Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring Team Up for a Monumental Book: The Innovative University

Given the heavy emphasis on education in Latter-day Saint life, it’s encouraging to see one of the most thoughtful books on innovation and reform in higher education not only comes from two highly respected LDS authors, but also draws upon successful innovations in education made possible by visionary LDS leaders. The intertwined stories of Harvard and BYU-Idaho create a fascinating tale showing us what can and must happen in higher education in the future. What follows is my review.

The landscape of higher education is about to witness dramatic change and many institutions may be poorly prepared. The forces of change that will sweep over higher education are foretold in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (John Wiley & Sons, 2011), a landmark book by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard School of Business and Henry J. Eyring, Vice President of Academics at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Clayton is the man who gave the world a new lens to better recognize the threats and opportunities of “disruptive innovation,” and Henry Eyring at BYU-Idaho is a thought leader who has chronicled the details of a successful experiment in disruptive innovation in education at BYU-Idaho. The collaboration of Christensen and Eyring represents a pleasantly surprising combination of talent and insights, one that is fitting given the influence of Harvard on BYU-Idaho’s journey of innovation.

Henry J. Eyring kindly allowed me to interview him about this forthcoming book that is scheduled for release later this summer. He displayed great passion for the mission of taking the blessings of education to more people at lower cost, and applying new tools and business models that can make this possible without sacrificing quality. Henry is concerned that the cost of a 4-year college degree has increased by 2 to 3 times since the 80s while starting salaries for graduate have remained flat in real terms, leaving universities vulnerable to classic disruptive innovation in which a once easy-to-ignore “inferior,” low-cost alternative improves gradually to the point where it can become a serious threat.

Online course content, once viewed as inadequate, is now generally accepted by students and can result in better educational performance, especially when used in hybrid models with face-to-face elements and with adaptive tools that respond to what and how students learn. Online models can allow a course to be customized to meet the learning styles and needs of a student, improving the quality of education. “Existing universities must view online learning as a sustaining innovation for their models,” Eyring says. Failure to embrace the potential of online learning will leave universities vulnerable to disruption, both from competitors and from budgetary pressures. “Even the best universities will be pressed to show better ROI.” They may need to become less universal, no longer offering the same graduate programs in all fields as they do in science and engineering. There is a need to change the very DNA of the university, the thrust of The Innovative University, a remarkable fruit of the collaboration between Henry Eyring, who began writing about the BYU-Idaho experience in 2008, and Clayton Christensen, who teamed up with Henry to add the framework of disruptive innovation and further insights from the Harvard perspective to complete this scholarly but highly readable work.

Like many of the best books about the future, this one is based upon a great deal of history. Much of the book explores the stages of development in education and business models for two very different schools, Harvard and Brigham Young University-Idaho (initially Bannock Stake Academy, then Ricks College and more recently BYU-Idaho). The scholarship is outstanding, the writing crisp and clear, and the stories told interesting and instructive. Some readers may not wish to grasp the historical foundations of these universities and the currents of change that have brought us to our present state. Fortunately, the book is organized to allow the impatient to turn to the latter portions of the book (say, Parts Four and Five) to access major conclusions and recommendations.

The authors chronicle the rise of BYU-Idaho from its humble rural Idaho roots to a bustling campus of over 22,000 students. Rather than ascend the traditional “Carnegie ladder” of adding ever more expensive programs and costly benefits, BYU-Idaho recently embarked on a path aimed at getting the most from the heavy investment in the physical campus and staff, while offering more students an enhanced education at lower cost. Much of this was driven by a Dr. Kim Clark, who came to BYU-Idaho after serving as a noted and respected Dean of the Harvard School of Business. Clark built on the foundation of major reforms introduced under the previous president, David Bednar. Change was also driven by the vision of leaders in the church that owns and oversees BYU-Idaho, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The resulting innovations include:

  • a new trimester schedule that keeps the campus in heavy use year round;
  • dramatic revision in course offerings such as modular majors and carefully tailored GE courses making it easier and less costly for students to switch majors or to customize their education;
  • strengthening of internship program to better prepare undergraduates for employment;
  • elimination of expensive inter-collegiate sports programs;
  • combining online content and face-to-face instruction to reach more students and improve education (with many innovations on the path to high-quality online content);
  • augmentation of faculty teaching with peer-to-peer assistance in which students who understand the material efficiently help their peers;
  • extension efforts in several cities where online content is coupled with face-to-face mentoring to reach more students;
  • establishing a common “Learning Model” for education, with emphasis on learning experiences and case studies that can be enhanced with peer-to-peer interaction and supplemented with online content; and
  • elevating faculty pay to above-average levels to compensate for the additional effort required of the faculty to make the more intense BYU-Idaho system succeed.

The importance of online content as an element of disruptive innovation is emphasized in the book, which offers numerous valuable insights into the business models and applications of the technology that have brought success to BYU-Idaho, as well as the foundations for Harvard’s success and leadership in education. The authors don’t call for the abandonment of traditional universities, but building on their strengths and helping their limited physical and other resources be able to serve more students at lower cost.

Those interested in either Harvard or BYU-Idaho or in higher education in general should appreciate the historical development and insights. Many other innovative schools are also highlighted in case studies throughout the book.

The authors use the theme of DNA throughout the book, and argue that successful educational reform requires changing the DNA of a university. “Genetic reengineering” is needed to build new models and systems that will be sustained over time and grow. The book is aimed at identifying and spreading the new genes that will result in healthier, stronger education. For those that resist and cling to the old DNA, disruptive innovation could one day overtake the universities and leave them unable to compete and unable to serve, saddled with shrinking resources, higher costs, and fewer students willing to endure their increasingly less competitive programs.

The learnings from the journeys of BYU-Idaho and Harvard University are extended to the broader challenges faced by institutions of higher education worldwide. How can they adapt their programs to be more efficient, to better serve more students at lower cost? How can they provide education without requiring students to take on a mountain of debt? How can education be more personalized, more customized, to help students better prepare for the careers or graduate educational experiences they desire? How can universities better achieve the missions of teaching and research? What tasks do universities really need to focus on for the future? The authors offer valuable guidance, based on extensive research and insights.

Though higher education has remained relatively immune from the pressures of disruptive innovation for years, the power of new business models and technologies coupled with social and financial pressures will lead to dramatic change that may surprise and even pummel many universities now on the traditional path of making education more expensive and elite. Christen and Eyring offer a monumental guide to avoiding the pain of disruption and capitalizing on the promise of positive disruptive innovation for those institutions with the courage and vision to become an innovative university. For educators, policy makers, parents and students, I recommend The Innovative University for breakthrough thinking that can help transform education.

Update, May 10, 2011

Further information below about BYU-Idaho is derived largely from some online comments by Steve Davis, their Alumni Director. Any errors are mine.

Since the decision in 2000 by President Gordon B. Hinckley to turn Ricks College into BYU-Idaho, the university has grown from a capped enrollment of 8,200 students on a traditional fall/winter track, to over 14,000 students each term and over 22,000 annually — largely because of the innovative 3-track (year round) enrollment. BYU-Idaho has also launched several online initiatives, including the Pathway pilot program, discussed several times in The Innovative University, that enables students to earn BYU-Idaho professional certificates, associate, or bachelor degrees while staying at home. The online offerings at BYU-Idaho are different than independent study in that each course is semester and cohort based. Students are part of cohorts, groups of students they will interact with to enhance the educational process. or example, students in an online section could have classmates from other Pathway sites, as well as regularly enrolled BYU-Idaho students.

Online content is coupled with face-to-face interaction at a local physical location to help students in multiple regions away from BYU-Idaho. Students meet weekly and take an Institute class for BYU-Idaho credit, but the remainder of their curriculum is online. This program is now operating at 23 domestic sites (all LDS Institutes) as well as Accra, Ghana, and Puebla, Mexico.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

9 thoughts on “Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring Team Up for a Monumental Book: The Innovative University

  1. Interesting and exciting. How does the teacher/credit ratio fare in comparison with other universities?

  2. My husband is a retired administrator from BYU-I and he and I have been called to serve as Church Education System missionaries. We have been asked to familiarize ourselves with "Pathway," which is a BYU-I online education program, and may be helping to implement it in the city we are called to serve in. We are very much interested in reading the book. Thanks for your review of it.

  3. What BYU-Idaho has done is remarkable and worthy of national attention. One big question now is how will BYU itself respond? The book calls for significant changes in how universities work to remain viable and successful long term. Some might worry that BYU will put on the "not invented here" blinders, or that BYU will feel upstaged and refuse to learn from BYU Idaho. I don't think so. I hope they will learn much from their sibling in Idaho and apply their expertise and power to go even further in making online content to enhance education for more students and nations. BYU, of course, already has an amazing independent study program and has remarkable online materials for high school students. But there is a ways to go still in realizing the potential that is there. I'd love to see BYU's educational power help lift education in many nations……

  4. Interested in some background reading that nicely brackets the debates now raging about the current innovation in higher ed? On the pessimistic side there's David Noble's Digital Diploma Mills, a history of distance education which suggests a darker side to the future of online learning. On the utopian side is Anya Kamenetz's DIY U, which foresees the technology-driven fragmentation of higher ed into all kinds of wondrous opportunities.

    Both books are short. If you're like me, you probably won't agree with a whole lot of what either has to say, but they do frame the debate pretty nicely.

  5. I'm looking forward to reading this one. Just read the blurb at and was relieved to see that the book "[d]iscusses a strategic model to ensure economic vitality at the traditional university." I say this because I think the modern university at its best, with its blend of liberal-arts education and cutting-edge research, and its heady mixture of the humanities and the sciences, and the opportunity it affords young people to mix with Great Minds, is an incredibly valuable institution. Too often the vision for the technological future of higher ed is about kids who never get out of their pajamas, watching videotaped lectures in their bedrooms at their parents' houses. That sort of future would be a shame. At their best, universities afford a kind of community that can't be replicated on the web.

  6. Impressive–but in my opinion, the next focus needs to be the curriculum itself. BYU and BYU-I are liberal arts schools–which was wonderful in the 50's and for law school and some graduate programs. However, it is time to evolve. Women graduation rates are low and those that graduate in Philosophy, English etc. get low paying jobs–if they get one at all. The Adventists have it right when it comes to higher education–its all about health care professions and job skills that matter in the work place. BYU offers a program where women can return to BYU and their credits will transfer to get a General Studies degree. Seems like a huge waste of resources for both the school and the student. The new economy requires job skills and high paying professions. If LDS parents are going to have more children than the national average, then professions that pay good salaries should be encouraged and the curriculum in our higher education sytems should be conducive of this end. More women will need to work in the futue to sustain life–and will need training that will give them flexibility and a living wage. The BYU-Idaho nursing program is an example of this, but it only trains a couple of dozen nurses a year. A liberal arts education is antiquated and does not get our LDS students where they need to be to be successful in the workplace. We need to evolve.

  7. I am a current student in the BYU-I online program and it is awful. There is little or no interaction with the adjunct professors that monitor the classes. I say monitor because there is no real instruction. Most weeks you read 7 power points and take a quiz. This is not an education. It is diploma mill.

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