[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]
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.]