Deleterious Neglect

Clayton Christensen is well known in business circles and, increasingly, in the field of education. He became famous with The Innovator’s Dilemma, the 1997 book that introduced the concept of “disruptive technologies.” His major insight is that no matter how competent their management, leading companies in most industries cannot withstand an assault by successful upstart inventions such as the personal computer or the transistor radio. Instead, they fade away.

Today, distance learning appears to be a disruptive technology that threatens higher education. Christensen’s latest book, The Innovative University, written with Henry Eyring, an administrator at Brigham Young University-Idaho, discusses how to respond to that technology. But the book has not elicited much attention. I have seen only one review, a somewhat negative one by Peter Wood on the National Association of Scholars site.

Neglecting this book is a mistake, but the reasons for the neglect are worth considering for a moment. The 475-page book has a lot of tedious parts; maybe reviewers are still slogging through the volume, published in July. Few readers may see the point of going over again, in detail, the history of how presidents Charles Eliot, A. Lawrence Lowell, and James B. Conant “changed the DNA” of Harvard University, creating a model widely copied around the country.

Even fewer may want an exhaustive rendition of how a little-known Mormon school in Rexburg, Idaho, became an undergraduate-focused, blended-learning institution, Brigham Young University-Idaho.

I wouldn’t rule out bias against Mormons, either. The history of higher education in this country is primarily one of Protestant denominations that, starting in the seventeenth century, created schools to educate ministers and “Christian gentlemen.” But that was then. Most of those schools have become largely secular and distant from their roots. The idea that the Church of Latter-Day Saints, still viewed as a somewhat rogue denomination, might be doing the same thing in the twenty-first century sounds odd and outside the mainstream. BYU-Idaho as the model for the future? Come on, now.

But BYU-Idaho may indeed hold important lessons, as do other schools mentioned in The Innovative University, schools such as Rio Salado College, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Western Governors University.

Elsewhere, I have presented examples of some disruptive technologies highlighted by Christensen, such as the transistor radio, which destroyed companies like RCA and Zenith. Those companies could not absorb the disruptive technology into their business models; instead, they relied on what Christensen called “sustaining” innovations—improving existing products. As long as transistors were weak and primitive, the old companies could prosper by serving their existing customers. But over time the transistor got a lot better and ultimately snatched those customers away.

Will that be the storyline for traditional higher education—gradual inroads by upstarts, followed by the upstarts’ improving quality and the eventual collapse of the behemoths? It may sound preposterous but it could be true.

Which brings us to BYU-Idaho. This school traces its roots to the late nineteenth century, when pioneering Mormons created Bannock Academy. By 1997, it was Ricks College, probably the nation’s largest privately owned two-year college, with about 8,600 students. Backed by the church leadership in Salt Lake City, the new president, David Bednar, decided that the school should become a four-year college and serve more students—at only a slight increase in cost per student. He envisioned a global student body of 50,000.

The reform he embarked on was not the result of inroads by online education. But by incorporating online education and otherwise lowering its costs, BYU-Idaho became a viable competitor to online institutions. The changes Bednar started (they were expanded by his successor, Kim Clark) may look like a hodgepodge until one grasps an underlying fact: The changes weren’t designed to make the school a “bigger, better research university” (the usual impetus behind university growth). From the start, the school was committed to teaching undergraduates and did not even offer graduate degrees. The goal was to reach more students with a solid undergraduate education.

The name was changed to reflect its connection with the leading Mormon school in Utah. Competitive athletics were dropped. The school would operate year-round (with three equal semesters, enabling an expansion in the number of students). It would combine face-to-face and online learning, a major revision of educational practice.

It would address students’ failure to graduate on time because of poorly organized course sequences. Previously, when a student changed majors, he or she had to take so many new courses that the only way to graduate was to exceed the normal 120 credits, and that took more time.

To reduce students’ dropping out, the faculty created course clusters—“modules” that could be combined with other modules, allowing students to get technical certificates and associate’s degrees as they progressed. So, even if they didn’t attain a bachelor’s degree, they would have marketable skills. The school didn’t eliminate tenure but it minimized distinctions among faculty. And while research continued to have a role, teaching was paramount.

The overall message is that the school “changed its DNA”—something that Christensen and Eyring think most universities will have to do. The trouble with that message is that it’s not very dramatic or exciting. This is not a story about how a little school became so efficient that it challenged Harvard. It is not “the little engine that could”— developing Nobel Prize winners and attracting “star” faculty on a shoestring. Rather, it is the story of a school that resisted the pull of the Harvard model and chose its own direction, encouraged by a religious motivation to teach as many students as possible.

Looking at BYU-Idaho’s statistics (from the Department of Education), we see that nearly everyone who applies gets in (97 percent), students spend a maximum of $13,000 per year (including lodging), and the six-year graduation rate is 55 percent. These figures aren’t particularly stellar—of course, they may not represent the end-point, since some of the changes are recent. They do, however, mean that the school is open to most students at a reasonable price, and the course design suggests that those who don’t graduate in six years can probably obtain a technical certificate or associate’s degree.

The authors of The Innovative University argue that most colleges and universities should stop copying Harvard and come up with their own educational goals, as BYU-Idaho did. If they don’t, students may turn to alternatives that give them what they want at lower cost.

There is, however, a contradiction in this book, which is only lightly addressed. In the preface, Christensen says that most of the book was written by Eyring. Christensen suffered a serious stroke as the book was getting underway. Although he has recovered, he was ill during most of the time the book was being written.

Thus, the book is more Eyring than Christensen, and Eyring may be more optimistic than Christensen about the ability of old-line universities to respond to the online challenge. If online is as disruptive as the authors argue it is, history does not offer much hope for traditional universities. Christensen and Eyring play this down, saying somewhat demurely at the end: “If traditional universities and colleges can change their DNA quickly enough to avoid serious disruption they will have defied a huge amount of experience and data.”

That’s a backhand way of saying that it is rare to find an example of an organization hit by a disruptive technology that survives in anywhere near its previous form. (IBM is one of the few, and it was hard going.)

Universities, like past industries, are caught in efforts to become “bigger and better” by adding research, famed faculty, and top students. But to thrive (or at least survive) over the long run, say Christensen and Eyring, they must “suppress the compulsion to have everything and instead play to their unique strengths.” If they do that, they “can be ‘the best’ in the eyes of their own students, faculty members, and public and private supporters.”

But do most universities want to narrow their vision, to be “the best” to only those whom they serve, to give up the exhilarating climb up the rungs of the reputation ladder? I doubt it. If that idea were really appealing, I would have seen more reviews of this book.