Disruptive Innovation: Why the Academy Never Saw It Coming

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The Chronicle of Higher Education features a provocative opinion piece entitled “Moving at the Speed of Academe.” It is penned by John Kilbourne, who is a professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University.

Kilbourne argues for decentralizing academic decision-making. He writes:

It is unfortunate that many colleges, which are charged with preparing the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators, embrace a culture of time-consuming, unhurried progress when it comes to curriculum, personnel, and governance. Nowhere is this more evident than in their committee structures.

For example, at my university, to make any changes to existing courses, propose new courses, or make program changes, faculty must navigate through three separate curriculum committees. Too often the members of such committees have zero connection to the subject area or content of the proposals under consideration, yet they are free to voice their concerns, objections, disapproval, or approval.

Kilbourne’s seeks to empower greater decision-making at the departmental level. While he moves in a worthwhile direction, such incremental steps are too slow-footed to keep pace with the multiple forces of disruptive innovation and change that are terraforming the higher education landscape. Multiple reports demonstrate that many colleges and universities will not survive, in recognizable form or fashion, the cultural, financial and technological shake-out.

Many academics staunchly defend their snail’s pace reluctance to deal with change as a virtue in deliberation. That’s why the lads never saw it coming.

The march to the elephant’s graveyard has already begun. The traditional structures of higher education are following in the footsteps of the old mass media.

The core dilemma described in Kilbourne’s article is a matter of organizational adaptability and individual fit. Would you hire the smartest guy on the plane to fly it? Would you prefer a pilot who actually had the training and talent for it?

As Clint says, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Universities are littered with people in critical leadership and administrative posts who are delightfully bright scholars and largely unqualified by aptitude, talent or experience to administrate. Faculty rank, typically achieved through great scholarship, is often a weak qualification for university leadership. Unfortunately, the vision, character, courage and humility required to redesign how things are decided and who decides them is in desperately short supply.