Recent events at the University of Virginia following the decision of the institution's governing board  to remove its president after only two years in office have brought to light some questionable claims that have been animating educational reformers lately.
In a statement  justifying the Board of Visitors’ decision, the Board’s rector, Helen Dragas, asserted that U.Va.’s president, Terry Sullivan, was unwilling to make the kinds of changes necessary at a time when universities like Virginia are facing an “existential threat.” The times, Dragas claimed, call for a bold leader willing to impose “a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation” than was Sullivan. “The world,” Dragas believes, “is simply moving too fast.”
Dragas’s comments echo those of many reformers who believe that new technologies are producing “disruptive innovation ,” forcing universities, which are supposedly conservative by nature and controlled by faculty who are invested in outmoded ways of doing things, to transform themselves to meet the needs of the 21st century.
The claim behind this is, quite simply, that new technologies have alone made it possible to transcend the “traditional” campus model. Whether through new learning technology on campus or through distant online education , technology will cut costs, improve access, and completely reframe the foundation of the American academy: tenure, shared governance, and the centrality of brick-and-mortar classrooms and flesh-and-blood faculty.
The problem with this refrain is that it ignores the importance of ideas and politics. As Mark Blyth of Johns Hopkins has written , disruptive innovation is not just a technological act, but one in which new contexts enable people with pre-existing ideas for reform to push their pre-existing agenda. In short, ideas can be used to determine what gets defined as a crisis and what gets defined as the appropriate solution.
In this case, the constant iteration of “disruptive innovation” provides an aura of inevitability to issues that are to be worked out on the ground through politics, on the one hand, and through decisions by specific colleges and universities, on the other hand. There is nothing inevitable about how new technology is used, what its goals are, and who will control it: these are all matters that some one -- or some group -- will decide.
The refrain of disruption is misleading. It suggests that the “traditional” college is on its last legs, when this is far from being the case. In fact, there is nothing inherently disruptive about new technologies. At their best, as the New York Times's David Brooks rightly notes, new technologies can improve colleges by allowing teachers to be more effective within classrooms.
At their worst, new technologies will be used to replace the human dimension of education with machines. But those are choices that we, as citizens, policy makers, and members of the academy are free to make. Change may be inevitable, but the direction and meaning of change are not.
For decades critics of higher education have sought to limit the centrality of the liberal arts -- and the humanities in particular -- in the American college curriculum. For decades, critics of higher education have sought to eliminate tenure and reduce shared governance to make universities more accountable to managers. For decades, critics have sought to rely on market-based ideas both to fund universities and to determine which programs are worth funding. None of these criticisms relied on new technologies. They were present in the 1970s and 1980s.
What we are really seeing is not necessarily a moment of disruptive change.
Rather, those who are already hostile to the academy are invoking the idea of disruption to convince the rest of us that the changes they desire are inevitable.
The new technologies are an excuse; the reality is that many of the changes being imposed on universities across America -- and exposed in the debates at the University of Virginia -- are not about technology and disruptive innovation but about those who have a particular vision of American higher education and want to see it happen.
In short, it’s about politics and values, and there’s nothing inevitable about those.
Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia in 2004.