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Robert Jackson: Disruption, extinction and other coming attractions: Reflections on the University of Tulsa governance crisis

Robert Jackson: Disruption, extinction and other coming attractions: Reflections on the University of Tulsa governance crisis

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I was in the audience at Lorton Performance Center on April 11, when University of Tulsa President Gerry Clancy and his administrative team announced a major restructuring of the university, which included a plan to eliminate 40% of academic programs, dismantle academic departments in exchange for broad “divisions” and make numerous other far-reaching changes to the institution.

Factored into the decision to roll out such a vast “reimagining,” they announced, were a tough recent Higher Learning Commission review of the university, a “faculty-driven” process to analyze each program’s value and the fact that students had already “voted with their feet.”

These elements — among several others — have received withering criticism from students, faculty, alumni and independent observers in recent days, as evidence of misuse of data, shared-governance violations, procedural improprieties and abandonment of the university’s core mission have piled up.

We’ve seen grassroots protests by students and near-unanimous resolutions by faculties of the College of Law and the College of Arts and Science to delay implementation of new policies, or reject them altogether, until careful reviews of their processes and implications are conducted and considered by a broad range of stakeholders. This, as a colleague of mine from another university wrote me the other day, is what you call a “hot mess.” As someone who has taught at TU for a decade and knows most of the principals in this drama personally, I hope we’ll cool things down soon and collaborate on some constructive solutions.

‘Disruptive innovation’

One of President Clancy’s central arguments on April 11 caught my attention in particular. This was his prediction that changing economic and educational trends would lead to the bankruptcy and closure of half of the 4,000 higher education institutions in the U.S. by 2030. Half. Fifty percent. Two thousand colleges and universities. Gone within a decade. If true, such a transformation in American higher education would indeed be immense, lending urgency to his insistence on quick and radical action. What might we make of this alarming claim?

President Clancy cited Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who made the same prediction several years ago and justified it by pointing to the rise of online learning. While not well-known beyond the worlds of business and technology, Christensen is a pioneer in the study of “disruptive innovation,” a school of thought that focuses on the rise of new products that go on to conquer entire industries when older companies, no matter how large or previously successful, cling to outdated competitive strategies.

President Clancy’s invocation of Christensen to support his prediction about the ominous future of higher education thus falls into a recognizable tradition in recent American history — and especially in some corporate circles, where disruptive innovation has been celebrated — of justifying extraordinary action with the accompanying claim that not taking said action would be a reckless invitation to disaster.

Christensen and disruptive innovation, however, are not without skeptics. Another Harvard scholar, the historian Jill Lepore, examined Christensen’s body of work and delivered a scathing critique of its flaws in 2014. She concluded that it relies on bad evidence and logic, defines its terms vaguely and self-servingly, fails basic standards of proof, and ignores vast scholarship in economic history that might complicate its simplistic claims. Lepore listed several of Christensen’s more embarrassing incorrect predictions based on his theory, including a multimillion-dollar “Disruptive Growth Fund” he designed to select stocks in 2000. It performed so poorly that it was liquidated within a year. Christensen also confidently predicted in 2007 that “Apple won’t succeed with the iPhone.” History would disagree: Within five years, Apple’s iPhone revenue reached $150 billion.

Black and white

My own work in American cultural history tends to fit with Lepore’s more nuanced view of historical change as well as her caution regarding overconfident predictions about the future. One example from my research: During the cinema’s silent era, the prolific filmmaker D.W. Griffith was so enraptured by the possibilities of motion pictures that he predicted the new medium would soon bring about the end of books, publishing and traditional educational systems from preschool to university, all of which would be replaced by film. Instead, the number of American universities (and the number of books in their libraries) grew massively over the subsequent decades, spurred by many factors Griffith never considered, such as population growth, a broadening middle class and the GI Bill.

To be sure, motion pictures have had a remarkable impact on the century since Griffith’s black and white fantasies, but in ways quite different from those he predicted.

Bet the farm?

Another prominent skeptic of Christensen’s theories is Mark Zupan, a Harvard- and MIT-trained economist who is president of Alfred University in upstate New York. Despite his institution’s relatively small endowment (about a tenth the size of TU’s), he believes in its viability in the face of emerging trends like online learning, which he views as “complements, not substitutes, for universities.” Zupan proposed a “friendly wager” to Christensen earlier this year: If half of traditional colleges or universities close or merge by 2030, Zupan will give $1 million to Christensen’s research center at Harvard; if this doesn’t happen, Christensen will donate the same amount to Alfred. (Christensen has not responded to Zupan’s invitation.)

Although my research places me in broad agreement with Lepore and Zupan, I don’t propose to settle the ongoing debate about disruptive innovation here. It is just that — a debate — and deserves the same respectful, serious consideration afforded to other scholarly questions.

What worries me, however, is that President Clancy has bet the farm on scholarship that may well be irrelevant to TU’s particular situation and, even worse, may be bogus altogether. Is it wise for him to risk the future of the university on philosophical assumptions so fundamentally in doubt?

To question his proposal is not to resist change, like some outmoded dinosaur ripe for disruption and extinction. Nor is it primarily an emotional response — though I, like so many others at TU, have dealt with anxiety, stress and lower productivity this month. (One of my graduate students called the proposal a “mental health bomb” and mused on the fact that President Clancy is a psychiatrist by training.)

To question President Clancy’s proposal is, instead, to recognize something of the sheer complexity of TU’s identity — its unique size and location, its history, its fiscal strengths and weaknesses, its constitution as a human community with deep roots in programs from the arts and humanities to natural sciences and engineering — and to call for a process of embracing and enacting change that does justice to this complexity and humanity.

Identity crisis

I have an example of failed disruption that actually offers a glimmer of hope here. In 2012, a faction of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia engineered the firing of President Teresa Sullivan after she had served only two years in office. Their complaint: Sullivan wasn’t disruptive enough, her refusals to embrace online learning and to eliminate such “unprofitable” programs as Classics taken as evidence of a dangerously uncompetitive philosophy of education. An enormous protest followed, building steam for several weeks and showing no sign of abatement, until the board reversed its decision and reinstated Sullivan. Embracing the label of “incrementalist” and articulating a vision of leadership based on consensus building among the many stakeholders at the institution, Sullivan would go on to serve quite effectively for six more years, retiring in 2018.

Today the University of Virginia looks much as it did before its self-inflicted identity crisis: It consistently rates among the best of all state universities, with many of its programs ranking with those of the top universities in the world. Its challenges, like those of TU, remain very real, and informed, creative, enlightened stewardship will remain a necessity for the long term. But Virginia remains the great university it has been for a long time, and isn’t going anywhere soon.

The historians who trained me (at the University of Virginia, I’m proud to add) always warned against predicting the future too blithely, since so many factors, some available for analysis and others not yet knowable, come together to make history. Scour the archives. Consider every perspective out there. Acknowledge the limits of your knowledge as you work. Humility in the face of complexity is the healthiest and most honest attitude, they advised.

I hope that TU’s many well-intentioned actors will keep this in mind as they, we, work together to chart a course for the future of our own great university.

Robert Jackson is the James G. Watson professor of English at the University of Tulsa.


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