Innovation and Differentiation

Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University is an important book. Christensen is the Cizik Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.  Eyring is a long-time administrator at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Bringing them together are shared ties with Harvard and BYU-Idaho, two very different institutions who have charted different paths towards success. Despite a baffling gap in the work’s DNA – its lack of interest in the question of institutional mission – anyone deeply interested in the future of higher education should give this book time and consideration.

The disingenuous subtitle is “Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.” The theme of an institution’s DNA certainly is woven throughout the volume. However, this is most definitely not a how-to book. It is a comparative case study. That is fine, too; the book is well-written, informative, provocative and interesting. TheInnovativeUniversity is also blinkered and surprisingly naive in some of its findings. In their desire to make an effective argument, the authors skipped over well-recognized and important components in institutional development and change.

Higher education is in crisis, the authors assert, drawing upon the voluminous literature that highlights growing expenses, misalignment of resources, and increased public frustration. A path to a deeper understanding, they claim, is through a study of these two institutional models, Harvard and BYU-Idaho. Harvard represents an established, idealized model of excellence in all things. In contrast, BYU-Idaho offers creative disruption and a focus on student learning. Neither model provides all the answers, or even necessarily the best paths. Examination of the two institutions does suggest, however, “insights into the paradoxical behavior of universities and the kind of innovation and change that is necessary to ensure their vitality.”

The history of the two institutions is charted by focusing primarily on the actions of college presidents. It is a reasonable methodology, but one that is in tension with the author’s underlying argument. Harvard’s rise to preeminence under Charles Eliot, A. Lawrence Lowell and James Conant is recounted both as institutional history and as the history of an emerging model of excellence in academia. Harvard’s decisions, from elective courses to general education to tenure to research to the role of athletics, are contextualized as having long-reaching effects of American higher education. Moreover, they are described as reasonable and in Harvard’s best interests in light of its resources and ambition.

In contrast, the steady growth of a Mormon school in Rexburg, Idaho, to Ricks Academy had little impact outside of its community and the students it served. The school was always closely connected with the larger church. It lacked institutional autonomy and its future was greatly dependent upon the decisions of church elders in Salt Lake.

Through the twentieth century both institutions flourished but in very different ways. Harvard grew in every aspect, attracting world-class scholars and building an extraordinarily impressive physical plant. Ricks maintained a teaching-focused agenda, educating an ever-growing Mormon population at low cost. First a two-year institution, then a four-year institution, and then a thriving junior college, Ricks’s actions were greatly shaped by its role within a larger system of colleges and universities overseen by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The respective institutional histories move quickly, capturing trends and movements in broad strokes, bringing the reader to the twenty-first century and its impending financial crises. However, the complexities that allowed for or constrained institutional decisions on the ground is not given much attention.

The authors instead describe the cumulative value and impact of these many decisions as the institution’s DNA. The DNA is not immutable, though, for it adapts and allows an institution to evolve over time. It is an odd conceptualization since the old-fashioned term “mission” might be equally, if not more, appropriate. But Christensen and Eyring avoid explicit analysis of mission, much to the book’s detriment. The relationship between Ricks’ enrollments and the growing Mormon population is not examined; nor is Harvard’s decades-long efforts to build multiple schools explained. These decisions have nothing to do with DNA. They are the result of people, politics, resources, opportunity and values. University presidents matter, but so, too, do board members, faculty senates, government officials and straight forward economics.

The latter half of the book turns away from Harvard, which has served more as an idealized model than a practical example for the future of higher education. Harvard’s drive for excellence, the authors write, while working well for Harvard is a poor model for other institutions of higher education. Its reach, intentional or not, has placed much of higher education at a disadvantage. What works well at Harvard only works at a limited number of  institutions and can be extremely problematic for other colleges and universities.

In contrast, the authors are interested in the transformations of Ricks Academy into BYU-Idaho. This student-centered, technologically flexible institution could serve as a viable alternative for a non-elite institution deeply concerned with meeting student needs – particularly when it comes to cost control. The various groups, structures, curricula and campaigns at BYU-Idaho speak to this ongoing commitment to that institution’s mission. It seems to be working, too, and there is much to commend to a nimble institution of higher education that demonstrates integrity through its actions. BYU-Idaho’s ability to develop and implement hybrid courses, in particular, has been essential in controlling cost and meeting student demand.

So at a tactical level, we are left with two different institutions pursuing different missions. Each has found success through a commitment to mission, a willingness to change, and an ability to take risks to find success. But is this really about an institution’s DNA?

The ability of BYU-Idaho to find success depends tremendously on the environment in which it operates. Its steady stream of Mormon students, its relationship to a flagship university, its geographic location – all these factors, coupled with its leadership, have propelled it. The DNA is not as much in the university as it is woven through the community that BYU-Idaho serves.

I think that what the authors have is a comparative study of two universities that have defined “success” in very different ways. Furthermore, they have actively and consistently sought their own kind of success. The choices, over time, lead to very different kinds of understandings of higher education.

This is a good thing. It is good for the American public and it is healthy for higher education as well. What I believe is more important that mission differentiation, though, is that is there is increasing awareness that it is possible to be successful higher education in very different ways. This, more than any other message, is the benefit of The Innovative University.

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