Reviewers call 'The Innovative University' enlightening, fascinating and 'a must-read'

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 6 2011 12:56 p.m. MDT

LDS Church leaders had told every Ricks College president since the late 1950s that the little church school in Idaho would never become a university.

Church and college leaders played with the idea in the late 40s and 50s, but they wanted to keep costs low and classes small rather than follow the popular Harvard model of growing bigger and supposedly better.

But in 2000, seemingly out of the blue, then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley announced Ricks would become a four-year institution and take on the name BYU-Idaho — except this would be a university with a different "DNA." There would be no faculty rank, no graduate degrees, no collegiate athletic program. Research would not be emphasized, and students would. The college would also operate at full tilt year-round.

That anecdote in the book released this summer, "The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out," by Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen and BYU-Idaho administrator Henry J. Eyring, sets the stage for a discussion about college education that is drawing attention around the country.

Christensen and Eyring argue that that not all colleges can or should be everything to everyone and that most institutions today need to innovate to survive. The book gives advice to colleges on how to do the essentials in today's world of higher education: reach more students, lower costs and raise the quality.

"The fact is you can and must innovate," Eyring says.

Since the book's release, reviewers and educators have called the authors' ideas everything from "enlightening" to "toxic."

"The typical university is serving too many different types of students and offering them too many subjects of study," Eyring and Christensen wrote in a preview about their book. "In addition to reducing its program offerings, the focused university will modularize its majors, allowing students to customize their education and graduate timely. The successful university will also embrace the opportunity to teach values, both formally and in faculty-student mentoring relationships."

The book juxtaposes the history of Harvard and Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho). It details Harvard's Puritan roots in the 1600s, its move away from big-time football after World War II and what each president of Harvard brought to the prestigious university. It explains the beginning of Ricks Academy in the 1800s and follows its path through today.

Stories that may be of particular interest to some readers include the conversation that took place when LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told Ricks College President David A. Bednar the school would shift from a two-year to a four-year institution, and how current BYU-Idaho President Kim Clark, received an ovation from his colleagues upon leaving his position as dean of the Harvard Business School to move to Idaho at President Hinckley's request.

The book also details what BYU-Idaho is doing to set itself apart — including its focus and embrace of online learning — something the authors say is key for the "Innovative University."

"One thing we've got to come to grips with is the power of online technology and the opportunity to enhance the way we teach," Christensen and Eyring wrote in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education in July. "It's not just about saving money by employing low-paid online instructors and freeing up classroom space. Undergraduate students who prepare for face-to-face classes via online lectures, problem sets and discussion boards can take Socratic discovery to levels like those of the best graduate business and law schools. This kind of hybrid learning holds the potential to create not only the equivalent of an Industrial Revolution in higher education, but also a learning renaissance. We can serve more students not just at lower cost but also at higher quality."

The authors don't say that all classes should be online but that all colleges should try to incorporate online learning to lower costs and to reach more students.

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