Will Clay Christensen Put His Money Where His Mouth Is?

A college president frustrated by the Harvard professor's predictions that half of private colleges may close offers him a $1 million bet.

March 4, 2019
Mark Zupan (left) and Clay Christensen

Many private college presidents are more than a little frustrated with the way journalists and politicians love to quote Clayton Christensen. The Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, Christensen famously predicted in a 2011 book called The Innovative University that as many as half of American nonprofit private colleges would close within 10 to 15 years. Last year, Christensen said he stood by the prediction, linked to his view that online providers will provide "disruption" to traditional higher education markets. (Disruption in various industries, not just higher education, is Christensen's area of expertise.)

A flurry of private college closures in the last year (Green Mountain College, Mount Ida College and more on the verge), while not nearly at the pace necessary to make Christensen's prediction true, have led more people to point to his work.

But Mark Zupan isn't buying the thesis. He's president of Alfred University, which has an endowment of $118 million and is, in other words, tuition dependent. Alfred is located in upstate New York, known for having many colleges and much natural beauty, but not a booming population that would yield enrollment growth. Alfred, Zupan says, is "the kind of private, nonprofit university that Christensen believes most likely to be disrupted by the online revolution."

Zupan is not Panglossian about private higher education. But he has a challenge for Christensen.

In an essay Sunday in The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Zupan wrote, "Of course, universities such as ours face challenges. Changes in demographic factors, online learning options, the popularity of various majors, state funding for public institutions and international enrollments create a dynamic marketplace. Nonetheless, we see more opportunities than threats. From this perspective, let me propose a friendly wager. If at least half of all traditional universities fail or merge by 2030, then I will give $1 million to Christensen’s institute (provided it is not disrupted before then!). If, however, his prediction fails to materialize by 2030, then Christensen will contribute $1 million toward Alfred University’s endowment."

Added Zupan, "In making his gift, Christensen will be investing in a university whose graduates have produced glasses that correct for colorblindness; developed ways to transmit voice and data by fiber-optic cable; started Meals on Wheels; contributed to devising a treatment for neonatal jaundice; created art showcased by the world’s major museums; invented body armor to protect soldiers and first responders; helped develop Gorilla glass; and transformed Marvel Comics from bankruptcy into Marvel Entertainment, which sold to Disney for $4.8 billion; saved AIG; and lead Voya Financial. Clay, my email is [email protected] should you wish to financially stand behind your forecast."

On Sunday, asked if he had heard from Christensen, Zupan said, "The fish hasn’t nibbled yet."

Inside Higher Ed reached out to Christensen and has not heard back.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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