The Innovative University by Christensen and Eyring: A Review

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the purported crisis within the system of higher education in North America. Every Tom, Dick and Henrietta think they have a recipe that will immediately cure the academia of all its ills. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out by Christensen and Eyring is one of such attempts to offer a recipe for a cure. In reality, however, the book is more of a symptom of what is wrong with the system than anything else.

Altogether, the book offers a lot of long-winded sentences that state not just the obvious but the painfully obvious. It is, however, very short on substance. The only practical suggestions it makes for the improvement of the higher education system are extremely trivial and well-known to anybody. Moreover, the absolute majority of universities that I am familiar with have been putting these suggestions in practice for a while.

A significant chunk of the book (about 150 pages)is taken up by a very detailed recounting of the history of Harvard University. Since the history of Harvard can be found in a variety of other sources, I felt that its role in THE INNOVATIVE UNIVERSITY was that of padding. Overall, the original content of the book could be summarized in 3 or 4 sentences. The rest is just repetitive, tedious padding.

The things I mentioned, however, are not the worst part of the book. What is really annoying about it is the attempt to analyze the university as if it were a business. Students are referred to as student-customers. Christensen directly compares selling education to selling a box of cereal. And he pushes this “idea” as insistently as he does every other inane observation he makes. With a naivete that makes one feel vicarious embarrassment for him, this author almost exclaims on a variety of occasions, “This strategy works if you want to sell cereal. So it has to work when applied to the system of higher ed, too!”

If anything will end up destroying the American system of higher education – which, in my opinion, is without a doubt the best system of higher education in the world – it is this kind of attitude. Universities are not businesses. Their goal is not to sell the product at all costs. The university’s role in society is completely different. It makes no sense to try to run a business as if it were, say, a charitable organization. Or a household. Or a college. In the same way, it makes no sense to impose on the system of higher education rules and procedures that are alien to it. A much better title for this book would have been How to Destroy a University in Ten Months Or Less because this is precisely what will happen if the ridiculous suggestions of its authors are put into practice.

I’ve been working in the system of North American higher education for a little over ten years now. Every day, I see professors, lecturers, instructors, administrators and students who come together for the purposes of sharing, cultivating and advancing knowledge. And there is nothing more beautiful than a bunch of people brought together by their love of learning and their desire to disseminate their knowledge. However, some colleges have adopted the pernicious practice of bringing in very highly paid business managers to manage campuses. These people are often brilliant business leaders who are, at the same time, absolutely clueless about how to run a university. They begin to apply their knowledge of how to run a business to an environment that is completely different. The results are always disastrous. Even if such administrators manage to raise enrollments by moving most of the courses online and destroying the emphasis on research (which are Christensen’s and Eyring’s main suggestions in this book), the university soon ends up losing all prestige and starts being referred to both at home and abroad as a “diploma mill.”

In the opinion of these authors, it wouldn’t be a problem if most of our universities turned into places that churn out useless online courses and produce no research whatsoever. As long as the “student-customers” are happy with being able to buy a diploma while investing very little intellectual effort into acquiring it, everybody will be happy. As for research, we always have Harvard.

For those of us who believe that our students and our American scholarship deserves better, this is not a valid path.

6 thoughts on “The Innovative University by Christensen and Eyring: A Review”

  1. Analyzing university as if it were a business gives a sense of deja vu RE comparisons of running a country budget to running a household. Imho, some basic understanding of economics – home vs country, how to read letters from a banc, loans, etc – should be a compulsory subject at school. Everybody needs the knowledge both on personal and on state level since USA is a democracy and everybody votes what to do with the country’s budget too.

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  2. So much must have changed since I was a student. I recall my University prof’s explicitly informing students that their primary objective was research. We benefited from their research. We, the lowly students, were not the reason they were there.

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  3. The trends facing academic workers aren’t all that different from those facing workers in general. Everyone is expected to be more tolerant of risk, competition and economic insecurity. Everyone is expected to build their niche in life through “entrepreneurship.” Entrepreneurship is being leaned on as the panacea that is supposed to get the world economy out of its slump. In reality, it’s just an excuse for a System that no longer works. As usual, the onus is placed on the individual to “make their own breaks.”

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  4. You sound like Ayn Rand—but in a rare good way—calling people out on pronounds w/o referents. But point taken on passive voice. “By whom” is a good question. I would say that current labor market conditions make economic security harder to come by, so I guess the “whom” would be the Invisible Hand. I think I understand your position on that from a previous post; better a precarious workplace than a sexist one. If there really is a tradeoff between job access and job security, then yes, I’d agree that the status quo is a step up from the glorious postwar economy. Ultimately, freedom is a higher priority than security. I’m not 100% sold on the idea that there has to be a tradeoff, though.

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