In January 2005, while working with 20 students in a class titled “Building the New Climate Movement,” I was taken with rock musician Steve Earle's song “The Revolution Starts Now.” It’s a rowdy call to arms that captured the spirit of my students: a revolution was starting, to paraphrase Earle, in their own Middlebury College classroom. The minds of these young leaders, alight with the specter of runaway climate change and encouraged by me (as I felt my way to a new, “open-source” approach to teaching), came to see their classroom as a laboratory for social change—an amped-up, 21st-century version of the American pragmatist John Dewey's vision for education. During our four weeks together, they studied social movements, worked alongside cutting-edge environmental groups, and organized a conference for 120 environmental and youth leaders.

To quote William James, revolutionary American scholar and co-founder of pragmatism (perhaps the Steve Earle of his day?), my students “turned away from verbal solutions [and] turned towards facts, towards action, towards power.” In doing so, they found magic in their classroom walls. Several went on to found, currently the world's most visible—and perhaps the most revolutionary—environmental NGO.

These students were on my mind at the recent AshokaU Exchange, hosted by Arizona State University (ASU). Three university presidents (Tulane’s Scott Cowen, Babson’s Len Schlesinger, and ASU’s Michael Crow) participated in a panel on innovation in higher education (expertly moderated by Kim Meredith, executive director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society). What we heard from these remarkable leaders was their own revolutionary call to arms: hardheaded, empirically based proclamations that 20th-century models of education—and even of democracy itself—have long since outlived their usefulness. As they called for the rapid development and dissemination of new models, their sense of urgency was unmistakable.

President Cowen, reflecting on Tulane's rebirth in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, put it vividly: the disaster was human-made (remember the failed levees?). Another human-made catastrophe, Cowen warned, now threatens the United States: the collapse of many institutions of democracy, with higher education swept up in the tide. He cited “embarrassingly low” socio-economic indicators; 46 million poor Americans, the highest number in four decades; and a “disastrous” education system. In light of all this he asked: “What is your vision for the future? How will you create disruptive change?”

Len Schlesinger shared the story of how he and his colleagues found their answer to these questions. After becoming Babson’s president, Schlesinger led a campus-wide consultative process. The conclusion was, in his words, that “western capitalism was a failed construct, with its excessive focus on profits, at the expense of social and environmental outcomes.” He realized that the challenge for Babson’s faculty was to teach students how to become entrepreneurial leaders who “make and find opportunities for social value everywhere.” In doing so, he and his colleagues began to see their charge in a new light: as an opportunity to “celebrate the human agency” of every student. At Babson, “entrepreneurial thought and action” is not just a slogan; it is a calling.

Fostering innovation may be doable on a relatively small scale—at schools such as Middlebury and Babson—or in the face of unprecedented calamity such as Tulane has experienced. But how do we enact change on a larger scale? Given our currently dysfunctional public square, how do we transform our largest institutions?

President Crow had a clear answer: Let scale become the objective, “the means to success.” After becoming president of ASU, he envisioned a “New American University” for ASU’s 60,000 undergrads (over half from families with household incomes less than $60,000 and 10 percent reporting no income)—a university where, Crow says, “you can take a student from any family and socio-economic background and create an environment where they can learn and do anything.” This meant creating an environment where entrepreneurship is ubiquitous. To achieve this, ASU must, according to Crow, aspire to scale, creating an extensive ecosystem of programs—such as the ASU Innovation Challenge—that meet the many, varied needs of ASU’s diverse array of students. The hundreds of us at ASU that weekend were able to witness the disruptive innovation sparked by this vision. For example, at the ASU Preparatory Academy High School, a charter school for students who aspire to become first-generation college graduates,
ASU undergraduates support a “capstone experience” centered on student-designed ventures.

A student quoted on the ASU home page gets it right: “It's unreal what undergrads are doing here!” So does the Middlebury student who declared, right after the opening of our new Center for Social Entrepreneurship, “I love it how anything seems possible here!” These proclamations should serve as rallying calls for all educators. At universities of all shapes and sizes, we must prepare to stand in awe of what our students can accomplish; we must celebrate their possibilities. This will happen only when leaders of higher education create learning communities where revolutions can begin every day, in every classroom. From such revolutions perhaps we can, in the words of Thomas Paine, “begin the world all over again.” Such a beginning is long overdue.