Perhaps you remember the parable described in Matthew 9:17, about the danger of placing new wine in an old bottle. The parable’s lesson: innovating within an existing institution is likely to fail. Instead, transformational change needs to take place in a new organization.
That’s, of course, the message propounded by the late Clayton Christensen. Existing institutions, he insisted, are notoriously incapable of adapting to shifting needs or circumstances.
But there’s reason to doubt that message, at least as it applies to higher education. Our institutions are far more diverse and adaptable than many of their critics imply.
A proposal to create a new university in Austin, Tex., has been met with a host of predictable responses: ridicule, mockery, derision and scorn. Skepticism and incredulity. Cynicism, mistrust and negativity.
Isn’t this simply a proposal to recreate St. John’s or the University of Chicago as it once was? Wouldn’t it be better for the University of Austin’s proponents to improve the regional or urban public universities that could use this expertise and brand power (as MacKenzie Scott is doing with her immense wealth)?
Isn’t it likely that the proposed institution will simply mirror the institutions it criticizes, replacing a “woke” ideology with contrarian heterodoxy?
These are certainly valid concerns. But perhaps better questions to ask are these: If you had the money and could start from scratch, would you design an academic institution that was fundamentally different from those that exist today?
Or does the best hope for impact at scale lie elsewhere: in tackling the biggest challenges that higher education faces?
- Creating the systems of advising, support and financial aid that will bring many more students to a college degree.
- Scaling the kinds of immersive, experiential learning experiences that can transform lives, promote students’ well-rounded development and better prepare graduates for postcollege success.
- Bringing enormously talented students who received a very uneven education in challenged high schools to success in the most demanding fields, such as cognitive science, computer science, data analytics, machine learning and neuroscience.
Of course, the projected University of Austin would not be the first new private or public college or university—though its high-profile board of advisers has certainly given it greater visibility than its predecessors.
New universities aren’t, in fact, new. Think of Antioch, Hampshire, Harvey Mudd, New College of Florida or Olin, among others.
Innovations abound. There are institutions without a physical campus or in-person classes, like Western Governors University, with its relatively low-cost online, career-oriented, competency-based online degrees.
Or Minerva, which has no lectures or laboratories and provides a curriculum that focuses on critical thinking, problem solving and multimodal communication to students who study in seven different cities (Berlin, Buenos Aires, Hyderabad, London, San Francisco, Seoul and Taipei).
Then there are relatively new physical campuses, like Quest University, which has no departments, and at which students take just one four-week course at a time through a block plan. (Of course, Quest also illustrates the difficulty of sustaining a new institution. To settle its debts, the Squamish, British Columbia, institution was forced to sell its campus, which Quest will then lease, to an investment management company, with interests in real estate, health care, seniors’ homes and postsecondary education.)
Then, too, there are a number of relatively new public institutions that have embraced, to varying degrees, new educational models. There’s the University of Minnesota at Rochester, with its hands-on health sciences curriculum; the University of North Texas at Dallas, which, originally, was to offer a narrow set of career-oriented majors and rely heavily on hybrid courses that combined in-person and online delivery; and Texas A&M at San Antonio, which remains dedicated to serving first-generation college students with a week-long precollege immersion program, a four-year career-readiness program, block scheduling, success coaches, extensive undergraduate research opportunities and a nine-week parent-engagement program to familiarize families with university life.
Want another example of innovation? How about Paul Quinn, which radically reinvented itself as an urban work college, where students are required to hold down jobs and have professional internships integrated into their academic studies.
Then there’s yet another model: George Soros’s Open Society University Network, which offers networked courses, joint degree programs and a scholars-at-risk program to promote the values of an open society, including free expression and a diversity of belief and extend access to groups that include the incarcerated, the Roma and refugees and other displaced people.
So let me ask: Given the immense start-up costs of building a new university from scratch, is this effort worth the expense?
The answer hinges on one’s diagnosis of what’s wrong with today’s universities.
- Is it threats to academic freedom and the erosion of intellectualism on campus?
- Is it cost, student debt and the way a college is financed?
- Is it low completion rates and lengthy time to degree?
- Is it the extreme stratification of educational resources?
- Is it the failure to better prepare graduates for the job market?
Or do the problems lie elsewhere:
- In students’ uncertain learning outcomes
- In the course-centric, discipline-specific academic experience
- In the faculty’s overemphasis on research at the expense of teaching and mentoring
- Or in the failure to provide a more holistic, integrated education that strives to develop students across multiple dimensions—cognitive, social, ethical and physical?
My colleague Michael Rutter makes a point that deserves to receive much more attention than it’s gotten so far: Given the extraordinary diversity of American higher education, aren’t there already dozens of interesting options out there?
As Michael points out, if you don’t want all the usual trappings of standard college, such as intercollegiate sports or clubs and a tiny administration, you can go to an extension school, like, say, Harvard’s or Columbia’s, and get a bachelor’s degree for $50,000 or less with in-person classes and a world-class faculty.
Or you can go to the U.K., to institutions like the University of Edinburgh, the London School of Economics or University College London, which are far less structured than most American universities, and are without lazy rivers—last time we checked.
If you want a more practical education, you can go to Cincinnati or Drexel or Northeastern, with their amazing co-op programs. Or to places with mandatory internships—or clear paths into professions, like Simmons for nursing and health, or the Colorado School of Mines.
Or, if you want a “great books” program, you don’t need to gain admission to Columbia. Most liberal arts colleges and research universities offer a version, often through their honors programs.
Want supportive community? Cohort programs and honors colleges exist across the higher educational ecosystem. The HBCUs and women’s colleges offer extraordinary levels of belonging, support, leadership training and a genuine sense of community.
Michael makes another point that I wholeheartedly agree with. For all the talk about selective colleges and universities being bloated and creaky, students continue to flock to them. Remember the MOOC madness of 2011 and 2012 or the predictions of Sebastian Thrun and Clayton Christensen, when we were told that traditional colleges were doomed?
Given a choice and given sufficient financial resources, talented and ambitious students gravitate to the very institutions that the disruptors decry.
Just imagine if those who are leading the charge for a new university were to invest their time and energy into improving the broad-access institutions that need an intellectual star.
I certainly understand the appeal of creating an institution that would fulfill my personal fantasies and attract the kind of students I’d like to have. And I’d sure like to be part of the Tesla of higher education that would revolutionize and transform the postsecondary experience.
I strongly favor experimentation and innovation, and I say to those who want to create new educational models: more power to you. We can always use models that existing institutions might emulate. And there’s nothing wrong with providing students with niche alternatives to business as usual.
After all, the great strength of American higher education lies in its extraordinary diversity.
But the most pressing problem facing higher education is how to bring many more students to graduation and a bright future. And our greatest challenge—the challenge that skilled administrators face every day—is how to improve existing institutions despite immense obstacles, financial above all.
It’s hard, frustrating, exasperating work to revitalize a curriculum, enhance the college-going experience and provide many more students with the immersive, experiential education and the rich extracurricular experiences that they deserve.
That’s the work that needs all the energy, imagination and hard work that we can muster.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.