Because of state budget cutbacks, Louisiana’s public colleges and universities have lost millions in funding. That will mean continuing pressure on institutions of higher learning to focus on what they do best, rather than trying to be all things to all people.
But that challenge isn’t exclusive to colleges and universities in Louisiana. Across the country, many other institutions of higher learning also are being prompted to re-examine what they do and how they do it.
Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring outlined the issue in a recent commentary for cnn.com headlined “Colleges Should Stop Imitating Harvard.” Christensen is a professor of business administration at Harvard, and Eyring is a vice president at Brigham Young University-Idaho.
Christensen and Eyring acknowledge that Harvard is the world’s most widely admired university. As a member of Harvard’s faculty, Christensen has greatly benefited from the university’s stature. But Christensen and Eyring point out the limitations of using Harvard as a model of institutional excellence:
“Imitating Harvard is a problem for two reasons. One is the cost: If you don’t have a multibillion-dollar endowment and government research funding, the only alternative is to raise tuition. The other problem is that the basic elements of the Harvard model of education are roughly 100 years old. Thus its imitators have, with the best of intentions, become expensive, exclusive and distanced from the nonacademic world.”
Instead of trying to be excellent at everything, the authors write, most universities will have to succeed by specializing.
“It won’t be easy for universities, whose name implies doing everything, to focus on what they can do uniquely well,” Christensen and Eyring tell readers. “Harder still for many will be the adoption of online learning technology. Even the most talented faculty members may see it as a tool for not only cheapening the student learning experience but also putting them out of business.”
Such arguments aren’t new to Louisiana. The Board of Regents, which governs higher education policies of the state’s public colleges and universities, has been nudging institutions of higher learning for years to avoid duplication and instead nurture core specialties. These plans acknowledge the special status of LSU’s Baton Rouge campus as a leading research institution, or flagship university.
While the wisdom of Christensen and Eyring’s argument seems self-evident, it can be carried only so far.
Yes, specialization is important, but universities originated as homes to many disciplines because a healthy assortment of expertise can create useful synergies and help both students and professors see how one subject informs and enriches another.
Also, austerity can’t be infinitely softened through the much-celebrated virtue of doing more with less. At some point, cuts in funding diminish core missions, too.
But Christensen and Eyring make a powerful argument that the ground rules of higher education are changing, and that institutions are going to have to be more receptive to innovation to succeed.
In Louisiana, unfortunately, we’ve had a tendency to assume that precedent is everything, and that our present structure of higher education must always be more or less the same as it is today.
That’s obviously not the prescription for success that Christensen and Eyring envision.