Clayton Christensen is a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. He has many accolades. His primary specialty is in the field of disruptive innovation. In his books Innovative University and Disrupting Class he defines disruptive innovation as when a product is introduced “that actually is not as good as what companies historically had been selling” (Christensen, 2008). This process creates new consumers out of non-consumers and disrupts the hold traditional companies have on a particular industry. This process he claims results in innovation.
Innovative University takes the history and current statuses of two universities and portrays them through the lens of disruptive innovation in an attempt to highlight successes, failures, and potential solutions to problems in the state and future of higher education. It should be noted that Clayton Christensen is by no means an unbiased observer. The first university that is discussed is Harvard, from which he has two advanced degrees and is a faculty member. The second is BYU-Idaho. Christensen has a bachelors degree from its sister school in Utah, and religious ties to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates both schools.
One of the foundations of Christensen’s argument is that most American universities have in one-way shape or form based themselves upon the model set out by Harvard and other prestigious universities. He refers to this as the “University DNA.” Their emulation is not only imperfect but they lack the immense wealth required to sustain the model in any manifestation. Some fundamentals of this model are:
Up or out tenure
Undergrad and Graduate programs
Competitive sports programs (though Harvard themselves cut those programs)
Christensen claims that this emulation leads to universities being overstretched and under-funded, focus on research as opposed to teaching, have a fundamental dissonance in their purpose, and make costly expenditures that are burdened by the student body.
As an example of an innovative university and a potential model for what higher education should try to emulate Christensen presents BYU-Idaho. At this university they have a “zero-growth” policy. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t expanding their capacity for new students; it means they won’t spend more money on infrastructure or faculty. The goal is to create a better learning experience for more students at a lower cost. BYU-Idaho does not have a graduate program. The focus of the faculty is on instruction not on research. There are a small number of majors. There is no nationally competitive athletics department. The university has a year-round schedule, and they have invested heavily in online courses.
BYU-Idaho is less expensive than Harvard and has a more focused and technologically focused format. It makes good business sense. Does that mean that BYU-Idaho is a better learning institution?
Christensen, an MBA graduate and professor regards higher education as a business. While in many cases that stance is a reality, if we view higher education as something that is fundamentally necessary to our society it is important to realize that its pursuit produces products that are less tangible than money. In Disrupting Class Christensen says that disruptive innovation is “a positive force. It is the process by which an innovation transforms a market whose services or products are complicated and expensive into one where simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability characterize the industry.” Should education be simple? Should education be convenient and for whom? What are the products? The problem with the way Christensen conceptualizes education in general is that it is so much more complex then any analogy to business or industry. In Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice, Larry Cuban proposes the idea that metrics are only one of four things that are needed to ensure a good education. The others are: willingness to learn, support at home, and available resources for students and teachers. Christensen’s primary metric is money. According to his book BYU-Idaho has found a way to provide education to more students, at a low cost. That is great but how do you determine the quality of that education? On page 286 of Innovative University Christensen says: “The fully online offerings enjoyed an across-the-board cost advantage over traditional instruction. Many of the online adjunct faculty were working professionals or homemakers for whom the pleasure of teaching was as great a motivator as financial compensation.” I read this as “we needed to save some money so we brought in some part timers who needed cash and paid them as little as we possibly could.” In chapter 15 Christensen talks about a former president of BYU-Idaho named Bednar who “invited his colleagues to ‘think about how we think’ and to ‘set goals so high that we cannot imagine achieving the results through our existing processes.’ He cited the success of Sam Walton, whose Arkansas-based company, Wal-Mart, he had worked with for more than fifteen years as a business school professor. Walton met with derision when he initially proposed to double the industry standard of $50 in sales per square foot of retail space. But, Bednar reported, Wal-Mart had since achieved $300 per square foot and aspired to reach $1000.” While the thought of enrolling in a university that bases its practices on those of Wal-Mart is incredibly scary, at least Wal-Mart has an amazing return policy. I wonder if that will transfer over to students who want their money back for worthless degrees?
Christensen does make some great points. Money is a factor for all but the most elite schools (and even for them in some cases). We can’t stand by tradition and expect change. Online courses are clearly the wave of the future. Focusing on quality is always better than focusing on growth. Still, most of his views on education seem rooted in business and capitalism. The goal of business is money. Whether a company is making hamburgers or laptops, the goal is money. McDonald’s isn’t successful because their hamburgers are amazing. Microsoft isn’t successful because Windows is a flawless program that never-ever freezes and makes you want to break something. These companies are defined as successful because they make lots of money. We cannot compare education to business because they are fundamentally different in the way they should be approached and the outcomes we expect from them. We don’t need a population of people who can say they are college graduates. We need a population who can say they know how to learn, how to think, what has come before them, and how they might make what comes after them better for everyone.