Thoughts on The Innovative University (Part One)

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I’ve just finished The Innovative University by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring. The lengthy book is provocative on a number of fronts, but is ultimately flawed due to a lack of attention to context.

The book itself is part history, part call to action. It rests on the central thesis that the contemporary
American university is largely modeled after Harvard. Harvard, in Christensen and Eyring’s estimation, is a truly comprehensive university. It serves graduate and undergraduate students, pays considerable attention to student life outside of the classroom, seeks to employ the best faculty in the world, and emphasizes world-class research. The history of American higher education is largely a history of other institutions emulating Harvard and much of the book is a president-by-president history of Harvard, contrasted with the history of a very different sort of institution, Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho).

Ricks College is a church supported institution affiliated with the Church of Later Day Saints. Though flirting with four year status many years ago, for most of its history Ricks was a two year school, serving the local Idaho population and sending its graduates to Brigham Young University for their bachelor’s degrees. Within its recent history, however, Ricks has become the four-year, bachelor’s degree granting BYU-Idaho. The book emphasizes how different BYU-I is from Harvard, with its lack of graduate programs, long term contracts instead of tenure, focus on the scholarship of teaching and learning rather than “pure” research, and robust system of online programs.

The point of this lengthy compare and contrast between Harvard and Ricks/BYU-Idaho is to illustrate that, though Harvard has formed the DNA of the American University, most universities follow that genetic code to their detriment in the present day. Every place is not Harvard, but the attempt to become Harvard-like in their system of research, faculty rewards, and “Carnegie climbing” has led many institutions to ill-serve students and over extend themselves financially.

It’s hard to quibble with the conclusion that the drive for bigger and better, fueled by US News rankings and market pressures, has put many universities in a bind. That’s something I agree with, as is the author’s urging for universities to focus in an effort to thrive. I am wary that their historical analysis leaves out factors that had a bearing on their representative’s institution’s DNA, however. Harvard’s evolution is not just a tale of university presidents emulating European graduate education and developing new systems of general education. Those (and the other cornerstones of the American university that the authors argue came from Harvard) weren’t just willed on the faculty and students of Harvard because Charles Eliot or A. Lawrence Lowell though they were good ideas. They happened in a context, as a result of a variety of forces. None of that is supplied here, giving the impression that the DNA of American higher education was rather simply constructed, rather than evolving due to the interplay of environmental stimuli. The story of Ricks College is also simplistic, not paying enough attention to the role the college’s church affiliation in allowing it to grow, change, and weather significant difficulty. The
relationship with the LDS Church is certainly part of the story that is told, but if the authors want to hold BYU-Idaho as a model for other universities to follow (as they seem to do), then more attention to the ways in which Rick’s affiliation was an asset would be helpful. Did the affiliation play any role in attracting and retaining students, despite the school’s rural location? What were the factors that led BYU-Idaho to attract and retain faculty despite not having a system for tenure? By being more specific about the ways in which Ricks was unique — and its church affiliation is one of those ways — it would actually help those institutions NOT like Ricks compare themselves and their challenges to what Ricks was able to overcome. That comparison would, in turn, be useful as other universities navigate their own set of circumstances, which may or may not include affiliation with a service and educationally oriented church with international reach.

The book is not a history, despite it using the history of two institutions to construct its argument and offer suggestions. The book is an argument that American higher education faces disruption and it must respond with its own set of innovations in order to adapt and thrive. Tomorrow I’ll discuss the book’s take on the central disruption and how universities ought to innovate and adapt.

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