“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:

7 Ways They Broke the Mold

1. No Keynoters.

Doody and O’Connell’s nontraditional program eschewed keynoters in favor of a series of 15 general-session talks on the first day of the conference. Each presentation was 17 minutes long (they had a timer) on a wide range of topics. Some were speeches, others were conducted in an interview format, but all took place in the main hall with no concurrent sessions.

They didn’t use traditional keynoters because they didn’t want the meeting’s branding, marketing, and sales to be tied to a big-name speaker; they wanted it to be about the broader experience. “If that’s the reason you are drawing attendees, then there’s a problem,” says Doody.

Also, they wanted to offer more variety. With one or two keynoters, it’s hit or miss. Some people will like them, some won’t. But if there are 15 presentations over the course of a day, odds are that everyone will like at least half of them. The ones they don’t like are only 17 minutes long. 

Day two was filled with breakout sessions—most led by speakers from day one, who drilled deeper into the topics they presented the day before. There were two blocks in the morning and two in the afternoon, each with four or five concurrent sessions. The goal was to present lofty, big ideas on day one, and then put those ideas into action on day two. 

Overall, from the general sessions to the breakouts, the focus was on quality over quantity, says O’Connell. One of the major issues the pair had with typical industry conferences was the glut of concurrent sessions. O’Connell attended one conference that had 48 sessions running at one time! It’s overkill.

2. You’re a Speaker? Prove It.

In choosing speakers, they sought those who could offer more than having published interesting academic papers. Too often, according to Doody, submissions are reviewed by peers who judge content based on how much theory is packed into a presentation, with too little emphasis on whether a speaker can actually engage a live audience.

Instead of seeking submissions the traditional way, the team sought out speakers based on topics they were interested in presenting to attendees. They asked all speakers to provide video proof of their ability to deliver a high-impact presentation, and requested copies of their slides in advance. “We outlawed bullets,” says Doody. 

3. Consider Non-Peer to Peer Learning

What do the Philly Fanatic and Lady Gaga have to do with higher education? More than you think. 

When developing the program, O’Connell and Doody made an effort to look for speakers outside higher education. A marketing expert reviewed what can be learned from Lady Gaga; the Philadelphia Phillies’ team mascot talked about risk-taking. “It’s not the practice in higher education to look outside your industry,” says Doody—but that’s where innovation is going to come from.

“For the most part higher education conferences feature academics presenting their research or best practices at their institutions,” he says. “It’s too insular.” What works on one campus may not translate somewhere else. So rather than have someone from Ohio State talk about how the university uses social media, he suggests, bring in an expert from Google Analytics. “An expert with a different perspective on what we do is a way to create disruptive new ideas,” says Doody. Attendees might be inspired to create their own solutions rather than implement someone else’s. (Peers from academia would have an outlet to present in a session called Cool Curators, explained below).

It’s not always a popular sentiment within the industry and a few attendees grumbled about the nontraditional general session and breakout speakers, says O’Connell. But all but a handful of the 250 attendees gave the conference high marks.

4. Great Spaces, New Sets.

One of the most striking aspects of the conference was the environment, says attendee Mike Brown. The general session hall, held at the Livingston Student Center on the Rutgers campus, was configured like an arena. There was no stage—the speaker was on the floor with the audience wrapped around in the shape of a horseshoe on raised, stadium-style seating. Behind the presenter was a giant screen. The “arena” was enclosed on all sides by dark drapes, which Brown says made it very intimate and unlike anything he had ever experienced. The creative use of the physical space was a clear signal that this was not your typical higher education conference, he adds. “It was a masterful stroke.”

On the agenda after the morning breakout sessions and before lunch was a segment called Cool Curators—three rooms in which people within higher education could present their ideas and research to their peers. In one room, set up like a coffeehouse with couches and casual seating, was a program called Ignite. Ignite featured short, five- to seven-minute presentations on a range of subjects.

The second, Cool Program Museum, was set up expo-style, with student affairs professionals at tables presenting innovative ideas, programs, or solutions they had implemented on their campuses. Instead of formal presentations, this session allowed for one-on-one conversations among peers from different schools.

Finally, the Gadget Showcase featured new technologies or technological solutions, presented in a workshop-like space filled with projectors, white boards, and monitors, where attendees could interact with the presenter and the equipment.

Another great use of space involved the session breaks, which went beyond coffee urns and pastry stands. “We created a lot of different spaces for different experiences,” says O’Connell. There were areas to relax and check e-mail, get a foot message, play games, even get a head shot taken. There were stress-free zones and healthy snacks, even music.

5. Sweet Emotion.

“Good education has to be good entertainment,” says Doody, quoting noted educator Nicholas Negroponte, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the One Laptop Per Child project.

Entertainment and emotion were infused throughout the conference. For example, the interview sessions all ended with something fun. One presenter, a hiring manager from PricewaterhouseCoopers, was also a weightlifter. At the end of the session, the interviewer challenged him to a bicep curl contest. After the Philly Fanatic interview, the planning team rolled out a putting green and played mini-golf.

“People were crying at times, people were rolling on the floor laughing at times,” says Doody. “It was a roller coaster of an experience.” That’s exactly what they were hoping for when planning the conference. Careful consideration was given to the flow of the conference—not only in the content that was presented, but the way it was presented. “We crafted it in terms of a journey—what is the journey we want these participants to take,” says Doody.  

Attendee Brown was particularly struck by the emotional wallop of some of the speakers. “So many conferences are afraid of emotion,” he says. “They weren’t.” 

6. Connect the Dots.

Brown led a session at the end of day two where he went through the entire conference experience and connected the dots for people. He attended all the general sessions on day one and some of the breakouts on day two, taking notes and photos to create a presentation that encapsulated the “big ideas” from the conference. He recapped the sessions, highlighted key points and major themes, and helped attendees process everything they had heard—showing them how to apply these concepts back at the office. “It was really well-received,” says Doody. The 75-minute session, called “Take All of Your Big Ideas and Make Them Happen,” focused on helping attendees turn ideas into action. For example, there was a presentation by Kohl Crecelius, founder of Krotchet Kids, who taught women in Northern Uganda to crotchet hats and start their own worldwide business selling hats. “Ok, I’m a higher education professional, what do I do with that?” asks Brown. He told the audience to look at their most distinctive talents and leverage them—either at home or the office. Brown, an “ideation” expert, had never done a session quite like this one, where he served as a summarizer.

7. Guerilla Marketing.

The team spent very little on marketing and did most of it through social media, primarily Twitter, says O’Connell. Tweets were rarely promotional or about the conference—they were always about ideas, innovation, and concepts. Content being pushed out over Twitter would link back to the Big Ideas Web site.

Another campaign involved giving away stickers and buttons at the national conferences, like the American College Personnel Association’s annual meeting. The buttons had slogans like, Go Big or Go Home, Higher Ed Change Agent, Trendsetter, and Troublemaker. None of them included any mention of the conference—instead they created a buzz without even naming the Big Ideas meeting.

While it may not be possible to completely reproduce Big Ideas for a 5,000-attendee meeting in a convention center, many of these concepts could be applied to any conference, says Brown.

Certainly O’Connell and Doody believe that they are onto something, and that a growing community of meeting-goers is out there looking for something different. They are in the process of planning the next event, although it won’t likely happen until 2014. One snag: Another event owns the Big Ideas trademark. So they are moving forward under a new name, to be announced shortly (you can keep tabs on it at the event’s Web site: thejerseyalliance.org/bigideas).

But if anyone can roll with a name change, it’s a conference that’s all about disruption.

Why is Disruption a Postive?

“Disruption” is a buzzword that cropped up in 2011. According to Wikipedia, a disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network, displacing an earlier technology. The term is used in business and technology to describe innovations that improve a product or service in unexpected ways, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in the new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.

Lucy Bernholz, a managing director at Arabella Advisors, who writes about trends on her blog, Philanthropy2173, says Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor, began the trend with his classic management books that outline what he labeled disruptive innovation. “This is the kind of thinking that launches whole new industries rather than just ‘new and improved’ products,” she writes. Christensen has gone on to write books on how to “disrupt” the healthcare system and elementary and secondary education.