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The Innovative University

Christensen, Clayton, M., and Henry J. Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

I should have read The Innovative University last year. It is a book that seems to have penetrated fairly deeply into higher education management circles after the authors' central concepts of "disruptive innovation" and institutional "DNA" found an audience in the larger business world.

I should have read The Innovative University just so that I could better understand some of the ideas behind administrators' thinking these days. The incentive to read the book came this past month in the form of an invitation by the provost to join a discussion of the text and the possible implications for the future of my own university.

I find little to argue with in the authors' complaints about the hazards of attempting to transplant the "Harvard DNA" into colleges and universities that lack the resources, selectivity, and star power of a Harvard. And who but a member of a dying breed of nostalgic professors could claim that the tremors that currently rock higher education are just noise that will have little impact on his or her institution. Online education, careful consideration of the teaching-service-scholarship mix, and redefinitions of scholarship itself are clearly on the table for almost any college or university. And The Innovative University offers some food for thought in these areas. As always, I remain ready to engage with colleagues on just these issues.

But I found The Innovative University lacking a certain scholarly treatment of the issues. Early on, the authors claim that they will use "DNA" as a metaphor, and such a move is innocent enough.  One can employ metaphor to great effect.  But, of course, one can also push a metaphor so far that that it is no longer suitable. This, it seems to me, is where The Innovative University runs with its metaphor of DNA.

I'm no biologist, but my sense is that DNA changes through random mutation and combination in reproduction. Its expression in phenotype or perceived traits has something to do with dominant and recessive traits. Many elements of DNA have little or no impact on the functioning of an organism (or a species). Some weaken the organism's ability to survive and reproduce, to be sure, while others may offer the organism a competitive advantage in the quest for survival, a mate, and offspring. This kind of change is generally understood to be very slow, particularly for more complex organisms. (And, of course, an organization is not an organism.)

And this is a problem. If it's DNA that explains the "evolution" of Harvard University and efforts to replicate or transplant that DNA that are getting so many schools in trouble, why is the book chock full of decisions made by specific individuals responding to particular challenges/circumstances?  One doesn't will a change in DNA, unless one is a sort of deity who can go into an organism and perform miracles. Hmm. University presidents as nearly omnipotent beings capable of shaping DNA.

In a sense, perhaps the authors' use of DNA to describe what sociologists and students of organizational behavior might call an organization's culture or its institutions is actually a vehicle for signaling to leaders that they stand in this God-like position: "Yes, your university does have DNA.  It's important to 'know' that DNA so that you can mold and shape it to respond to perceived market forces. Institutional make-up is hard wired (DNA), and yet transformational leaders of the sort who move Harvard and other universities are powerful enough to change it."

That kind of power is generally seen as the province of Mother Nature, God, or natural selection. While this isn't the central message of The Innovative University, it may help explain why the ideas of disruptive innovation and organizational DNA are so appealing to CEOs, presidents, and others in positions of power and influence.

Changing an organization is so hard because it's encoded in the DNA of an institution. But the true leader is able to see the DNA and manipulate it to enable the organization to adapt in ways that make it better suited to its environment. Heady stuff, indeed!