Godfather of “innovative disruption” Clayton Christensen sure does like to play his greatest hits.
In May, at the Innovation + Disruption Symposium on Higher Education he said that “50 percent of the 4000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt in 10-15 years.”
This particular claim is becoming something of an oldie. Christensen’s book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, which put higher ed on notice for disruption was released in 2011. He made a virtually identical claim in 2013.
I suppose the question is whether Christensen’s song is a classic the fans demand every time, like Journey and “Don’t Stop Believin’” or more like a song of the summer, a brief flash you never want to hear again once the fever has passed, like “The Macarena.”
Audrey Watters accurately identifies Christensen’s claim about higher ed “bankruptcy” and a related one that “by the year 2019 half of all classes for grades K-12 will be taught online” as “myths,” “end times predictions” from “millenialist prophets.” By insisting it is true, they hope to bring about the events themselves.
And we can see how effective this campaign has been when we let someone talk about the “bankruptcy” of public higher ed institutions as though this makes sense. Bankruptcy properly attaches to businesses subject to profit and loss, not public institutions. We may talk about a library lacking funding which could cause it to close, but we would not say a public library has gone "bankrupt."
While there are many colleges and universities with troubled balance sheets, public institutions can only go “bankrupt” if we allow them to starve. This is a very deliberate mythmaking strategy on Christensen’s part. He wants us to believe there is no such thing as a public institution. There are only markets.
In higher education, he is not alone. Kevin Carey, perhaps our most prominent public higher ed (self-described) “wonk” believes that universities themselves are “an illusion” that can be replaced by “everywhere.”
This is not entirely wrong. Institutions can only exist as long as a sufficient number of people continue to believe in them. We could erase libraries tomorrow if we decide having a community space where people have access to information, services, and each other with no individual cost is simply not something we value any longer. If belief in the value of the institution goes away, the institution ceases to exist.
We have seen very quickly how the institution of the presidency can be utterly destroyed. Those who believed Donald Trump would be transformed by the office had a faith in an illusion. As it happens, it was pretty easy to make the traditional notion of the “Office of the President” disappear almost completely. President Trump’s successor may restore some portion of the illusion, but from this point forward, we cannot believe the institution exists as anything other than an idea.
Other governmental institutions are being dismantled with shocking haste. Can the State Department be said to exist if hardly anyone works there? What is the EPA when it is led by a man who’s previous mission was to bring lawsuits against it? What good is the Consumer Protection Bureau when it is to be led by someone who thinks it should be eliminated entirely.
The abandonment of public higher ed as an institution has been happening very gradually, and now, all of the sudden. Clayton Christensen’s pied piperism of disruption can only gain purchase if collective faith in the promise of the institution has eroded. Within my lifetime, tuition for California residents at UC-Berkeley has gone from $0 to $14,048 per academic year. This is still a relative bargain. My alma mater, the University of Illinois can be up to almost $21k/year, in tuition, depending on choice of major.
When 70% of college graduates from public and non-profit institutions have student loan debt averaging almost $30,000, it is easy to make that case that colleges deserve to be “disrupted.” Of course the chief cause of those increased costs is a combination of declining public investment and the concurrent demand that public institutions behave like “businesses,” which has proven to be inefficient and costly, but never mind, obviously the colleges themselves are failing.
Now comes a proposal in the House tax plan to tax tuition waivers for graduate students, which has been framed as a way to “bankrupt” graduate students, which is true, but which will also accelerate the demise of the public research institution. The rationale that these waivers are the equivalent to “income” is patently ridiculous, the equivalent of the government deciding to collect sales tax on the 20% off Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons that show up in your mailbox every month when you decide to use them, which is every time you shop at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
The effect on the ability to fund graduate education would be every bit as bad as everyone says. Many positions would simply cease to exist. The focus has been primarily on STEM programs, which rely on graduate assistants to carry out the nuts and bolts of laboratory research, but it would also decimate the undergraduate teaching force in the humanities.
And of course it would close off access to graduate education to anyone other than those who can already afford it. As recently reported in the New York Times, unpaid student loans can result in the suspension of a professional license, making it even more difficult to achieve upward mobility.
Take loans to go to nursing school so someday you can then go to debtor’s prison! What a pitch! What a world.
Perhaps small government conservatives feel chuffed by these developments, with their faith that we are truly freest when we are atomized, rather than joined together as elements or compounds.
But if conservatives believe in the “conserve” part of the definition, they should be concerned by the rapid undoing of so many institutions. We may find we need some of the ones being blown apart.
Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation posits an industry is ripe for upset when a competitor arrives that is not necessarily better, but a combination of cheaper, and good enough. Since Christensen’s initial prediction of future institutional bankruptcy, we have amassed significant evidence that while online education undoubtedly has a role to play, for the vast majority of learners, it is not and is unlikely to become good enough.
However, there is another route to the fulfillment of Christensen’s prophecy.
If it becomes literally impossible to make traditional higher education pay off financially for the individual, its value declines to the point where even a vastly inferior alternative suddenly becomes not necessarily “good enough,” but the only choice available. A lose-lose proposition.
But even if this comes to pass, this is not an example of innovative disruption. It is instead the endpoint of a process that seeks to substitute credentialing for learning.
There’s nothing innovative about such a radical shift in values working in combination with simple neglect to destroy something we once felt important and enduring.
There is nothing disruptive about it. We’re talking pure destruction for its own sake.