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.
The book is built around the application to higher education of a term Christensen coined many years ago, disruptive innovation, which describes an idea that improves a product or service in ways the market does not expect, mainly by offering it at a more affordable price and often to a different customer. The authors say that as the quality of online education increases it will become an innovation that disrupts the future of higher education. And if institutions can't keep their prices in check through innovation and specialization, more and more students may turn to online higher ed, they say.
The reaction to the book suggests interest in its ideas in administrative and faculty offices across the nation.
Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, called what BYU-Idaho is doing exemplary.
"It seems to be an inspired conception of an institution that can fill an important role in American society," Lewis said.
He was also quoted on the book's website as saying, "The Innovative University offers fascinating new perspectives on very old questions. What defines a university's identity? Are all universities cloned from the same ancestral stock? Are there still opportunities for diversity in American higher education, or is a single ideal to be approximated with greater or lesser fidelity? These questions resonate through the book's narrative histories of an old university and a bold new one."
Leonard Schlesinger, president of Babson College, a private, top-ranked business college in Massachusetts, said there are enough examples in the book that every higher education institution should be able to find something of value that it can incorporate into their own college.
"There is little doubt that American higher education is at a crossroads," Schlesinger wrote in his testimonial on the book. "Accessibility and affordability issues abound. Learning outcomes are increasingly unclear. Technology surfaces as a disruptive influence. Financial support is declining precipitously. Christensen and Eyring step into this challenging setting with a comprehensive look at two ends of the higher education universe. The answers their contrasts provide to those of us looking for ways to move forward are both compelling and challenging. A must read for all who care about the future of colleges and universities."
In The Hechinger Report, the authors gave five suggestions to higher education institutions on how to deal with the innovative disruption of online education and dealing with cost, quality and reaching more students (see box).
Many have questioned how universities can make such a hard decision on what big programs to cut and which ones to keep around. In an interview via LinkedIn, Eyring told the Higher Education Management Group there needs to be "an ongoing, tense dialogue between administrators and faculty members. "The Innovative University" attempts to provide a framework for making that dialogue more productive. It highlights the environmental realities that require traditional colleges and universities to change, while emphasizing the things that need to stay the same."
Eyring also said, "The book's core message is that fundamental change is coming to higher education. We're seeing the confluence of unsustainable cost increases in the traditional model and a disruptive technology, online learning, that makes it possible to serve many more students at high quality and affordable cost. The result will be greater innovation than we've seen in higher education in more than a century."
When asked by Forbes Magazine whether colleges will actually do anything after hearing such messages, Eyring expressed confidence they can and will.
"The other reason to hope that universities can adapt is that they are staffed by uncommonly intelligent and socially minded people," he said. "The resistance of universities to change resides more in the DNA of the institution than in the DNA of the faculty. When universities decide to reward innovation in curriculum and instruction in the same way that research and publication is currently rewarded, we'll see remarkable changes."
But others are afraid that academia is too rigid a model to change.
Some questioned the book's power, saying it dwells too long on the history of BYU-Idaho and Harvard or that it doesn't go in-depth enough into explaining how online education can be of high or higher quality than traditional classroom-based education.
Jeffrey Selingo, who as editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education attended a day-long session on the book and its ideas that Christensen hosted at Harvard, wrote last month that many in traditional academia might see some of the authors' ideas as "toxic."
But he goes on to say that "if current economic trends continue, much of traditional academe is going to be forced to change."
And the Boston Globe points out in a review of the book a study by Columbia University that suggests online learning is not the best model for students who need lower prices and flexibility, citing data that college students enrolled in community colleges were more likely to drop out of an online course than a face-to-face one.
But institutions like Arizona State University have said they have already found much success and even better outcomes in some online classes. For instance, ASU has found its freshmen perform better in the introductory online math course than in the face-to-face one.
ASU President Michael Crow said Christensen's and Eyring's book shows universities new ways to preserve what is important while advancing innovative ideas.
"There is a fear that having more classes online means we are going to give up on the traditional Socratic method of teaching," Crow said. "People are forgetting: to be a successful, educated undergraduate today is different than it was 20 years ago — education is far from static. Our only hope of keeping up is to find new ways to teach more. How can we create true a 21st-century, state-of-the-art learner except by coming up with every different modality available."
Suggestions for higher ed innovation
1. Become No.1 in the "ranking" of your own students, faculty, alumni and other direct supporters
2. Focus on what you do best
3. Embrace online learning technology
4. Grow the student body
5. Put personal values back into higher education