We’re on the Eve of Disruption

competitive_disruptionI’m feeling very late to the party. A colleague sent a recent article by Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic, which apparently echoed a post by Andy Rachleff on the Web site TechCrunch, both on the term disruptive. Last I heard, disruptive described my son’s behavior when he ate too many brownies at the Scout Jamboree. Back then, disruptive behavior was a tendency to be tamed or channeled. Now it’s a theory, a strategy, a goal. Not to mention an approach that academics need to be aware of, since, as Shulevitz points out, “Disruption, well, disrupts—not just ‘the status quo,’ but people’s lives.”

Let me see if I can wrap my head around the positive spin on disruption. In business, you invent a product and then go on to improve, update, and streamline it so you can keep selling new and more expensive gizmos even to those who bought your gizmo in the first place. Then along comes some whippersnapper who provides a cheaper variant, filling the “hole” in your product line, and buyers flee you and run to him. This guy is the change agent who disrupts the marketplace.

OK, I got that. The tablet coming in to disrupt the personal computer, the little floppy drive that disrupted the big floppy drive and was in turn disrupted by the memory stick. You can see why Rachleff writes that “start-ups with better products seldom succeed unless they are also disruptive.” You can also see, if you’ve ever served on a committee or a governing board, that change is hard to enact by consensus or in the face of long tradition. It takes the outsize personality who doesn’t care whether she’s seen as a “team player” to upset the applecart and replace it with an efficient fruit dispenser.

Shulevitz doesn’t like the term because its pervasiveness has made it a “cliché,” and also because those who prescribe disruptiveness possess “some unsavory habits of mind.” Here’s where I began paying attention. Specifically, Shulevitz claims that advocates of disruption assume that “all public or nonprofit institutions are sclerotic and unable to cope with change. This leads to an urge to disrupt, preemptively, from above, rather than deal with disruption when it starts bubbling up below.”

Now, she may be too charitable toward institutions. Sclerosis, in my experience, affects most of them. But the chief disruptions threatening the status quo in higher education seem to be for-profit universities and MOOCs—and in that sense, we all do well to listen up despite the persistent buzz of buzzwords. As with the examples Shulevitz gives from public education—charter schools, the recruitment of superintendents from outside education—this disruption isn’t caused by some scrappy underdog but comes from on high. Change agent, a term I find paired frequently with disruption, also seems to refer to an individual in power rather than an innovative thinker climbing out of the trenches. When The Boston Globe investigated recent allegations of funds misuse by President Evan Dobelle of Westfield State University, Dobelle responded, “I’m a change agent. You know you’re going to take a hit.”

By now the party seems to be in full swing, with highly paid administrators and consultants “disrupting” an educational model that’s under attack for being too costly, too steeped in genteel tradition, and so on. But as a newcomer, I question the way this piece of jargon—and the whole lexicon of which it partakes—is being applied to our profession. We’re starting with the idea that a product was invented, right? And then improved, made more costly, with more bells and whistles, until a competitor comes in and scoops up all the people looking for something both cheaper and more appropriate to their needs? But higher education never offered a product, at least initially. It offered a process. When Rachleff writes that “business models, not products, are disruptive,” I’m struck by the force of a business model that’s disrupting, not another business model, but a profession that’s gradually slipped into using business approaches (we sell ourselves; we promise outcomes; we use merit scholarships as loss leaders) while trying to retain, at our core, this model of process.

If disruption succeeds, it will benefit, as Shulevitz points out, mostly those “change agents” who purvey the disruptive technologies. But more to the point, it will replace teaching and research at their core with information delivery and outcome measurements. Consumers will replace students and knowledge providers (human or otherwise) will replace professors. Did the word disruptive cause this change? Of course not. But our acceptance of such language as appropriate to what we do certainly makes the result—the disappearance of academe, the triumph of the academic business—far more likely.


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