asecs president julie candler hayes on “disrupting disruption”

[When I saw Julie Candler Hayes’s President’s Column (in the winter ASECS news circular (January 2013)), I thought it might spur some response from the readers of the Long 18th.  So, with her permission, I’m posting it here, in the hopes that we can begin a discussion about the future of 18th century studies and the historical literary specialties in the contemporary university.  Julie and I are particularly interested in hearing how ASECS could further this conversation at future meetings. So what are our options in this environment for higher ed?  Thanks, DM]


Disrupting Disruption

In my fall column, I promised that I’d use this space as a chance to discuss some of the recent writing on some of the issues facing higher education. I (finally) read one of the most-discussed higher ed books of recent years—at least among administrators—Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University (2011). Of all the current books, this one has probably filtered the furthest into the national conversation, whether or not people read it, through the proliferation of Christensen’s term “disruptive innovation,” coined in his earlier work on corporate culture. (For a more extended overview, see Christensen’s 2011 white paper, “Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education.

In a nutshell, Christensen’s model distinguishes between “sustaining innovation” that industries implement to improve high-cost products and maintain their market dominance, and “disruptive innovation” that allows a savvy competitor to introduce a low-cost alternative. The low-cost alternative may not have all the desirable qualities of the original, but if effective, it will come to dominate the market, add sustaining innovations of its own, and replace the older product. Translated to higher education, the key disruptor in Christensen’s view has been the advent of for-profit online degree programs. It’s worth noting that The Innovative University underscores the need for other changes, such as curricular reforms that support timely degree completion and career preparedness, improved advising and student support systems, greater interdisciplinary, more undergraduate research, an end to competitive athletics, and an expansion of capacity (through both online learning and year-round operation) to decrease the need for selectivity.

I need hardly point out that there is much to criticize in The Innovative University. Christensen’s claim that the for-profits “fund their own operations” rather than rely on state support or philanthropy ignores the fact that the for-profits receive 25% of federal financial aid moneys while enrolling only 10-13% of fulltime students—and have dramatically higher non-completion and loan default rates; his insistence on the low operating cost of the for-profit sector refers blithely to the “low cost” of online adjunct instructors, something we can hardly take lightly amidst current debates over reimagining graduate education, creating new career pathways for PhDs, and reforming the working conditions of contingent faculty, as advocated by the New Faculty Majority and the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.  Indeed, the recent financial and accreditation troubles of one of the leading for-profits, University of Phoenix, may signal that their peak has passed.

That said, Christensen’s account of the challenges facing higher ed is all too accurate, and as the list above suggests, many of his recommendations are important. The “high fee high aid” model that has propelled many institutions both public and private is moving the cost of higher education increasingly beyond the reach of many and is not sustainable in any case. Distance learning has its usefulness, in terms of both revenue and institutional outreach, but if we value the full range of experiences and relationships provided by an immersive residential education, then it’s incumbent on us to be creative in our use of technology, smart in our use of resources, and attentive to the needs of students who trust us to give them the knowledge and skills that they need to go into the world.

At the Vancouver ASECS, a roundtable discussed the question, “Will tomorrow’s university be able to afford the 18th century?” I was optimistic then and I am optimistic now that not only the 18th century, but the full range of humanistic inquiry can thrive in tomorrow’s university, but we need to make that university our project today.

Julie Candler Hayes


[PS: DM here.  If my link to the Markides article in my comment below is not working (my UH library proxy seems to be interfering), here’s a link to the article, which is freely available online. Thanks.]

3 responses to “asecs president julie candler hayes on “disrupting disruption”

  1. OK, I’ll take a whack. First of all, even apart from the problematic assumption/analogy that universities are businesses with “business models,” and not institutions that serve the public good, I agree with Constantinos Markides’s critique of DI that it conflates all the different forms of disruption and innovation into a single, ill-defined concept [for link, see above]. The result is that what gets advertised as a disruptive technology (online learning) is in fact a shift towards a different, potentially disruptive “business model” (the degree-less, virtual, unaccredited, functionalist teaching institution). All the traditional forms of interaction, and therefore quality assessment and control, have been removed from the new model. Online learning, in and of itself, is not new, and may very well have peaked in terms of popularity, but the really radical part of all this is the removal of any one on one contact between teacher and student from the scene of teaching and learning.

    There are lots of assumptions here that could and should be questioned: scholars of innovation like Markides have argued that this scenario of total displacement of one business model by another is quite rare, but Christensen seems to think that cheap or free online courses, which do not confer degrees, could completely displace all but a handful of the most prestigious universities in terms of market-share. Judging by the experience of the for-profits, I don’t see any evidence that this would happen, except if the states actively dismantled their universities for this purpose. Then there are the questions about the effects of such a “disruption.” Would people from these institutions, for example, be able to get jobs on the basis of their certificates or whatever? Would this simply exacerbate existing inequality levels between private and public education? How would this assist with social mobility? Etc. etc. So why should anyone dismantle institutions that represent decades if not centuries of accumulated knowledge and practices, for the sake of a business model that does not yet exist, and teaching practices that may or may not work for the range of students currently found in public universities?

    The other question is whether what would happen under these circumstances could actually be considered “learning.” I know that we have plenty of questions about our own brick and mortar institutions, which are certainly opaque enough at times, but I honestly want to know how students in mass online courses can move beyond surface learning, and what happens when we move this approach from a course or two to an entire curriculum or undergraduate experience? What happens to the social networking, socializing, or zone of proximal development effect in the environment envisioned here? Would alumni give to such institutions? Would people make connections that could help them post-graduation? There seems to be no acknowledged role for the social element of pedagogy or engagement.

    Ultimately, I think that what Christensen is offering is a would-be utopian fantasy of a post-disciplinary, functionalist university organized around business models (or really a fantasy of something called “business”) rather than the amazingly diverse forms of knowledge production and -dissemination found in comprehensive research universities.

  2. Pingback: Mucking about with MOOCs | A very presidential blog

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, David, and for the Markides article, which is very helpful in thinking about the different forms of “innovation” potentially at work. I worry about the distinctions that collapse under the perceived pressure of events and circumstances. Remember the flurry over “strategic dynamism” during last year’s UVA psychodrama. (By the way, the website American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which urges trustees to take a more active role in university governance, has a congratulatory note to Helen Dragas on the occasion of her recent reappointment to the UVA Board of Visitors.)

    That said, I don’t worry too much about the term “business model” if it is simply shorthand for the economic underpinnings of all colleges and universities. The euphoria over MOOCs—even by Tom Friedman!—ignores the fact that the first generation of MOOCs are status symbols, hugely expensive prestige operations by universities that can afford them. Aimed, one might add, at students who most likely cannot afford those same universities.

    Christensen is right to observe that the “business model” for many institutions of higher ed isn’t sustainable. I’m as guilty as many for blithely accepting, for many years, the notion that the high-fee-high-aid model was viable. Aside from the fact that several states have moved to ban the redistribution of tuition from full-paying students into financial aid for others, it is increasingly the case that only the most elite institutions can continue to attract the “precious commodity” (as Tressie McMillan Cottom calls them) of students with the means to pay, and only the most wealthy can offer need-blind financial aid in the form of grants, not loans. And even if states begin to reverse the decades-old trend of disinvestment in public higher ed, it seems unlikely that our budgets will become flush overnight. My university receives a higher percentage of its budget from the state than many, yet we operate close to the bone.

    As I said in the column, Christensen’s own business model, based on the uncritical assumption of ever-available low-wage adjunct faculty, seems precarious as well. As you note, the for-profit sector hasn’t been doing so well lately, and if we see the reforms called for by the New Faculty Majority on the one hand, and calls to downsize and reimagine graduate education on the other, then the low-wage adjunct labor force may fade away.

    I like the idea of holding a discussion at ASECS (or wherever) where we look at different institutional arguments and strategies.