Stop Talking About Disruption in Higher Education

In the past several years, an idea has taken hold among many, many people in and even outside of higher education: The prediction that disruption for our industry is just around the corner.  The idea has been a hot one in business for a while, as you know if you read Harvard Business Review.  Clayton Christensen fancies himself as the next Michael Porter, and beats his one-note song at every chance he gets.  I liked his Blue Water Strategy concept, but disruption was a tired idea a long time ago.  And I’m not sure it’s applicable to higher education at all.

It’s not that the concept of disruption is invalid, of course; disruption is otherwise known to laymen as innovation (although old, common words are never as sexy as new ones, of course). Clearly, being able to zig when everyone else is zagging has made a lot of people wealthy.  Bill Gates disrupted a new industry by realizing the money was in software, not hardware; Steve Jobs making aesthetics and experience the thing changed how we thought about machines; and Google giving away services in exchange for information seemed an impossible business model.  All brilliant, in retrospect, of course.

But disruption works best when there are a few, major players in an industry.  And it works best when one person–a true visionary–can be the philosopher king.  Don Randel, former president of the University of Chicago, famously remarked that despite being in charge of a billion dollar corporation, he couldn’t give anyone a direct order. Higher education is neither small nor friendly to autocratic management, and if we know one thing, it’s this: When governments attempt to impose disruption (Net Price Calculators, anyone?), the vision–if there ever was one–gets lost in politics.

Clearly, change in every industry takes hold, eventually.  No one who went to medical school in the 70’s or 80’s could have anticipated that they’d be co-prescribing drugs with an insurance company.  There was no day in the auto industry when robots took over for humans; it happened over a long period of time.  There were still elevator operators working long after elevators got push buttons; there are still many working in IT diligently creating “reports” despite the fact that self-service BI is growing rapidly.  And even though we’ve witnessed seismic shifts in technology and communications, college admissions is still dominated by personal interaction.

But humans are strange; they tend not to change things in anticipation of what will be.  Instead, they react to what is (those who are the outliers are the disruptive, of course).  And given that many decisions about how things get done on a university campus require consent of a large body of faculty (a group of people proud that education has changed little since 1500), change won’t happen over night.  (As an aside, I’ve always felt that the central limit theorem, in which a large sample pretty much ensures central tendency, or “average” results, is why nothing astonishing ever comes from a large committee).  Even if it does change dramatically at a few places, it will still take a while to trickle through the thousands of institutions of higher education in the nation.

(Ironically, the places that could institute disruption–Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale–are least likely to do so.  Budget surpluses that are larger than almost every university’s operating budgets make them a little too comfy.)

So, rather than disruption, let’s talk about punctuated equilibrium, a term popularized by Eldredge and Gould, that suggests evolution (in their case, real evolution) goes for long periods of time in stasis, with little change, but then sees things move rapidly over short periods of time.  I think it’s a far more reasonable way to think about change in higher education: Not expecting a sudden, dramatic, sweeping change; but rather fairly dramatic, incremental changes at periodic intervals that collectively make a difference.

Unlike disruption, we can see punctuated equilibrium coming.  We have lots of examples of it.  And almost everyone anticipates more of it.  So, can we change our language?

What do you think?

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