Disruptive Innovation, Higher Ed and the Legacy of Clayton M. Christensen

An appreciation.

January 29, 2020

Over the past year, we have spent much of our time thinking about how the theory of disruptive innovation describes (or does not) the future of higher ed. That may be why the much-too-early death of Clayton M. Christensen, the creator of the theory, feels unexpectedly sad.

The outpouring of condolences and stories from his students has been a powerful and humbling reminder of just how important a good teacher, mentor and friend can be. Christensen was clearly such a person to so many.

We did not personally know Christensen. Our engagement with him has been on the level of ideas. And to our misfortune, it was entirely one-sided.

Christensen’s ideas about disruptive innovation as applied to higher ed were one of the catalysts that spurred us to write Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education. Our effort to discover an alternative framework for how teaching and learning might and should change forms the basis of a chapter in our book, “Reclaiming Innovation From Disruption.”

In that chapter, we attempt to understand why Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation exerts such a firm hold on the worldviews of many who wish to reform higher ed. We also discuss Christensen’s co-authored book on higher ed, The Innovative University, and his prediction that as many as half of all American universities will close or merge within the next 10 or 15 years.

While we argue in our book with the theory of disruptive innovation, it would ungenerous and inaccurate to fail to recognize the impact that the theory has had on our thinking, as well as on the broader conversation on the future of higher education. Disruption theory is a powerful approach to arguing for changes in higher education that go beyond the standard incremental advances.

Like many who engaged with his thinking, we no doubt oversimplified Christensen’s arguments, giving too little credit to the nuances and flexibility of his theoretical framework. And if we are honest with ourselves, we have yet been able to develop a theory of why some colleges and universities thrive and others falter in the face of today’s economic and demographic challenges that is as elegant and persuasive as disruptive innovation.

In the end, we are grateful that he cared enough about our colleges and universities to do so. Too often we academics complain about the deficiencies of our places of employment without any effort to systematically think through and then articulate how things might change.

The kind of work many of us are engaged in depends on the willingness of people smarter than us to share their ideas widely, to engage in critical conversations about difficult topics and to push all our thinking forward. Christensen was a generous thinker and scholar, one who was willing to share his ideas and to engage with others in productive, thoughtful ways.

Of what we know about Christensen at Harvard, and of the work he did advising other institutions, he worked tirelessly to support his students and to bring his ideas into practice.

While we will never now get the opportunity to debate Christensen about the wisdom of applying disruption thinking to learning innovation, we are confident that the thinkers that he both trained and inspired will energetically take up the conversation.

We are all richer in higher ed that Clayton M. Christensen thought to apply his ideas to the world of colleges and universities, and we are all the poorer for his untimely passing.

Back to Top