Eight Areas to Rethink in U.S. Higher Education

I just finished reading The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, written by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring (2011).  Christensen is the noted expert on innovation from Harvard Business School.

The basic premise of the book is that higher institutions education in the U.S. have attempted to emulate the model of Harvard, with several distinctive and very expensive features.  Colleges and universities have developed cost models that are unsustainable and most need to re-evaluate their practice and consider adoption of new models in order to be sustainable.   They compare the innovations and distinctive approaches at two very different schools: Harvard and Brigham Young University (BYU)-Idaho.

While I didn’t agree with everything written in the book, I thought that overall the authors were extremely insightful.  They provide a perspective on the forces that have created the current problems in U.S. higher education and what changes are needed to address those forces.

Based on my personal experiences and takeaways in reading the book, I have developed eight areas that need to be reconsidered in U.S. higher education institutions:

1. Rethink the widespread focus on research and graduate education.  Over time, Harvard has geared its model toward having tenure-track faculty focus on publishing discovery research and working with graduate students.  Their undergraduate students exist within an expensive, but effective system of “houses” and “tutors.”  This model helps ensure that they have a rich experiences as undergraduates. However, the tutor system is expensive and hasn’t been widely imitated, despite the fact that most universities have imitated the approach of emphasizing research and graduate education.

The result has been widespread dilution of quality in undergraduate education.  Obviously, some institutions can continue some type of focus on research and graduate education, but others should ask whether its in the best interest of their students and the institution.  All institutions should consider whether undergraduates are adequately served and how they can improve the undergraduate experience.   Institutions should also consider what the balance should be…asking tough questions about what to emphasize, de-emphasize, and discontinue.

2. Rethink the desire to “climb the Carnegie Ladder.”  The Carnegie Classification System labels colleges and universities by size, scope of offerings, and focus on research or teaching.  It was never meant to be a “ranking system.”  However, institutions have perpetually sought to be “bigger and better” and oftentimes view the Carnegie system as a ladder to be climbed, with “Research I” or “Very High Research” being seen as the pinnacle Carnegie Classification that an institution can attain.

Research universities are very expensive to maintain and we don’t need hundreds of them in the U.S.  Instead, institutions should consider being the best in their category and develop innovative ways of attaining excellence within those particular classifications.  For example, a four-year state university that focuses on high-quality undergraduate experiences might be able to do more societal good than a regional four-year university that is seeking to become a comprehensive research university.

3. Rethink the ideal of having programs in every possible area of study. Harvard has sought to have programs in nearly every area of study and to be the best in each of those areas.  The vast majority of institutions can’t afford to pursue this goal, which results in the existence of many mediocre programs.  Institutions need to carefully rethink which programs they can really excel at and consider eliminating others.Christensen and Eyring share examples of this being done in a very humane way, in which faculty and staff are given the opportunity to “re-tool” and shift their areas of emphasis.  They emphasize the need for changes to happen in a way that ensures job security for personnel willing to be part of the changes.

4. Rethink the approach to general education.  Institutions need to consider whether their particular students are best served by a general education infused with a practical focus or a classical liberal studies approach.  Students in some institutions benefit greatly from a classical approach.   However, students in other types of institutions may be better served by a more contextualized and integrative approach.  We shouldn’t assume that every college student in the U.S. needs an identical type of general education.

5. Rethink online education.  Online education has been used marginally in many institutions of higher education.  However, it has the potential to be used in both fully online forms and in hybrid face-to-face/online forms to be a disruptive force.  If used in truly innovative ways, online education could lead to enhanced learning outcomes, lower costs, and increased access.  In order to really achieve these goals, we need to consider ways to collaboratively develop and use truly innovative content, reusable content from other providers, quality control mechanisms, and various staffing models.

6. Rethink processes and services.  Some institutions (e.g., BYU-Idaho) have transformed business processes and support services by using quality control approaches such as Six Sigma.  In many colleges and universities, business services are antiquated, duplicative, and overly bureaucratic.  We must consider how automation, user-friendly self service, and process improvement can provide students with better experiences and reduce costs.

7. Rethink the role of faculty while ensuring faculty are central in all we do.  Faculty are of key importance to the functioning of a college or university.  Oftentimes faculty have been criticized for being self-focused and narrow in their pursuits (e.g., emphasizing personal research interests).  However, they are responding to the goals and rewards of the institution, as most employees do in all types of organizations.  In seeking change, institutional leadership must ensure that a clear vision is collaboratively set and that faculty and staff are rewarded for working toward that vision.  In my own experience, it seems that leadership sometimes sets a vision, but that rewards and support are not necessarily aligned that vision.

8. Rethink the role of staff.  Although not a major focus for Christensen and Eyring, I would also emphasize that staff members must be fully integrated into collaborative decision making processes.  A common criticism of higher education is that staff are treated like second-class citizens who are dispensable. On the contrary, I believe they keep institutions open on a day-to-day basis and should be full partners in brining changes to institutions.  A change in perspective and  rewards would help bring important changes to processes that oftentimes bog down universities.

I think it’s an exciting time to be involved in higher education.  As someone who studies and practices human resources and organization development, I find these institutions to be fascinating and exciting places to participate in and to watch.  Higher education can be incredibly frustrating but at the same time it’s invigorating when we are part of attaining meaningful changes, especially when those changes result in better serving students and society.

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