How to Save the Traditional University, From the Inside Out

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 24, 2011

A survey of media reports on higher education might easily lead those of us working in the field to wonder: When did students and their parents start seeing college as a gantlet rather than as an exciting pathway to opportunity? When did policy makers stop seeing higher education as a valuable public investment? When did tenure become a guarantee only of a declining real wage? When did I start playing for a losing team?

We believe that the answer to these questions is "never," or at least "not yet." Traditional colleges and universities continue to play an invaluable role in our society, all the more so as the world changes. Three of their functions are, for now, irreplaceable.

One is the discovery of knowledge. Though the proportion of basic research performed by businesses continues to grow, university-based research remains powerfully innovative. That was true when the first computers and the Internet were pioneered, and it remains true in the age of Google and Facebook, both spawned in universities.

Even as traditional institutions of higher education advance the boundaries of knowledge, they also preserve and share the best discoveries of the past. They serve as conservators and promulgators of our cultural memories. This matters to everyone, not just future academics. As Harvard's Louis Menand said recently in The New Yorker, "College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing."

In a related vein, traditional colleges and universities serve as mentoring grounds for the rising generation. When young students go to college, they join a community of fellow learners and scholars unlike any other. The value of what happens on a campus is hard to quantify, but it can be life-changing. That's true for most of us who have chosen to work in higher education, as it is for many former students who pursued work in "the real world." Our lives were shaped by mentors who changed not just what we knew, but the way we thought and felt.

The parents of today's students get that, and they're willing to pay for it. But for many the cost is becoming prohibitive. Public-policy makers likewise see the value of the college experience, and of the research discoveries of universities. However, health-care costs and other nondiscretionary expenditures increasingly constrain what they can spend on higher education. As they try to make limited dollars go further, they naturally push back on policies such as publication-driven tenure. No one has created a better mechanism for discovery, memory, and mentoring than the one devised by innovative American academics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But as costs rise and resources shrink, something has to give.

The people best-qualified to decide which traditions must give way are those of us inside the higher-education community. One thing we've got to come to grips with is the power of online technology and the opportunity to enhance the way we teach. It's not just about saving money by employing low-paid online instructors and freeing up classroom space. Undergraduate students who prepare for face-to-face classes via online lectures, problem sets, and discussion boards can take Socratic discovery to levels like those of the best graduate business and law schools. This kind of hybrid learning holds the potential to create not only the equivalent of an Industrial Revolution in higher education, but also a learning renaissance. We can serve more students not just at lower cost but also at higher quality.

We've also got to take a hard look at what each institution can do uniquely well. Even schools of relatively small size and modest means have overstretched themselves, often in an attempt to be more like Harvard and the other great research institutions, although few schools engage in overt competition with these behemoths. But even if the drive to be bigger and better isn't explicitly focused on Harvard, whether the goal is as bold as breaking into the Association of American Universities or as parochial as offering more graduate programs than an in-state rival, moving up means looking incrementally more like Harvard. That inevitably means spending more per degree granted.

Even if the world were as full of high-paying out-of-state and international students as some university administrators seem to believe it is, there's no future in a strategy of consistently raising tuition at rates in excess of inflation and the earning power of the average college degree. Online degrees are steadily getting better, and the cost of providing them is a small fraction of what traditional institutions spend per graduate. Faced with an either-or choice, many young college students will follow the lead of adult learners: They'll take the affordable online option over the socially preferable but financially inaccessible traditional college experience.

But there's another alternative. It is a brick-and-mortar campus that makes good use of online learning technology and limits its activities to what it does best. Rather than equating bigger with better, this kind of institution will make focused choices in three critical areas: the students it serves, the subjects it offers, and the scholarship it performs. The conventional logic is that enhancing the stature of an institution means serving elite students, especially graduate students. More academic departments and degree programs are preferable to fewer, and scholarship is measured by publication and citations: That's the way the leaders of Harvard and other big research universities defined greatness. Some institutions, notably liberal-arts and community colleges, have resisted this definition, but its sway on those that bear the university label has been great. Along with the well-intentioned resistance of dedicated professors to online instruction, it has brought much of traditional higher education to the brink of competitive disruption.

In addition to adopting online learning as what we call a sustaining innovation, avoiding disruption will require incumbent institutions to effectively change their DNA. Most will need to become more focused on undergraduate students, cutting back on graduate programs that serve relatively few students while consuming much faculty time and generating little of the prestige hoped for when they were created. Programmatic offerings need to be more focused: Some majors should be dropped, and many should be shortened, making it more feasible for students to complete a degree in four years. The number of departments and centers at most institutions needs strategic shrinking.

Tenure isn't necessarily a competitive liability; job security for proven knowledge workers is a good thing, as partners in management consulting, accounting, and law firms know. The key, though, is to measure would-be partners—or tenure-track faculty members—against standards consistent with the institution's mission and strategy. For most colleges and universities, that will mean defining scholarship more broadly than traditional research and publication. The scholarship of teaching, in particular, has been overlooked for too long.

Institutions willing to innovate in these ways have a bright future. Most young students will continue to prefer "going to college" over fully online study, so long as it is affordable. Increased attention to students and student-serving scholarship will win the favor of policy makers, and greater focus of subject matter and increased online instruction will make traditional higher education easier to pay for. Yes, disruption looms—but institutions willing to change from the inside out can get back to their winning ways.

Clayton Christensen, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and Henry Eyring, advancement vice president at Brigham Young University-Idaho, are authors of The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out (Jossey-Bass, July 2011).