According to the Oxford dictionary, to “disrupt” something is to interrupt it “by causing a disturbance or problem”. It can also mean to “drastically alter or destroy the structure of something”.
At the ASU+GSV Summit on innovation in higher education earlier this week, I wondered whether the many entrepreneurs, venture capital investors, software engineers, service providers, consultants, and attorneys gathered in sunny Arizona would be satisfied with causing a disturbance or whether they were committed to destroying higher education as we know it!
Whatever the intentions, the self-described disruptors far outnumbered the presumed disruptees, and therefore the clichés of rigid universities unwilling to change their way went, for the most part, unchecked and unanswered.
If you ask me, there’s quite a bit of self-inflicted disruption in the slice of higher education I am most exposed to. At Mason we are testing new classroom designs, new forms of experiential learning, new partnerships for student access and for international student recruitment. We are growing opportunities for student research, entrepreneurship and study abroad. We’re creating new programs in high job demand disciplines and spinning off new ventures in highly sophisticated technologies. We are reorganizing ourselves more effectively and efficiently, merging units, creating multidisciplinary institutes, attracting highly productive research groups. We’ re implementing new budgeting systems and exploring new financial structures to fuel our growth. Many of these initiatives will succeed. Others (fewer, I hope) won’t. And from both we’ll try to draw lessons to help us explore new innovations.
I’m not trying to be defensive. I have long espoused the need to innovate and it is entirely possible that we’re not doing enough as the disruption crowd would argue. It may also be possible that we’re not telling our stories of innovation well enough.
Regardless, the fact is that new technologies (mainly cheap, pocket sized computers and fast, ubiquitous Internet) have changed the way we live, learn and work. The generation hitting college today is younger than the Internet browser and cannot imagine the world without 24 hour connectivity. They are demanding new and better ways to be educated. They want to learn in their own terms. And the gradual process of privatization of higher education is giving them the power to get what they want.
I believe the demise of our great research universities has been greatly exaggerated (and I notice that the disruptors continue to send their children to our great universities), but the need to rethink many of our core processes is real and positive. My hope for George Mason University is that we remain true to our commitment to innovation and that “we strive to find new and better ways to deliver on our mission while honoring time-tested academic values.” In doing so, we will need to continue to seek out partnerships with entities committed not to ending universities, but to making them better capable to serve our students.