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Disruption, for most of us, in most aspects of our lives, has not been a good thing. Consider the 1971 report from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, entitled, Dissent and Disruption, which confidently asserts, “Disruption … is utterly contradictory to the values and purposes of a campus…. [It] is contrary to … the rational assessment of problems and the constructive consideration of alternative solutions.” How quaint those sentiments from the ‘70s sound today. 

For, with the publication of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997, the concept of “disruption” has dramatically shifted in valence. Now the term has become a kind of talisman, like the latest Apple device, wielded by any who would be seen as forward-thinking, creative, and innovative in any industry, including education. Christensen is a fascinating individual, and The Innovator’s Dilemma presented a brilliant thesis, compelling in its treatment of hard disk drives, excavating equipment, and automobiles. These are all manufactured commodities. Education is not.

Is disruption really the best path toward improvement in all areas -- business, health care, education? Politics? We should always be wary of panaceas. Typically, the snake oil merchant’s potion doesn’t really cure anything -- though the alcoholic high may delude the consumer for a while.

Innovation and the
Independent College

Read our news story on the Council
of Independent Colleges' new report.

The Latin etymology of disruption is relevant; it’s all about breaking. There must be instances in which breaking something is the best way to fix it, but they don’t come readily to mind. The ubiquity of contemporary faith in breaking as a creative strategy surely says more about the current zeitgeist than about the nature of progress.

There is, of course, another way of thinking about innovation, improvement, and progress. In a word: construction. Here again, the etymology is clear: to build together.” Before the cottage industry developed by the Christensen Institute -- peddling disruption as the cure for all ills -- common sense favored constructive thought and constructive acts over blowing things up.

Construction doesn’t seem as sexy or hip as disruption. But, in fact, an argument can be made that a process of thoughtful, steady, selective construction is the surest path to long-term improvement and even to eventual -- and lasting -- transformation. As so often, the Greeks had a word for that; well, actually they had a myth for that. The story appears in Plutarch’s life of Theseus (Plutarch. Theseus. 23.1) and has become a well-known philosophical puzzle, The Ship of Theseus. The story is this: when Theseus sails back from Crete to Athens triumphant, having rescued young Athenian hostages from certain death in the labyrinth of the minotaur, the Athenian people are so thrilled that they want to immortalize his ship. Of course, it’s a wooden craft, and wood is not an eternal material. So in order for the ship to be preserved, over time, individual planks must be replaced. Eventually, no single plank of the original ship exists; but the Ship of Theseus remains.

The philosophical issue is that of identity. Is the gradually re-constructed ship identical to the original one? If not, at what point does its identity change? When 50 percent + 1 of the planks is replaced? When the first one is replaced? For my purposes here, the philosophical parsing of identity is not central. Rather, the myth provides a vivid image of gradual replacement/construction eventually resulting in transformation—a transformation that does not “disrupt,” but (at least in some sense) preserves. The ship remains identifiable, even though it has been thoroughly refreshed.

Often, effective innovation works this way. Without the drama of “disruption,” thoughtful, responsive, constructive changes result in transformation. This is a process that is taking place broadly across the independent college and university sector in America today. The strength and the ubiquity of this wave of constructive change became clear to me through a series of gatherings of college leaders.

Re-Thinking Business Models

As senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, I served as the facilitator for eight workshops of college and university leaders across the country during the 2016-17 academic year. The purpose of these sessions was to enable discussion of the changing climate for the sector and ways for institutions to move productively into the future, for example by re-thinking aspects of their business models. In the course of these discussions, with almost 500 leaders from 120 institutions, we learned of literally hundreds of ways in which campuses were already responding to changing circumstances, climates, and needs.

Although the workshops had been designed as a self-contained project, at the end, we realized that they provided a rich database of information on innovation. Analyzing both the detailed notes of the workshop sessions, as well as three iterations of feedback surveys (immediately after the events, three months later, and six months later), we identified eight areas in which innovation was particularly prominent among the institutions: athletics, career preparation (often with alumni involvement), community engagement, consortial arrangements, cost containment, curricular reform, new programs, and new student populations. The report, Innovation and the Independent College: Examples from the Sector, presents a full discussion of the workshop findings.

This blog series will highlight these changes in the small, independent college and university sector -- widely and mistakenly considered to be change-averse. We’ll consider why these areas are particularly fruitful for innovation, what forms innovation is taking, and what the future of such strategies might be.

In a few instances, the strategic choices are dramatic; in many others, they are more incremental.

Yet -- like the new planks in the Ship of Theseus -- they refresh and ultimately change the institution over time. Management guru Peter Drucker wrote, in his Harvard Business Review article,  The Discipline of Innovation, “Effective innovations start small. They are not grandiose…. By contrast, grandiose ideas for things that will ‘revolutionize an industry’ are unlikely to work.”

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