A Modest Proposal to Disruptively Innovate at Utah Valley University: Part III (It’s a Trap!)

So yeah, back to Clay Christensen. This one kinda feels like the Family Guy spoof of Return of the Jedi:

Title Crawl: Look, just do me a huge favor and lower your expectations, okay? Just this one time. I promise I’ll make it up to you. I mean “Star Wars,” fine. “Empire”—still not bad. But on this one we ran out of gas. Seriously, we let the assistants write it.

I mean, you did attend a talk by Clay Christensen, so your expectations weren’t all that high to begin with. I hope.

So far we have established that Clay Christensen’s theory of Theory undermines his ability to make any kind of sensible claim, well frankly about anything, a problem that manifests itself in a theory of disruptive innovation totally unsupported by reality. Hence his claims that higher education should be embracing the inevitable success of online learning, of MOOCs, of badges, and of whatever else may be the fashion of the moment—not just in spite of their poor quality but because of them—risk destroying higher education rather than transforming it.

Today we finish, digging deeper into how Christensen views education itself. It turns out that he can put higher education at risk because he has already destroyed what makes it meaningful in his own mind.

The Point of Higher Education

Modest proposal number 3: Guarantee employers’ ability to employ graduates permanently. Students hire UVU to give them good jobs, so our programs will be oriented entirely toward that goal. Upon matriculating, students will be assigned to a future employer. Upon completion of the program, students will work for the employer for, at the employers’ discretion, up to one year for every 50 gold stars they receive. The employers will also provide opportunities for unpaid internships over the course of the students’ educational programs, for which a student can earn up to five gold stars annually. Employers will guarantee a salary of at least 110% of the median salary of a high school graduate in order to ensure that UVU’s programs provide better outcomes than not attending college at all. To further enhance job security, the employer shall have the right to renew the contract for the period of one year on the same terms, with this provision being included in the renewed contract. Employers of UVU graduates will thus have the ability to provide employment for the students’ entire working lives.

Indentured Servitude. The Reserve Clause. That’s what Clay Christensen seems to think higher education is meant to accomplish. Higher education is a simply another product in a consumer marketplace, a product that people “hire” in order to secure employment.

Christensen demonstrates the purpose of hire education with a rather odd aphorism:

This cryptic advice is the conclusion he draws from “studying” (I do use the term loosely; I have no reason to believe this was really systematic inquiry) McDonalds efforts to boost milkshake sales. Christensen tells us that McDonalds made many efforts to improve their iconic milkshake: different flavors, different textures, even adding fruit. Sales data (which apparently is useful in spite of what he said earlier) showed that sales were strongest, surprisingly, during the morning commute. When Christensen asked consumers “what did you hire that milkshake to do?” [his words], the response was that the milkshake was something to do during a long morning commute rather than about satisfying any gastronomic need. Adding fruit actually hurt the milkshake, as it required a spoon—and two hands. Hence the aphorism.

The lesson for higher education is that we need to do what our customers are hiring us to do, not what we want to do for them. Christensen uses a study of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business students to show educators what that customer need is, and it isn’t good news for the life of the mind. When asked whether they would rather do the work to get an education or simply pay for the degree, the students overwhelmingly preferred the degree without the education. Students, he points out, are hiring us to give them a credential, and higher education will fail if it tries to change “irrelevant product attributes” (like learning outcomes).

But at the same time, higher education needs to be more closely connected to employment needs, Christensen tells us. Many failures, pastistly historically, come from putting things together that shouldn’t be or separating things that should be kept together. Iraq, apparently, is no longer the Garden of Eden “because some jerk decided to put a bunch of ethnic groups who hate each other into one country” (there, apparently, having never been any kind of central political authority in the region beyond tribes prior to the arrival of the British). And higher education struggles today because we have separated the university and employment. Universities have no idea what employment needs are; we teach students what we want to teach them and then wish them well on the job market.

I can’t even summon sufficient cynicism to be witty here. This is quite simply ignorant of the history of higher education. Prior to World War II higher education was almost entirely a social rather than economic institution. A few specialized institutions trained people for professions, but beyond law, medicine, engineering, and divinity one received a traditional liberal education. Other than narrow professions one simply did not need a higher education to work, and in fact having to work was something almost foreign to many of the graduates of the mostly private system of higher education.

Only with the G.I. Bill did higher education become about employment training, and only then did we see the emergence of the kinds of vocational baccalaureate programs that dominate higher education today. Christensen’s Harvard Business School created the first MBA in 1908, in time to celebrate beginning of the school’s fourth century. Annapolis began offering specific majors only in 1969; West Point in 1985. Philosophy, art, history, literature, politics: these predate human resource management and information systems as disciplines of study by millennia. Higher education has never been as connected to employment as it is today.

And yet this is the story that Christensen needs to tell about higher education, since it alone justifies the consumer-oriented vision of it that he holds. Higher education must have a job, or consumers would not “hire” it. That job, apparently, is jobs.

I’ll leave to others (such as UVU professor of Integrated Studies, Philosophy, and Humanities Scott Abbott) to recount the many different purposes that higher education serves beyond job training. That there are such purposes is one of many reasons why it doesn’t make sense to understand education as a consumer decision. There are several others as well.

Many students do have the attitude that higher education is a consumer decision; I’ve had far too many tell me that I should give them what they want “because I pay your salary.” My retort to them would be usefully considered by Christensen as well: the reality is that very few students pay even the majority of their professor’s salaries. I’ve spent all but three semesters of my academic career at public institutions. States, with some contributions from the federal government, paid the majority of my salary through appropriations and grant programs. For many traditional students (especially at the private schools that I taught at briefly) parents picked up a good portion of the tab. Many non-traditional students receive tuition reimbursements from their employers.

Who, then, is the customer that is hiring a university to do a job, and what job are they hiring it to do? I suspect the answer to the latter question depends on the answer to the former. Taxpayers hire a university to promote economic opportunity. Politicians hire them to produce graduates and promote economic development. Employers hire them to provide job training that employers used to provide themselves. Students hire them to provide job qualification credentials, and to give them a “college experience” that more often than not involves very little academics. And all of them hire the university to do these things simultaneously to an individual student. There is no opportunity for product differentiation here.

This problem of pluralism—the idea that there are many incommensurable goods to be pursued, none of which is inherently better than all others—extends throughout higher education reform, and frankly well beyond education. Christensen wants higher education to perform one job. In fact he needs it to, because if it performs multiple incommensurable jobs then it cannot be optimized as he tries to do. Management theory wants everything to be a problem of technical optimization, of selecting courses of action that most maximize some goal. Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation gives us an algorithm that does that, but at the cost of reducing higher education administration to the problem of maximizing market share. The reality remains that higher education is a complex social institution; there are too many aims of higher education for too many social actors to reduce it simplistically to a single “job” for which one “customer” has “hired” an entire industry.

This is a critique that the German sociologist Max Weber made a century ago. Weber saw, in what we now call managerialism, “instrumental rationality”: reasoning that was devoted toward finding the course of action most fit for achieving an end exogenous to the decision process. That was a hallmark of bureaucracy, whether government or corporate. Instrumental rationality stands in contrast with value rationality, the process of choosing the ends to be pursued. One cannot choose ends by instrumental rationality, by algorithms or technical processes. Value rationality is the hallmark of legislative processes, whether those be in the form of a parliament or a shareholder’s meeting. It is too easy, however, to allow the former to dominate the latter when one assumes ends rather than chooses them. The ends become implicit in the process rather than openly questioned, and insidious ends can esily become norms.

Christensen has done exactly that. By denying the pluralism inherent in higher education, he can hide his assertion of an end in the language of technicity. Higher education will be disrupted because competition will make it so; others will do higher education’s job cheaper and more accessibly, and at least good enough to be better than nothing. But that can only be true if success in market competition is the aim of higher education. We have seen that there is much more to higher education. Students do not want to be indentured servants; they want jobs that give them opportunities not just salaries.

But they also want things that higher education has traditionally provided that we must challenge aggressively. It should not be lost that the students who wanted to pay for an MBA without gaining education were not students at an institution like UVU. These are not the students looking for a path to opportunity and security that fill the classrooms of Directional State University. These are students at an elite institution, one older than the nation it serves, one that only admitted women in 1972. Dartmouth College is a fine example of higher educations stratification function: degrees signify one’s social and economic standing, and a degree from Dartmouth signifies much more than one from UVU. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Dartmouth students are willing to pay for their diploma. The name on the diploma means that they will be assumed to be better, while UVU students will be constantly called on to prove that they are competent.

How could a professor at the nation’s oldest and arguably most prestigious college not see that the children of the nation’s wealthiest families are happy to use their wealth to buy privileges? The assumption of a consumerist summum bonum for higher education makes other ends irrelevant. If pleasing the consumer is the the definition of excellence then the social consequences are at best a secondary consideration that might help us choose among alternatives that equally please the consumer hiring the institution. The instrumental rationality inherent in Christensen’s model blinds us to the many others ends that we build into that process, ends that we might not want to pursue.