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Thoughts on The Innovative University
September 25, 2011 - 9:46pm

It can be fun to watch a book get away from its author.

The Innovative University, by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, pretty much does. Which is good, because the book it became is far more interesting than the book they were apparently out to write.

Clayton Christensen is known mostly for his “disruptive innovation” thesis. He has made a career from noticing that innovations can be grouped into two camps: ‘sustaining’ and ‘disruptive.’ A sustaining innovation does an existing thing better: cd’s supplanting lp’s would fit the bill. A disruptive innovation fundamentally changes the rules of the game: file-sharing supplanting cd’s would fit that. A sustaining innovation allows the incumbent players to thrive, as cd’s did for the record industry; a disruptive innovation turns the industry inside-out.

Christensen holds that successful companies often fall apart because they get trapped by the success of a particular model, and are too slow to appreciate that an initially-inferior new model will change the rules of the game. Kodak, for example, was slow and grudging in its adaptation to digital photography. It pretty much owned film photography, and had for a long time; it didn’t want to step away from its historic strength. And early digital photography was clearly inferior to film, so the initial argument for moving was pretty speculative. But digital moved with alacrity, and Kodak quickly went from a dominant player to an also-ran. History didn’t stop just because a well-entrenched, successful company wanted it to.

The Innovative University is Christensen’s attempt to apply that framework to higher education. It’s an awkward fit, but the awkwardness is instructive.

The book opens with a few basic truths. The cost structure of higher education is starting to look unsustainable; the top ten will only ever be so big; and online instruction has made great strides over the last ten years or so. So far, so good, though nothing revelatory yet.

The clear intention of the book was to contrast the history of Harvard, which the book argues (correctly) has been the pace car for traditional higher ed, with the history of BYU-Idaho, which the book argues is exemplary of positive disruptive change. And the long middle portion does exactly that, with extended and somewhat booster-ish histories of each. (The histories aren’t entirely dry. My favorite moment was the claim that Harvard invented summer vacations not for agrarian reasons, but because students had revolted one summer, and the faculty decided that hot weather made students cranky and likely to rebel. News to me...) The thesis is that Harvard defined the DNA of higher education in America, and that the Harvard model and the Carnegie ladder have become a de facto Great Chain of Being that colleges and universities spend untold sums trying to climb. But that can never work for most places, so most places would be well advised to look instead at a place like BYU-Idaho.

Well, no. And I don’t mean that as a slam at BYU-Idaho, either. It’s just not a real disruption.

The book cites several practices adopted by BYU-Idaho that it considers game-changers. It adopted a twelve-month teaching calendar, with full-time faculty working year-round. It modularized its majors, greatly reducing the number of specialized courses unique to each, thereby gaining economies of scale. It introduced a significant number of online courses, amortizing the cost of its physical plant over more students. It eliminated intercollegiate athletics, and beefed up academic advising. It increased class sizes, using teaching assistants and peer mentors to make up for some of the lost personal attention. It increased its use of internships.

In other words, it adopted a set of practices that Proprietary U, my erstwhile employer, had been using back in the 90’s.

Several of the measures cited are simply commonplace, and entirely compatible with sustaining existing institutions. Work speedups -- whether the twelve-month calendar or the larger class -- are hardly innovative. Yes, they can have an economic payoff, but the payoff is finite and the underlying model unchanged. Streamlining overly-specific majors may well be a worthwhile thing to do in its own right, simply from a quality control perspective, and there are some efficiencies to be had, but again, it’s hardly innovative. Henry Ford famously commented that customers could get their Model T’s in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. He was so wedded to economies of scale that he didn’t want to mess around with customization. In some contexts, there are probably very good arguments for scaling back the panoply of offerings, but I’d file that under “prudent management,” not “groundbreaking innovation.”

Online education is obviously both improving and growing, and it may eventually prove to be disruptive. But at this point, it’s mostly another option for existing institutions to offer existing credentials. At my college, which has been relatively aggressive in developing online courses, over ninety percent of the students in online classes are also taking classes on campus. Most of the online enrollments are about incumbent students (and faculty) making their schedules more convenient. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s hardly revolutionary. I’d say the same thing about eliminating intercollegiate athletics and beefing up academic advising. Those moves are prudent management, but not much more. Those of us in the community college world have known that forever.

The great value of the book is in showing how mindless emulation of the Harvard model -- a model that even Harvard has often struggled to maintain -- is a fool’s errand. It’s certainly true that different institutions have different strengths and missions, and that it’s better to do what you do well than to try to be someone else. Compass Direction State University will never be able to replicate Harvard in all that it does, and it would be foolish to try. Instead, it should figure out what it can do really well, and focus on that. Similarly, I’ve been arguing on this blog for years that the “comprehensive community college” model is ripe for rethinking. Nobody can be good at everything. Better to have as much diversity among institutions as within them.

Which brings me to what I believe the next disruptive innovation will be. It won’t be work speedups or adjuncting or online teaching. Existing colleges and universities have shown themselves perfectly comfortable with all of those. It will be the gradual displacement of the “many paths to the same credential” model with “many paths to many different credentials.” In other words, I expect that competitors will emerge to the bachelor’s degree itself.

As long as the bachelor’s degree requires a set amount of time, and a set amount of “general education,” it will fall prey to Baumol’s cost disease. It can’t not. (The only way I can see around that is something like the outcomes-based degree at Western Governors University; at least that offers the possibility of efficiency gains.) But there’s no law saying that a bachelor’s degree is the only possible model for post-secondary education.

Watching -- and I hope helping -- that model develop will be the task of the next decade or two. Until then, I’m grateful to Christensen and Eyring for a clarifying failure. No, BYU-Idaho is not the wave of the future. But it’s helpful see what happens when we pretend it is.

 

 

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