Fighting Fire with Fire: Reinvigorating the Language of American Universities

These are the first paragraphs of an article I wrote for the Planning in Higher Education Journal, V 46, N 3, April-June 2018. The entire article can be found here


By Bureau of Land Management (Archived source link) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The beliefs and even tactics of an enemy are usually shoved aside by the ones who feel under attack. Each of us ends up defending what we have, come hell or high water, rarely considering that the path of best resistance might be the very one our attacker has already trodden. This contains its own dangers, of course: one can easily slip into becoming one’s own enemy. Take the case of higher education: phrases such as “agent of change” and “innovator,” for example, have long been associated with the foolish (in the eyes of many academics) Disruptive Innovation ideas of Clayton Christensen. As the entire foundation of academia rests on the work of the past, challenges to that foundation (demands for “change”) become challenges to the whole. What may work in a business environment (though the value of Disruptive Innovation is questioned even there) with no basis similar to that of academia does not necessarily transfer to our universities—even though it, especially its language, can be turned to academia’s use.

In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, Christensen, along with Michael E. Raynor and Rory McDonald, writes that Disruptive Innovation “describes a process whereby a
smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses” (Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald 2015, ¶ 6). According to this model, for-profit and online colleges and universities should be succeeding—if the model can be transferred to academia. After all, online and for-profit institutions concentrate
on what Christensen calls “low-end footholds” and “new-market footholds,” the former because “incumbents” “pay less attention to less-demanding customers” (Christensen,
Raynor, and McDonald 2015, ¶ 9) and the latter because “disrupters create a market where none existed” (¶ 10). Although the opportunity for successful disruption was (and
is) certainly there in university settings, online and for-profit institutions have not succeeded, certainly not to the degree once predicted. They may be businesses, but the incumbents they are attacking absolutely aren’t—though many colleges and universities have attempted to don corporate clothing these past decades (itself another threat to traditional academic values and part of the reason that the language and ideas of business are rejected by many academics).

The single most critical reason for the increasing failure of online and for-profit institutions is that they have not understood that a model developed for one arena does not always transfer successfully to another. Initial success was possible because these businesses were able to take advantage of lax governmental oversight over student loan processes but this was never sustainable. Commercial academic institutions would have had to move toward creating their own foundations of research and scholarship, an expensive proposition they could ill afford if they were to keep up the profit margins sustaining their Wall Street positions.

Another reason online and for-profit institutions have not succeeded stems, paradoxically, from the situation pointed out by Christopher Newfield (2016, Kindle loc. 3976) in which universities are encouraged “to ignore and conceal losses incurred by sponsored research, complex administration, and related activities.” Pressured to appear more economically viable in the corporate sense, higher education institutions have strangled their own resources, making it appear that they can keep their promise, as Newfield also says, of doing more with less. This allowed outsiders to deflate their own
estimations of the importance of research and scholarship in the educational paradigm so that they too can avoid the expense. They cannot succeed, however, without it, certainly not in the long run.

That online and for-profit institutions have been declining does not mean, however, that all of the theories and suggestions and their terminologies that have been created to
enhance business advancement are necessarily flawed when transferred to academia. The problem is that the approach has been one sided, for the most part, coming from the
outside in. Few with real grounding within academia have been applying the concepts and language of the corporate world to the academic world in a way that respects the
strengths and traditions of academia while both taking the best from that other world and building a bulwark against its incursion. Such an approach can seem both dangerous and as a capitulation (the bulwark simply a rationale) to imperiled academics, but it could also be an effective path of resistance to what many see as the neoliberal corporatization of American universities.

To read the rest, follow this link (