Why is it so hard for universities to innovate? There are many answers to that question, but the most important one is that the premise is wrong.
Universities are extraordinary sources of innovation and always have been. Starting with the interpretation and integration of Roman law into Catholic society a thousand years ago, universities have regularly introduced new ideas and practices into governance, culture, art, and science. In the U.S., the list of the things emerging from the halls of academe in just the last half century includes CRISPR, Yaz Apparel, machine translation, the Black Panther Party, search engines, seat belts, Allegra, critical race theory, driverless cars, genetic sequencing, the Commodores, and the internet. (Ranking those items is left as an exercise for the reader.)
When a single university can incubate both Xalatan (use only as directed) and Vampire Weekend (also), it’s clear no other class of institution generates as much novelty in as many domains. Yet the obvious primacy of universities is mostly irrelevant to the ‘innovation in higher ed’ conversation. The innovation most people have in mind isn’t around the content of our work, it’s around the price of entry, as in “Why can’t college be cheaper?”
Here again, the most salient answer undermines the question – there are cheap institutions by the thousands, including especially the country’s vast collection of community colleges. Anyone asking why colleges don’t offer an inexpensive education is mainly demonstrating they don’t understand how many do just that. (This is just a specific case of the general “Your imaginary college already exists” phenomenon.)
Everyone who goes to an expensive school could have gone to a less expensive one but didn’t. This widespread preference boils most questions about innovation down to “Why don’t colleges offer expensive services at a low price?” There is an answer to that question – it’s pretty much the one you’d expect – but understanding that demand for lowered prices does not correlate with an interest in lowered expenditures goes a long way towards explaining why the “innovation” conversation seems so stuck.
A college is a bundle of services. The minimum viable bundle is instruction, assessment, and certification. Colleges with limited income can offer this bundle quite cheaply; community colleges manage it for about $9000 a year
per student, much of that paid for by someone other than the student.
The richer a college is, the more it can add to the bundle – tutoring, job placement, and counseling for students; research support, insurance, and housing for faculty. The demand for more services is constant; every constituency wants more, no matter what level of service they currently enjoy.
Despite the hectoring around cost control by legislators and taxpayers, when students consider multiple schools, their aggregate choices reward schools with more types of degrees on offer and a larger collection of services, which is only to say that expensive colleges are expensive because they compete for students who prefer expensive colleges.
In the for-profit world, we associate innovation with firms like Apple and Tesla, while firms that struggle to pay their bills typically do not make investments for long-term change. Higher education works differently. While the richest schools are incredibly innovative in areas of science and culture, the resources that support that sort of innovation create obstacles to implementing cost savings. Instead, innovations in organizational form happens at schools that don’t have enough resources to resist structural change.
It Takes a Crisis
In the last five years, Sweet Briar, a small women’s college in the middle of Virginia, has re-worked itself from basement to attic. It started the last decade as a traditional liberal arts school, with a century of history, departments in English and Art History and Classics, and acres of rolling hills. Selective, residential, and very Southern, Sweet Briar offered not just dorms but stables. (“[I]f you didn’t stable a horse, you didn’t get the girl”, as one board member put it
By the end of the decade, Sweet Briar had been re-imagined, both academically and administratively, becoming an institution centered on women’s leadership, a metamorphosis overseen by Meredith Woo, president since 2017. Under Woo, academic departments were abolished and replaced with three interdisciplinary centers. Available majors were halved, from 33 to 17. To increase curricular flexibility, the academic calendar was reworked. Tuition was reduced by a third. All of this was planned, negotiated, and implemented in a single summer. There isn’t a college in America this century that has undergone as rapid and thorough a rethinking as Sweet Briar.
Sweet Briar was steeped in tradition; how was Woo able to make this sort of change this quickly? The answer is simple, though not simple to copy: she inherited an institution in collapse. In March of 2015, the Sweet Briar board announced it would close that summer, due to “insurmountable financial challenges.”
Students, faculty, and alumnae, shocked into action, launched “Save Sweet Briar”, filing lawsuits that ultimately reversed the decision to close, leading to the resignation of the President and the board. To address the funding crisis, Save Sweet Briar raised $12 million from alums in a few months, six times the amount given in a typical year. By the time Woo arrived, she inherited a college with a limited but manageable set of resources and, critically, a community that had come to understand that the status quo was a death sentence for the school.
Woo is a remarkable leader, but even she would have failed without that change in community outlook. Woo’s predecessor, Jo Ellen Parker, started as Sweet Briar’s President in 2009, just as the Great Recession destroyed alumnae giving. The following year, Sweet Briar appeared in the Top 5 of Forbes’ list of selective colleges under the most financial stress
. Parker was publicly frank about the school’s dismal budget to students, staff, faculty and alums. The impending disaster was not a secret.
Now imagine that Woo had taken over from Parker before the 2015 vote to shut down. Imagine she then told faculty that to save Sweet Briar, they would have to make liberal arts less central to the student experience, dismantle academic departments in favor of interdisciplinary centers, liquidate half the majors, blow up the calendar, and decimate faculty ranks (including some tenured faculty.) Then imagine she proposed to do all this in a single summer, while most faculty were away. To top this off, imagine she told the alumnae they would need to give the school far more money than usual, pronto, to fund this erasure of the Sweet Briar of yore.
It will be obvious, to anyone who has dealt with the constituencies of college life, that any such attempt would have generated extraordinary opposition. Faculty, students, alums, all would have demanded that any change be more consultative, more deliberative, more incremental, less risky, less unilateral, less hasty. Indeed, in the run-up to the board’s decision to close, faculty, students and staff were presented with options that were not nearly as dramatic, and there was still considerable resistance, tied to hopes that efforts like new recruiting brochures could preserve the place as it was.
That is how, with years of advance warning, Sweet Briar drove itself into a ditch. The willingness of the faculty to accept transformation didn’t happen despite the board voting to shut the school down. It happened because the board voted to shut it down.
Much of the Sweet Briar story is unique – a selective school in a beautiful landscape, with a storied reputation and wealthy alumnae, seeking new enrollments at a time when women’s colleges got a recruiting boost from Trump’s election. It’s also not clear Woo’s strategy will work in the long haul; enrollment is still below 2014 levels, and Mills, another famous women’s college, just merged with Northeastern, going co-educational in the process. There is no easily copyable formula here. But one part of the story is broadly repeated in thousands of institutions: academics are so deeply conservative about our organizational forms, it often takes existential threat to make change acceptable.
Crisis is necessary, but not sufficient
If desperation is the mother of invention, what happens now, as we come out of the worst of the COVID crisis? Though stories of immanent change in higher ed are again circulating, elite institutions are not in for a reckoning. For residential schools, COVID has revealed deep demand for the core offering of students getting the hell away from their families. People who predicted that the U.S. would move to a few mega-colleges that provide effective and affordable skills transfer, from Clay Christiansen
to Sebastian Thrun
to Scott Galloway
, all underestimated the appeal of campus life as a rite of passage, phase of life, and source of identity. Schools that offer a high-touch campus experience will mostly survive.
And as usual, the colleges that do close will be the ones that have neither cash nor prestige. Does Mt. Ida ring a bell? College of New Rochelle? MacMurray? Closed in 2018, '19, and '20, to very little notice outside their local communities. The colleges that close won’t be the ones you’ve heard of, and the colleges you’ve heard of won’t be the ones that close.
The deepest changes will happen at institutions in a perverse kind of sweet spot, strained enough to be desperate, strong enough to respond. You can see something of this at work in the story of Arizona State University, a large public university re-imagined by Michael Crow and his administration over the last two decades. Crow was able to restructure in part because Arizona instituted the deepest cuts in financial support
of any state since the financial crisis of 2008. Given the halving of state support, faculty were under no illusion that anyone was coming to save them.
Similarly, Paul LeBlanc and his administration have been able to turn Southern New Hampshire University (a private school, despite its name) into the largest university in the country, in part because he convinced faculty that national expansion online was necessary in a region with a shrinking pool of students. Faculty agreed to let LeBlanc run online operations with an unusually free hand, in return for subsidies for the in-person campus. With over 1000% growth in the last decade, SNHU has more than delivered on that promise.
Though these kinds of changes are simple to explain, they are hard to execute. Virginia, Arizona and New Hampshire have nearly 150 colleges and universities between them, but very few of those schools have been transformed as dramatically as Sweet Briar, ASU or SNHU, because even if they are as in need of transformation, few of their leaders are as audacious or persuasive as Woo, Crow, or LeBlanc.
If I had to pick a college likeliest to exemplify innovation in form in the next few years, I’d pick Bloomfield in New Jersey. Bloomfield faces an economic situation similar to Sweet Briar, but with many fewer resources to adapt. (Bloomfield has the most diverse student body in NJ, and one of the most in the country, with all of the economic constraints that implies.)
Bloomfield’s president, Marcheta Evans, took over in the summer of 2019, just in time to see the college’s already precarious situation worsened by COVID. Reckoning with the college’s troubles, Evans has issued a public call for partners or sponsors
, saying that sort of support is the only thing that will save Bloomfield from closing.
It is difficult to overstate how unusual Evans’ public call for help is. The typical model for a struggling institution is to quietly cut costs and seek partners, while publicly denying anything is wrong. This is terrible for students – Mt. Ida told students of the school’s collapse only weeks before it happened – but administrators often prefer to keep financial issues hidden.
Evans, hired into something of a glass cliff situation even before COVID, has decided to do something like what Woo, Crow, and LeBlanc did, looking at a grim situation and trying something new, rather than just hoping for the best. And given the number of schools facing enrollment declines, these sorts of public calls for help may work better than misleading students.
The possibility that Evans’ strategy can result in new kinds of partnerships – with city and state governments, with local businesses, with networks of similar schools – may make Bloomfield an example for other schools to copy, one that will be relevant to a much larger set of institutions than the lessons that could be drawn from trying to copy schools with more than average resources.
In higher education, innovation in form usually comes from a combination of desperation plus chutzpah. The effects of COVID, and the shrinking of the college age population, means there will be plenty of desperation to go around. Whether it will be matched by a willingness to experiment with alternatives to the status quo is the open question.
Continual Transformation of Higher Education
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