The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring

Published by: Jossey-Bass: 2011
Pages: 512 pp
Reviewed by Daniel Goroff

When Derek Bok was president of Harvard University, he used to talk about what makes an institution great. In higher education, he said, it was not necessarily endowment balances, publication rates or other numerical data that rankers like to collect. There were many schools that he considered exemplary successes that would never become well-known based on such statistical criteria. Rather, Bok said, what makes an institution great is a shared sense of identity and purpose.

In their new book, The Innovative University, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring devote most of their attention to two great institutions: Harvard University and Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYUI), formerly known as Ricks College. Eighteen of their twenty-four chapters compare and contrast these schools. They eventually draw general conclusions about “the Innovative University” that are thoroughly grounded in what they have to say about their two case studies.

You may not think Harvard and BYUI have so much to do with one another, but this book will convince you otherwise. Their stories are actually intertwined in all sorts of ways, both important and unimportant. Author Henry J. Eyring, an administrator at BYUI, is the son of BYUI’s former president, Henry B. Eyring, who earned both his Masters and Ph.D. in Business Administration at Harvard. Clayton Christensen, now a professor at the Harvard Business School, was an undergraduate at BYU, though at the main campus in Utah rather than in Idaho. And Christensen’s former dean at Harvard, Kim Clark, left the Business School in 2005 to become president of BYUI. Clark also brought two other Harvard Business School faculty with him there, Steve Wainwright and Clark Gilbert.

The point is that, through many connections, the two authors are very familiar with both BYUI and Harvard – or at least with the Harvard Business School. It is less obvious that they have much intimate knowledge of Harvard College, or, indeed of trends and research concerning undergraduate education worldwide other than at BYUI. There are some sidebars that reference other schools, mainly in Utah, as well as other studies, mainly by McKinsey, Milken or Innosight. But the book concentrates almost entirely on what many people know about Harvard and what not so many people have known about BYUI.

This strategy is sometimes enlightening. The authors emphasize, for example, that Harvard began as a Puritan college and that BYUI began as a school, then became a junior college and is now a four-year university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But sometimes the parallels really seem like a stretch. The long and selective histories they recount are laced with too many transitions of the form, “Meanwhile, back at Harvard, similar developments were taking place…” One almost gets the impression that these were the only two schools on earth and that, for more than a century, they were constantly thinking of little besides one another.

But the authors’ descriptions of each school seem accurate enough. In fact, most chapters helpfully provide tables that highlight certain defining characteristics of each institution at various points in their development. They refer to these contrasting traits – such as open admissions versus selective admissions or moral educational priorities versus liberal educational priorities – as the institution’s “DNA.” This metaphor runs throughout the book, including double-stranded graphics that grace both covers, the title page and every sidebar.

Indeed, the very subtitle of the book is “Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.” The problem with this metaphor is that no one knows how to change his or her DNA. The book goes to great lengths to draw out two strands in the history of higher education to illustrate how one shows the way forward and the other is in trouble. But even the most sophisticated chart of our genetic makeup does not and cannot tell us what to do about it. The implicit diagnosis is, of course, that Harvard is threatened but BYUI has a bright future. And that is because Harvard’s DNA makes it vulnerable to what Christensen has become famous for calling “disruptive innovation.”The process of “disruptive innovation,” as developed in Christensen’s other books, unfolds when old established firms selling traditional products cannot cope with how upstarts provide new and initially inferior substitutes to new and ultimately larger sets of consumers. Think of how cell phones have moved up-market to displace landlines, or how discount stores have moved up-market to displace full service retailers. The underlying message of this book is that profit-minded online educators are going to eat Harvard’s lunch, while BYUI and its ilk will not only survive but thrive.

The authors convincingly suggest that BYUI has done a remarkable job meeting its goals, and will continue to do so as it adapts technologies and sensibilities from for-profit and online educational providers. But just what are the goals of BYUI? The book never explicitly says, nor do the authors ever seriously consider how these may be different from Harvard’s. In other words, Christensen and Eyring never really talk about what Derek Bok talked about, namely, the sense of shared identity and purpose that can make an institution great.

The contrast between Harvard and BYUI is most strikingly illustrated by the authors’ account of how and why Ricks College changed from a two-year institution to a four-year university named Brigham Young University-Idaho in 2000. The President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Gordon Hinckley, held a teleconference from Salt Lake City on less than 24-hour notice during which, to the surprise of all but one or two people on campus, he simply announced the change in the institution’s name and status within the Church Educational System. That kind of governance is hardly consistent with Harvard’s sense of identity and purpose (or most other universities in the United States).

In fact, for a book that purports to be about change and innovation in higher education, The Innovative University strangely omits much discussion of academic governance, leadership, or decision-making, beyond potted portraits of particular presidents that put Charles Eliot and Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard on a par with David Bednar and Henry Bennion Eyring of Ricks College.

The underlying message of this book is that profit-minded online
educators are going to eat Harvard’s lunch.

Key management issues always concern how certain tradeoffs get made. Howard Raiffa, the Harvard Business School professor with whom I taught, impressed upon me not only that leaders have to make tough tradeoffs but also that this can be done well only relative to explicit objectives. Is the mission of BYUI to prepare as many students as possible to go on Church missions around the world? Is the mission of Harvard to prepare elite students to go on secular missions in government, consulting firms and other research institutions? Are the objectives of either institution really so similar to those of communication service providers, retailers, and other commercial firms? These are caricatures, of course. But this otherwise insightful and intriguing book finally falls short of greatness because of the authors’ unwillingness to address how great institutions can differ in their sense of identity and purpose.

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