It took me a long time to get through The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, something like eighteen months to finally wade through it. And it’s not that it was even that bad. It a lot of ways, it was better than I expected. Part of it is the fact that it came out just before the MOOC craze hit and it seemed odd for a “future of higher education” book to sort of miss that boat. Part of it is the fact that Christensen and Eyring’s book is very deeply rooted in the US experience so maybe parts of it weren’t so relevant to my experience in Canada. But mostly I think it was me. Partly the logical breaks in the book made it easy to put down. Part of it was needing to digest what’s been discussed. Part of it is that this book is not exactly a barn burner.

So, Clayton Christensen, he of disruptive innovation fame and fortune. Apply that theory to higher education and what do you get? Well, like I implied above, for something that came just before the more seriously touted disruptive innovation of MOOCs, something that ends up seeming strangely restrained. A nice history of Harvard opens the book, and at several chapters perhaps taking up a bit too much of it. The rest of the book uses the Mormon institution Ricks College as a case study in how higher education would serve students better if every institution didn’t all blindly strive to be more like Harvard.

Sure, the “disruptive” innovations Christensen and Eyring promote most strongly like top-down planning, fanatical assessment, online courses and cheap adjunct profs are not necessarily universally lauded, but they definitely aren’t as doctrinaire as many recent disruptophiles. And there was lots of balance in terms of the strong role they see for faculty and for physical campuses. They also recognize that all these disruptions involve tough choices, even if they are a little cavalier about some of the consequences. Basically, the message is that it’s a bad thing if every single university strives to exactly emulate the Harvard model of research intensity and curricular planning. Different school can serve different student profiles in different ways.

If perhaps in need of an editor to chop 100 pages and nudge it away from an chummy old-boys-club feel, this is overall a decent if unexciting book. It is one that has much to disagree with in execution but much food for thought in terms of ultimate goal. I certainly didn’t agree with most of their prescriptions but they definitely weren’t as radical or as destructive as one might have assumed and ultimately the book served as a useful intellectual sounding board.

Any library serving a higher education patron base would benefit from this book as would most public library systems. Buy it for the prof in your life and watch the steam come out of her or his ears.

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

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