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Disruption's Strange Bedfellows
A letter by education reformer Clayton Christensen sent through a controversial organization has some in higher education questioning the Harvard professor’s credibility.
It would be tough to name two bigger figures in higher education-reform thinking right now than the Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, an administrator at Brigham Young University-Idaho.
In June 2011, the duo applied Christensen’s idea of "disruptive innovation" to the higher education world with their book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education. The book has become standard reading in higher education circles these days and is regularly given out at conferences. In the past year, Christensen has spoken at the annual meetings of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the American Council on Education.
Though many academics disagree with some or even a lot of the book's ideas, the two authors command respect among administrators, and, increasingly, their ideas about disruption in higher education are gaining traction among faculty members.
Which is why many in higher education found it odd to see Christensen and Eyring’s names attached to a letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which advocates for a greater role for trustees in university decision making, among other reforms. The group’s ideas, which include criticizing colleges as politically intolerant, too expensive, poorly managed, and not necessarily providing a rigorous education, do not have broad support among faculty members and university administrators.
Several higher education administrators found the pair’s association with ACTA potentially destabilizing to their credibility.
“The picture of colleges and universities painted in the recent letter from Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring is, frankly, a caricature of how most places actually behave, and it's rather remarkable that it would be sent as a blanket mailing absent any awareness on the part of the ACTA of the processes or priorities of particular institutions,” said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College. “It's actually rather mild by the standards of the organization, but it is nonetheless disappointing that someone as thoughtful as Professor Christensen would embrace either the method or the message of the letter.”
The letter, which generally coincides with what Christensen and Eyring wrote in their book but in a tone closer to ACTA's literature, calls for trustees to take a more active role in holding administrators accountable and for institutions to stop competing for rankings, to embrace new learning technologies, and to cut “academically weak programs (both graduate and undergraduate) and money-losing intercollegiate athletic teams” -- reforms that have the potential to be controversial on campus.
“When you suggest that your institution needs to become more focused or more innovative, you’re doing more than merely threatening someone’s turf,” the two write. “You’re effectively telling your administrative and faculty colleagues to abandon decades of effort to enhance the school’s prestige and reputation. But that’s what you need to do, no matter how unpopular it may be.”
Eyring said he and Christensen were approached by ACTA through Christensen’s publicist as an opportunity to reach a broad group of trustees. “As we describe in the letter, trustees have the potential to wield great influence for good in higher education,” he said. “Thus, the invitation to speak directly to so many trustees was welcome.” Eyring said the letter is not meant to be an endorsement of any of ACTA’s policy stances other than what coincides with the content of the letter.
Anne D. Neal, president of ACTA, said the decision by presidents to focus on the institution distributing the message rather than the actual content of the message is disappointing. "We would hope that they would view additional information and perspectives for trustees as a plus rather than a negative," she said. She added that the issues the letter deals with -- decreasing resources, increasing costs, and increasing public pressure -- are real challenges facing higher education and challenges that trustees need to play an active role in solving.
The letter was distributed to about 13,000 trustees on ACTA’s mailing list. Given that the letter calls for major administrative reforms, Rosenberg said he found it odd that it was not sent to presidents as well. “If the ACTA were genuinely interested in fostering productive dialogue among trustees and the faculties and administrations with which they work, they would send their periodic and unsolicited missives to all those constituencies and not only to trustees (without notifying colleges that they are doing so),” he said.
Neal said her organization works primarily with trustees, which is why they were the ones to receive the letter. The group has distributed similar letters in the past, including one by Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, another controversial critique of higher education.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs with the American Council of Education, which hosted Christensen at its annual conference earlier this year, said the letter didn’t seem to add much to the conversation about the challenges facing colleges and universities. “Clay and Henry are very smart people and their ideas have been and should be widely discussed in higher education,” he said. “Having said that, I’m not sure what they hope to accomplish with this letter. It seems to lack a clear purpose and I’d be surprised if any trustee at any college or university doesn’t know about these challenges and/or pressures or needs to be told to take a fresh look at ‘innovative technologies and good old-fashioned principles of management.’ "
The Association of Governing Boards, which also featured Christensen this year at its own national conference, declined to comment on the letter.
ACTA is controversial in the higher education world because it pushes several ideas that lie outside general higher education norms, particularly that trustees should be more hands-on in university policymaking, including academics, which have traditionally been the purview of faculty in a shared-governance model. "What ACTA is calling for is simply an imposition of the views and values of those outside the academy," said Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College.
The group has two other main issues: “academic freedom,” in which it advocates less “political correctness” on campuses; and “academic excellence,” in which it promotes a core curriculum rooted in the liberal arts with an emphasis on Western civilization, at the expense of more narrowly tailored classes. These ideas tend to clash with the views of many faculty members that curriculums should be less rigid and include a greater focus on multiculturalism and diversity.
The prevalence of reformers such as Christensen and ACTA in mainstream media outlets has begun to frustrate some university presidents, who feel as if the "disruption" thinkers now dominate the conversation and that the other side isn't getting a fair shake. Nugent said critiques tend to paint with a broad brush and fail to take into account the differences of mission and structure among higher education institutions. She also noted that the frequent comparisons of higher education to the business world underestimate differences in structure and governance between the two.
While several presidents have been critical of the pairing of Christensen and ACTA, others say there is little in the letter to generate controversy. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, said the letter’s content is no different from what Christensen and Eyring wrote in their book. He said he’s never heard Christensen espouse points that coincide with some of ACTA’s more controversial positions, and that “guilt by association” is not the right conclusion to draw. LeBlanc has known Christensen since the two were in graduate school, and the latter sits on Southern New Hampshire's Board of Trustees.
ACTA’s ideas, particularly that trustees should take more dramatic steps toward closing programs, incorporating technology into the classroom, and make more dramatic administrative decisions, became part of the debate about the ouster of Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia last month. (She was eventually reinstated.) ACTA’s Neal, in a column in The Washington Post, was one of the few people to come out in support of the actions of the university’s board (though she did not support the way the decision was made).
The fact that the letter’s distribution coincided with the U.Va. controversy – which Eyring said was several months after the pair drafted it – was unfortunate. Eyring said the letter should not be read as an endorsement of the actions taken by any group of trustees.
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