Book Review: The Innovative University

Clayton M. Christensen and Henry Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. 496 pages.

In this book, aimed chiefly at university professors and administrators but also trustees, regents, and potential students, the authors attempt to identify just what’s got higher education costing more and delivering less and to suggest what can be done to fix it. They believe that looking at a university’s “institutional DNA” and changing whatever doesn’t work is the first step towards finding a solution.

That’s easier said than done, of course, and like most management/self-help books, The Innovative University is long on generalities but short on specifics. That’s to be expected, because each institution has its own unique set of circumstances that defy easy classification; if there was a specific one-size-fits-all solution that one could put in a book that could claim to set every American university aright, it would almost certainly be unworkable.

Much of the book is taken up by dual institutional histories of Harvard University and Ricks College/BYU-Idaho, two decidedly dissimilar schools whose sole commonality seems to be that each currently employs one of the authors. I accept that there are lessons to be drawn from each school’s past, but I’ve got to wonder if there are better things to be learned by looking at, say, Princeton and Santa Monica College or Yale and Henderson State College. At times the authors work in other schools as well, but none are treated with the same detail as Harvard and BYU-Idaho, which begs the question of whether the authors just went after low-hanging fruit as opposed to conducting a truly comprehensive survey of institutional histories.

The ultimate lesson of the book–that not every college should strive to be Harvard, and that Carnegie-climbing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–is one worth hearing, as is the authors’ charge that traditional schools need to pay closer attention to what they deliver for their price to fend off competition from for-profit colleges. And the histories of both Harvard and BYU-Idaho are of genuine interest. There is also merit to their idea that some schools may want to refocus on teaching as opposed to research as well, but I’d be more interested in looking into the ultimate impact that conversion would have on both higher education and innovation in American schools. I’m certain there must be a few unintended consequences, some positive, some negative, lurking there, and I wish the authors had explored those possibilities.

All in all, it’s an interesting book and one that should inspire educators to think about just what they’re doing, but I’m not totally sold on it as a blueprint for change.

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