Reform or Reformation?

by Jane S. Shaw

First, a tip of the hat to Mark Bauerlein, who reports on a debate at Harvard Magazine over whether colleges will be struck by disruptive technology and go the way of Digital Equipment, Montgomery Ward, and RCA.

The current article responds to an earlier one by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn. To understand the debate, you need to have a little knowledge about the Christensen argument, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

Very briefly, Christensen (author of The Innovator’s Dilemma) and Horn argued that online education is a disruptive technology that will force many, if not most, colleges and universities into dire straits. They argue that online education is following a path that other disruptive technologies (such as personal computers) have followed. Upstarts (in education’s case, for-profits) serve previous “nonconsumers” of  education (working adults) with online services. Gradually, Christensen and Horn predict, the technology will improve to the point where it overwhelms the traditional providers — on both quality and cost grounds. (Christensen and Horn appear to exempt elite schools like Harvard, but the article is addressed to public as much as private universities.)

Now, Richard P. Chait and Zachary First have responded to the Christensen/Horn article by saying they are “Bullish on Private Colleges” — and not just Harvard, but many others.

The article is worth careful perusal. They do a couple of fascinating things. One is to set up a straw man, the “business model.” They imply that Christensen and Horn, who believe that universities’ business model is broken, are saying that the way to fix it is to come up with techniques such as “zero-based budgeting, management by objectives . . . etc.” Such techniques are not the issue. The issue is whether the basic ways schools get revenue (tuition, government, private donations) and spend it (on physical plant and administrative services) are going to continue in the face of ever-improving online education.

#more#Second, Chait and First reveal the kind of hubris one becomes accustomed to in academia.

Unlike the “merciless markets” that businesses operate in, they believe, colleges exist on a totally different plane (read that as: a higher plane). “Stability prevails” and “the convoy basically remains intact.”

But they are right about that — today. Harvard is celebrating its 375th anniversary, and the top schools average about 180 years in age. Yes, to a large extent, academia has avoided the tumult of the marketplace with its creative destruction, upstarts, and also-rans. The question is whether they will remain insulated forever.

Chait and First say yes, and they give a creditable argument: In spite of its superficial stability, private colleges do change — “usually organically and gradually, sometimes imperceptibly.” Chait and First give examples ranging from the erosion of tenure-track faulty to the increase in enrollment of international students.

So, is all well in academe? Maybe.

In 1517, Catholic Church officials could look back on a nearly 1,500-year history (longer than Harvard’s) and view with satisfaction how the Church had withstood changes in the past and how Christendom was intact and stronger than ever. Yes, they had to deal with a few heretics here and there, but generally the future looked bright. The only problem was  a kerfuffle by an upstart priest at Wittenberg with a new idea about how the Church ought to be run.