The innovative university : changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out, by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2011. 475p. SHU Library: LA227.4.C525 2011
This book has been widely acclaimed and is almost required reading for faculty and senior staff at many universities today. Christiansen's strength is his very influential analysis of disruptive change in various industries such as electronics and automobiles. Eyring provides a narrative history of Brigham Young University (Idaho) which the authors contrast with a long history of Harvard University. The text is cumbersome to read, however, suffering from repetitive points and a lumbering style which reminds one of less successful articles in scholarly journals.
The central idea is that in "the DNA" of universities is a desire to be like Harvard: wealthy and comprehensive. BYU/Idaho represents a completely different strand of "DNA" in how it serves students by a combination of distance learning, on-site learning, and lower-cost alternatives to residential college.
"DNA" is obviously a metaphor: only living organisms have it, not organizations --and therein lies a weakness in the authors' argument. "DNA" implies a set of biological determinations that are both inescapable (such being born with a color of hair) but which are further shaped by culture in how the biology becomes interactive socially (such as jokes about blonds: or Nazi ideology about "pure" blonds). But organizations --even Harvard-- change, sometimes radically, in response to changing conditions. Harvard is no longer a Puritan or Evangelical training ground for clergy; neither is it a pocket of rich people's inherited privilege and wealth; in these times even Harvard is examining which subjects it should be teaching and how to finance them --with sometimes painful consequences such as the reorganization (right now) of Harvard University Libraries).
Organizations are human constructions and can and do change. Christiansen and Eyring seek not the extinction of higher education but its wiser practice, and seek to free leaders of organizations from the presumption that they have to imitate Harvard. How many organizations ever really wanted to do that? Some, to be sure, but others have sought distinctive patterns such as professional schools, undergraduate-only liberal arts colleges, and schools with special clientele such as Gaullaudet University or even St. John's College (Annapolis and Santa Fe). Even University of California (Berkeley) is re-evaluating its mission in light of radically reduced state funding.
The book speaks hardly at all about the tenure process, the administrative burden imposed by governmental standards and expectations, information technology, and the problems and opportunities posed by too many courses taught by adjuncts. Discussion of online or distance learning is remarkably slight. The authors note the rapidly rising costs of higher education but offer no fresh comments about what can be done about it. The authors also minimize the substantial portion of funding for BYU (Idaho) comes from tithes to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints --and very few academic institutions elsewhere have such percentage of operationaL funding from a faith-based or sponsoring group. Tuition per semester for full-time LDS students is $1,785; for non-LDS students $3,570. (99% of its 15,100 students are LDS members; admission (acceptance?) rate is 97%: see BYU-I Quick Facts.)
The Innovative University is a worth-while read based on the reputations of its authors but those inside academia will not find particularly fresh insights or deep discussions.