Mohammad H. Qayoumi thinks public universities should take a lesson from Wal-Mart—a view that might sound strange coming from a university president.
But Mr. Qayoumi, who leads San Jose State University, is referring to the retail giant's ability to continually expand both its brick-and-mortar stores and its online services. "It has the biggest stores all over the country, but it is also really active in e-commerce," he says. "It's not an either/or, it's an issue of how we can really bring a blend of the two together."
Mr. Qayoumi is trying a similar blending on his campus. He is experimenting with using massive open online courses, or MOOCs, both to bring down the cost of delivering classes on his campus and to let high-school students and others get a head start on college—on the cheap.
THE INNOVATOR: Mohammad H. Qayoumi, San Jose State U.
THE BIG IDEA: Colleges can borrow strategies from business to help students move through more quickly and cheaply.
For his first goal of cutting costs, the university teamed up with edX, the nonprofit MOOC provider started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to offer a "circuits and electronics" course in which students watched free lectures made by MIT professors as homework and attended class discussions with instructors at San Jose State.
The experiment violated a basic premise of college teaching—that every professor should create and deliver his or her own lectures.
"How different is the basic algebra course taught in Boston, or California, or wherever?" asks Mr. Qayoumi.
To help provide a cheaper online-only option, the university forged a partnership with Udacity, a for-profit MOOC provider. In a pilot project, the company worked with professors at the university to create three introductory mathematics classes. The courses are free online, but students who want credit from San Jose State can take them for just $150, far less than the $450 to $750 that students would typically pay for a credit-bearing course.
Both moves are part of Mr. Qayoumi's plan to "reinvent" public universities. He has laid out that vision in a series of reports that call for public colleges to use technology to produce more graduates while spending less money. In one, he suggests that some high-school students might take a year's worth of courses as MOOCs before even coming to a college campus.
Some professors question the president's notion that colleges should look to industry for inspiration. "It almost treats students like they're industrial products, like 'How many widgets can we get through those programs?'" said David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas, in an interview this year after San Jose State announced its project with Udacity.
Mr. Qayoumi, though, sees the move to online learning as a way to actually improve the quality of education. In large lecture classes, he says, people romanticize the classroom experience and overstate the effectiveness of the chalk-and-talk format. When professors give monologues to a room of 120 students, few actually interact with the sage on the stage.
So far, data are proving him right. In his experiment with the edX circuits class, 91 percent of the students who watched the lecture videos from MIT passed, while only 55 percent and 59 percent passed in the two traditional sections offered as control groups.
The president compares higher education today to the railroad industry in the 1940s and 50s: Companies that stubbornly clung to the view that they were in the railroad business failed, while those that diversified, considering their mission as transportation in whatever form, thrived.
"How can we really help our students be successful?" he asks. "How can we be this cradle of creativity and an intellectual center of new ideas and new knowledge?"
"We are a learning enterprise," he says. And he's willing to abandon the old rails of traditional instruction.
Mr. Qayoumi, 60, grew up in Afghanistan and trained as an engineer at the American University of Beirut. He did his doctoral thesis at the University of Cincinnati on how to rethink electrical systems to make them more efficient.
He worked in industry for several years—as an engineer in the Middle East—which he credits for giving him his business-minded approach to college leadership.
In the mid-80s he became associate vice president for administration at San Jose State, and held administrative positions at two other California institutions before becoming president of California State University-East Bay, in 2006. He took over the top job at San Jose State two years ago.
He has also played a role in the rebuilding of his homeland, serving as senior adviser to the minister of finance of Afghanistan, from 2002 to 2005, and as a board member of the Central Bank of Afghanistan, from 2003 to 2006.
His reports and his experiments with MOOCs have recently brought him into the national spotlight. He has presented his ideas to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Gov. Jerry Brown of California has taken an interest in his projects.
Mr. Qayoumi often talks as if he's running a start-up technology company rather than a state university. "We would like to move as fast as we can," he says of his plans. "We want to fail fast, learn from it, and move on."
What would he say to someone who worries that too much fast failing could undo his esteemed university?
"I don't see them as radical," he says of his projects. "It's not that we're changing the entire university."
But he does feel a sense of urgency for his reforms. "Isn't it about time that something should change?" he asks. "From the day that chalk and a blackboard were invented, how much change has really been made? We need to move far faster than what we have been comfortable" with up to now, he says.