Disruptive Innovation Needed in Higher Education

"Disruptive Innovation" is a buzz phrase that is running wild through the world of entrepreneurship these days. There are Disruptive Innovators discussion groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. Though president of Southwestern College, Santa Fe, I am a card-carrying member.

What is disruptive innovation? It may be more elucidating to start by naming some of the disruptive innovators of our era. Apple's Steve Jobs, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Ebay's Pierre Omidyar and Meg Whitman. Then there's Facebook's Mark Zuckerman, Skype's Nikklas Zenstrom and Paypal's Peter Thiel. These guys (used loosely) never believed for one second that there is nothing new under the sun.

Disruptive innovators are insanely creative. They are, by definition, rule-breakers, and so almost invariably end up as entrepreneurs. They have to set their own rules, or create a world in which there are no rules. Richard Branson and his rocket ships. Like that.

Whether or not they are in it primarily for financial success, they do operate in a for-profit sector where that insane creativity, outrageous resourcefulness, unspeakable risk-taking, and staggering self-confidence can command riveted audiences with venture capitalists. They make things happen. To use Steve Jobs' words, they "put a ding in the universe." I like it.

I, on the other hand, work in higher education, in the Academy, where tradition and conservative policy (sometimes legit and sometimes the fear wolf in sheep's clothing) are everyday realities. While I "get" the twenty million reasons put for forth for this way-of-being-in-the-world, "tradition" and conservatism of vision and action can create potentially great procedural and energetic roadblocks, not to mention budget-blamed ones. Paradigm shifts go somewhere else to be born. Sometimes even just simple change is impossible or so slow the pain of it will kill you. Or your spirit.

No wonder the disruptive innovators don't live in the Academy. They would go nuts.

So here's the thing. The world is moving a billion miles an hour. Fact. This habit of riding the Titanic of some academic traditions is sending many academics and institutions to the bottom of the wine-dark sea. Example: An esteemed professional colleague of mine, Adam Karwoski, is a social media consultant to institutions of higher education. He recently addressed forty administrators at a major state university, and upon ending his dynamic presentation, he was met with no questions. None. Zero. They were showered with data, shown competitors' social media sites, offered strategies for enhancing alumni and donor relations and generosity, and much more.

"Yeah, s'not in the budget."
$3500 to create a total social media campaign and provide a huge boost to recruitment efforts (read "ROI").
"Yeah, s'not in the budget."

Ok, then. Except as a president of a graduate institution, I know there is always room in the budget for great ideas and initiatives, just the way the totally booked Hyatt has no room for me and you, but miraculously finds a room for the president or the pope. They just do. And there is always money. Especially for initiatives that will add to a current income stream, and, for many institutions, create new ones.


Of course there are a million such examples at every institution. But the fact is, disruptive innovators make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially those who like rules, predictability, order. Those folks do not want a lot of innovation, and they sure as hell don't want it to be disruptive. If they'd wanted that, they probably would not have gone into higher education administration.

Still, why does there seem to be fewer disruptive innovators in the administration of higher education? Is it perhaps as simple as the fact that there is no true profit motivation in higher education, so it both attracts and cultivates a certain conservatism that feels at home in the old traditions of the Academy? Many of the famous disruptive innovators didn't even have the patience to make it through University, let alone choose in it as their career path or soul's destination. Of course Bill Gates is the first name that comes to mind. Then Branson, Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright, Michael Dell, Rachel Ray.

But in the face of true paradigm shifts, the central tendency of higher education is to naysay, pooh-pooh, denigrate, dismiss. It maintains the status quo. It's just easier.

Of course the for-profits were different, and of course they quickly snagged mad market share. They offered a disruptive learning technology (distance), which was viewed early on as a travesty, a joke, a fad, hardly worth acknowledging,


What allowed these schools to both see the vision and act on it? Well, for starters, they were business guys, not academy guys. They saw a huge market that was being ignored, and while traditional universities were basking in smug skepticism, the University of Phoenix ate their lunch. They let Ohio State have all the 19-year-olds and took all the rest. Capella and Walden let all the APA approved psychology programs cherry pick their top ten students, allegedly the cream of the cream, and they took the remaining hundreds or thousands who had been, or knew they would be, rejected by the APA programs. They took the itinerant military family that could not commit to staying in the same city for four to six years. They took the moms who could not leave the house every day to attend classes on a campus, and they took the rural populations that had Wi-Fi, but no access to a major university. APA-approved Psychology programs, with their artificially deflated enrollment, had nothing to offer those populations.

That's a lot of leftovers.

The disruptive innovators saw a flawed system, or only partially effective system, which showed little interest in accommodating the outliers. The traditional academy railed against the low quality of the online educational experience and platform, even while simultaneously hiring a million IT guys and instructional designers in an effort to catch up, albeit with a loud harrumph. Even now, I suspect the traditionalists are grumbling happily at the hot water and black eyes some for-profits have experienced of late as greed and a keen eye for loopholes and profit opportunities in Uncle Sam's 150 billion dollar financial aid program were just too good to pass up.

So, ok, maybe disruptive innovation is amoral. That's ok. Most things are. I mean, you can use a bottle of Holy Communion wine to celebrate the mass, or you can hit somebody over the head with it and steal their wallet. The wine bottle is neutral. Disruptive innovation has changed the world in a million great ways, and probably some less great ways as well. So it goes. It is neutral.

I have to say, when I read Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, and even the slightly stodgier Harvard Business Review, I get extremely energized by the ever-increasing world of possibilities the universe is manifesting. I skyrocket this energy into my graduate school, making some folks kind of nervous. Oh, hell, what big ideas does Jim have now?

But some leaders in the world of higher education know that social media is no fad, and that all of the crazy changes coming down the pike, created and driven by disruptive innovators somewhere, are going to end up being part of their world or part of their professional undoing, depending on how they choose to receive them. The digital natives are getting old enough to be the bosses of the older digital immigrants, and they will be any minute.

Time to prepare for some disruption, my friends and colleagues.

James Michael Nolan, President, Southwestern College, Santa Fe