Book Review: The Innovative University

The cover to The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out
Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring apply Christensen’s disruptive innovation theories to traditional, 4 year, public and private higher ed institutions. It’s a great primer for anyone who wishes to understand the issues currently facing the higher ed world. I’ve written quite a bit at this blog about the issues this book puts into historical context. I’m now much more well grounded as to the origins of the problems I see and how they can be dealt with in the future. Here are a few highlights:

  • Three of Harvard’s successive presidents- Charles Eliot, Lawrence Lowell and James Conant- each contributed to what we now stereotype as a typical university. That model is pursued by many (most?) “traditional” universities and it comes at a high cost.
  • The highly decentralized organizational structure is caused by a desire to provide the best education possible. Its outcome is the creation of specialized graduate schools that sit atop undergraduate programs. Those schools tend to isolate subject matter in order for faculty and students to interact and collaborate to a greater degree. The downside- isolation- squeezes a general purpose, liberal arts type of education as undergrads are more likely to be trained to enter graduate school than to be productive in the working world.
  • The grueling “publish or perish” approach that all would be professors must traverse in order to gain tenure takes away a portion of their time to teach. With research focused faculty incentivized to pursue discovery of the next big idea, they shun teaching low level courses in preference of working with graduate students who can help them advance their scholarly inquiry. Undergraduates suffer from a relative dearth of highly accomplished instructors.
  • Universities do not utilize their infrastructure well which causes overhead expenditures to unnecessarily be large compared with their revenue generation potential. Adding summer terms and using classrooms throughout the day and night would maximize the value of buildings.
  • A “bigger and better” mentality produces many high cost services including athletic programs and new buildings, a desire to hire the best faculty at higher financial and student learning cost, and ever stringent admission selectivity in an attempt to raise the institution’s rankings. All of these practices come at great cost, usually outstripping revenue even as tuition rises considerably faster than inflation. The entire system is unsustainable and requires state and federal largesse along with aggressive fundraising.

The authors spell out many innovative ways to get out of the snowball effect that these issues cause. They use BYU-Idaho as a model institution that has bucked many of the pitfalls that engulfs higher ed today.

If you work at a higher ed institution, this book won’t alleviate the frustrations you most likely feel, but it will give you some context to understand the nature of those frustrations. They’re systemic and not easily solved without major effort from senior management and buy in from employees.