Universities are losing public confidence. Their value is constantly called into question. They might drive income inequality. They are mired in the past, obsessed with outdated elitism, and ripe for disruption. As one leader wrote recently:

Just as we’ve seen the forces of technology and globalisation transform sectors such as media and communications or banking and finance over the last two decades, these forces may now transform higher education. The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them.

That is not a quotation from Peter Thiel. It’s from former Harvard president Larry Summers.

Amidst these grim prognostications it’s worth asking: how is it that these lumbering leviathans have withstood disruption when incumbents in other industries have not?

The surprising answer is that traditional American universities are more resilient—and more innovative—than they appear. It turns out they are evolving all the time, but sometimes in ways that are hard to see from the outside.

Take one recent example of a supposed threat to higher education, artificial intelligence (AI). In October 2018 two new colleges were announced. Both were responses to the emergence of AI, but with radically different approaches.

Foundry College, the startup brainchild of a former Harvard dean, is based on the idea that many jobs will be replaced by machines and new educational models are needed to prepare workers with “middle skills” to complement automation technologies. A rebooted community college, Foundry reimagines the associate’s degree—more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree—as a credential of “future-proof” skills.

Days later, MIT announced it was establishing a new college that integrates artificial intelligence research into traditional disciplines, including ethics and public policy, and “reshapes [MIT] to shape the future”.

Foundry College reflects the first wave of innovation that appears to threaten incumbent institutions. But that often obscures a second, more productive wave in which a new technology or approach is integrated into the university. That integration is actually how academic innovation has historically occurred. Universities take ideas from the outside that mesh with their core values to create timely, relevant ways to achieve their long-standing missions.

The usual story about higher education is that it’s opposed to change. Policy analysts Ben Wildavsky, Andrew P. Kelly, and Kevin Carey argue “higher education as a whole as inhospitable to innovation….” This criticism goes back at least to the 1960s, when Harold Enarson, who would go on to become president of the Ohio State University, urged his colleagues to consider changes and bemoaned,“Though the university community is a major force of innovation in our society, it is curiously resistant—even hostile—to innovations attempted within the university.”

But the university has survived because it is dynamic, not static. Its ability to absorb innovations from the outside has been a crucial factor in its success.

This is a core lesson of the history of higher education.

In the 19th century, the startup Johns Hopkins created the first American research university, based on the Ph.D.-granting German model. In just a few decades, Harvard and Yale absorbed doctoral education into their institutions and transformed themselves from finishing schools for gentlemen to graduate-undergraduate hybrids that became a 20th-century success replicated throughout the world.

AI is only the latest in a series of innovations that some said would bring about the end of the university—but later were assimilated. In 2012, the New York Times announced the “Year of the MOOC,” and predicted that low-cost massive open online courses would lure students away from campuses. Similar hype surrounded the launch of General Assembly, a pioneer in the “bootcamp” industry that offers short, intense, skills-centric courses tied to the hiring needs of employers at lower cost to students than full degrees. And for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix were once the toast of Wall Street—entrepreneurial alternatives to traditional higher education that were supposed to be more nimble, more career-focused, and more practical.

Now, six years after MOOC mania, 12 institutions around the world, from Duke and the University of Michigan to top Latin American institutions, are repurposing Coursera courses as co-curricular learning experiences for their own students. EdX’s campus-focused platform is used by 99 percent of MIT undergraduates in their residential education. The hottest new educational format from Coursera and edX? Master’s degrees from selective universities.

In the bootcamp world, among the fastest growing providers is Trilogy Education Services, which collaborates with such universities as the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, and UNC-Chapel Hill to jointly market coding programs originally perceived as threatening.

None of the innovators that have gone it alone have reached the heights of those that have partnered with higher education. In recent years, the for-profit university industry has lost more than half its students, while service providers that help universities launch online programs are thriving. Even Minerva, an elite university startup some claimed to be disruptive, is now offering their advanced online learning platform to the established universities they were supposed to displace.

Critics claim startups are the sole source of innovation, and then turn around and criticize universities for not being innovative. But this logic is circular. In fact, innovation is a methodology, not an identity. “Innovation….is purposeful change by means of the systematic inquiry we call scientific method and of the new knowledge gained thereby,” wrote the management theorist Peter F. Drucker in his book Landmarks of Tomorrow (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959, 24). That methodology can be pursued by new entrants or incumbents.

Universities innovate much like large firms, whose corporate development teams constantly hunt for new ideas outside their organizations. Tech giants like Apple and Google invent relatively little: Their success rests on absorbing innovations, through acquisitions or licenses, and making them usable by billions of customers. Multitouch iPhone screens, the Android phone, Google Maps, and even Google’s ad network all originated outside these companies and were integrated to great success.

Using a similar approach, last year Purdue University acquired Kaplan University, one of the largest for-profits. This marriage, combining the recruiting and technology expertise of Kaplan with the trust and educational expertise of Purdue, led to the launch of a new online college now known as Purdue University Global. That new entity plans to partner with other traditional universities to help them expand their online learning capacity.

In each of these cases—from graduate education in the 19th century to digital learning in the 21st—presumed external threats were repurposed to advance the mission of higher education.

In describing the Kaplan acquisition, Purdue President Mitch Daniels made the corporate analogy explicit. “Companies, and increasingly governments … are increasingly deciding to ‘get in a partnership or acquire competencies [they] don’t have, [from] someone out there [who] has been doing it all day long for a living.’” (Arguments that the deal was motivated by shielding Kaplan from the Obama-era Gainful Employment Rule are unfounded. The acquisition happened under the DeVos Education Department, whose for-profit university enforcement has been lax. And if it desired only to escape the extra regulatory burden Kaplan could simply have done a non-profit conversion, as other for-profits have done.)

Universities have been a force for creativity and change since the days when Silicon Valley was known only for its orchards. History shows that incorporating the worthwhile ideas of startups has helped universities reimagine themselves for each generation. Education entrepreneurs and change makers should participate in this process by collaborating with universities, rather than competing.

Higher education isn’t going out of business. Individual institutions will rise and fall based on their ability to meet current needs. To do that, academic leaders could use a refresher course in the history of higher education, an untapped source of strategic insight. By drawing on innovations from outside their walls, universities can—and must—adapt.

— Emily J. Levine and Matthew Rascoff

Emily J. Levine (@emilyjlevine) is an associate professor of history at UNC-Greensboro and is completing a book on the history of academic innovation. Matthew Rascoff (@mzrascoff) leads the Learning Innovation team at Duke University.



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