the way it’s always been done,’” O’Connell says.

The New Jersey Alliance, a state association for student affairs professionals—mostly administrators at the college level who work in a variety of offices that support campus life, in conjunction with Rutgers Student Life, launched the conference. Many states have their own conferences for student affairs professionals, so NJA decided to follow suit and O’Connell, as president of NJA, was charged with planning it. Intended as a statewide event, it ended up with national attendance due to the buzz it generated, primarily through social media. The event’s 250 attendees hailed from 17 states.

Separately, Doody was considering launching a TEDx Higher Education conference. He wasn’t charged with creating a new conference but he thought, as a fan of TED, it might be a mark of prestige and pride for Rutgers to become a center of dialogue around big and new ideas in higher education in the mold of the TED event. However, TEDx events require a license from TED and must adhere to strict guidelines, one of which is that they be multidisciplinary. TED declined to grant him a license for a single-subject event. They offered TEDx Rutgers, but Doody wasn’t interested in something so narrow. 

Then O’Connell told him about the new state conference, and the two began formulating ideas to come up with something that, like TED, would break the mold. 

“The impetus for this conference was in part frustration over the current state of national conferences in higher education,” explains Doody. In building the Big Ideas conference, O’Connell and Doody looked to improve upon perceived shortcomings. “This was our response to try and create something different.” Here are some of those differences:

Note: This article was originally published in February 2013