Not the Disruption We Need

"Disruption" is a favorite term among critics describing the comeuppance due to overly-expensive under-performing colleges and universities. Changing demographics, consumer resistance to tuition prices, new technologies, workforce demands and public expectations for better outcomes are all part of the disruption. Some observers claim the disruption will force higher education to change its entire model, from hallowed traditions like residential campuses and faculty tenure to fundamental structures like degrees and the liberal arts curriculum.

While some of those forecasts seem too dire, I agree that disruption as a driver of large institutional change is a useful provocation challenging the comfortable status quo.

In the wrong hands, however, disruption becomes a bludgeon wreaking destruction with no positive results. The controversy at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland is an example of disruption run amok. The board of trustees surely had some inclination toward disruption when they hired a president with no professional experience in higher education. President Simon Newman's track record as a successful private equity fund manager with a Stanford MBA and Cambridge pedigree proved irresistible to a board looking to incite some new thinking in a venerable institution facing the considerable market pressures afflicting many colleges today. But Newman's ideas about creating change seem to derive from a playbook imagined by Kafka: Get rid of under-performing freshmen who hurt the bottom-line metrics ("drown the bunnies" and "put a Glock to their heads") and fire anybody who disagrees.

Does that approach really work in any modern business?

It's one thing for a board to hire a president who can incite necessary change; it's quite another to pour gasoline all over the house. Inevitably, some will backsplash and blow up the board and president along with the institution. Knowing how to create effective and durable change in an academic institution requires a particular skill set not necessarily transferable from, say, a computer manufacturer, global food corporation or venture capital company.

Among many differences between the for-profit business world and higher education, the participation of the consumers (students) every single day in the business is remarkable (imagine if Apple customers lived in their stores), and both the consumers and the employees (faculty) expect to have a significant role in shaping the policies and products of the company. We call this "shared governance." Whether business leaders like it or not, the concept is fundamental to most non-profit institutions of higher education, not simply as a hoary tradition from yesteryear but a significant part of the contemporary "product" we offer to students (participation in student government and newspapers, for example, is part of the leadership development learning goals of most colleges) and faculty. Faculty contracts expect participation in governance through service on committees or other decision-making bodies, and tenure confers the right to such participation for life. Accreditation rules most often expect fairly robust shared governance practices.

Many collegiate trustees, especially those from the for-profit corporate world, express wonder and even exasperation at the notion of shared governance. Hence, such trustees look for people like themselves to become institutional leaders in order to impose "good business practices" on what appears to be a very messy and often too-slow form of internal democracy. Ineffective presidents are often unable to balance the participatory expectations of shared governance with the corporate need to make good decisions in a timely way. Periods of economic stress, enrollment decline and new competition fuel the desire of boards to find ways to curtail or even foreclose the chaos that can ensue when presidents are unable to manage shared governance effectively. Enter the Savior With A Business Model!

The fascination with business executives or other "non-traditional" leaders is not limited to small private institutions; controversies abounded last year in the appointments of business executive J. Bruce Harreld as president at the University of Iowa and former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as president of the University of North Carolina System. Both Presidents Harreld and Spellings are new in their positions, and they may well prove to be effective academic leaders as well as change agents. But cautionary tales abound. The presidency of former software company executive Tim Wolfe blew up at the University of Missouri when he completely mishandled the response to racial unrest on campus, appearing to be dismissive of legitimate student concerns and ultimately motivated by the potential loss of football revenue rather than addressing racism on campus.

The examples of Presidents Newman and Wolfe exemplify the common mistakes that business leaders make in trying to "disrupt" the traditional academic governance model: avoiding genuine discussion and failing to listen; taking drastic action without input; being more concerned for the bottom line than for the people affected; disparaging disagreement as disloyal; getting rid of those who disagree. Institutions of higher education will inevitably reject this kind of imperious leadership style by either the president or the board. The governing board at the University of Virginia learned this the hard way when their back-room efforts to unseat President Teresa Sullivan became public, triggering weeks of protests and her eventual reinstatement. In that case, as so many others, the struggle was also about "disruption" and whether the president was moving fast enough to suit some board members.

Higher education is a stressed industry and the idea of "disruption" is real. Colleges and universities must find better solutions for the sheer cost of the traditional form of degrees, including an honest assessment of whether the curriculum and credit requirements for many degrees are worth the price. We certainly can and should welcome innovations that include reduction of some seat-based instructional time in favor of virtual and competency-based learning so long as we also uphold quality and substance in awarding any credentials. We certainly can and should eliminate those costs that are more about preserving an old elitist culture than about serving new generations of learners well. We certainly can and should be accountable for outcomes, but outcomes framed in the context of our institutional missions and not simply those imposed by the one-size-fits-all approach used by too many external metrics machines like the College Scorecard and various publications purporting to know what's "best" in higher education based on disparate metrics.

Boards rightfully should expect sitting and new presidents to be people with the intellectual range to understand the disruptive forces, to counter those that are truly harmful, and to harness those that can create positive and permanent change where change is essential to improve education. But boards must also understand and respect the essential characteristics of the academy, especially the institutional mission that good shared governance sustains. A Catholic liberal arts institution has a very different purpose than a hedge fund. The methods necessary to fulfill that mission, the dialectic of teaching and learning, are very different from the assembly line at GM. The results are not as simple or immediately gratifying to behold as the release of the next iThing.

Disruption that produces effective change for the future is healthy; but careless change that destroys the essential nature of the university is not the disruption we need.