Colgate University hosted an event last week. “Innovation + Disruption Symposium“. The keynote was none other than Clay Christensen, the Godfather of Disruptive Innovation. Following his talk, seven University Presidents of private universities fielded questions from the moderator.

Normally, these events are dull. Dreadful, in fact. Few things can  more dampen the likelihood that someone will say something provocative or new than their holding the position of university president.

So, at best, these events make for good background noise while you’re working.

But a few moments stood out; here’s my favourite. Clay Christensen – having done his bit on disruptive innovation in higher education – was sitting in the audience listening to the Presidents field questions. He rose and noted, half-jokingly, that everyone on the panel disagreed with everything he had just said about the coming disruption in higher education. Laughs ensued. He then asked the panel to imagine that a second panel was  on stage with them. This second panel included the Founder of the Khan Academy, Paul Leblanc of Southern New Hampshire University, the President of Western Governors University, and others that are commonly believed to be leading the changes that are unfolding in higher education. Christensen asked the panel to consider what this second, imaginary panel might say that is different from what he had been hearing.

The response? David Oxtoby, President of Pomona College fielded the question: “I actually don’t know any of the people you just mentioned, but . . . ”

You can’t make this stuff up. I don’t recall ever hearing or reading anything that so succinctly illustrates the existence of different worlds and perspectives within higher education.

To fully appreciate the vastness of the space between these worlds, simply consider the context: In 2014 access to quality, low-cost higher education is considered a national imperative. Improving graduation rates are part of the Obama platform. Student debt recently surpassed credit card debt. Think tanks, research groups, philanthropic foundations, and government initiatives are looking for ways to leverage educational technology. Even the mainstream media – after having  long ignored higher education  – are talking about the need for greater innovation in higher education.

Yet, the President of a university – having accepted an invitation to an event to talk about disruptive innovation in higher education – has not heard of many of the people behind these changes. Wow. Just wow.

I’ve written before about the growing tendency of professionals in higher education to exist blissfully unaware of the goings-on of other parts of the sector. At the time, I was concerned I might have overstated the case.  I’m no longer concerned.

Note: Quotes can be misleading, certainly. But my interpretation of the significance of the exchange was actually based on his full response to the question. The response strongly suggested to me – and a colleague with whom I conferred on the matter — that the respondent was unable to speak to the work that these “imaginary” panel members were doing. His response, by the way, was only somewhat related to the actual question; it concerned notions of what constitutes a liberal arts education. 

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Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 


  1. Not “knowing” any of the people Christensen mentioned is different from not “knowing of” those people. Seems like an important distinction to me, especially as your point rather depends on the panel member being unaware of the potentially disruptive work being done by his colleagues not merely on his failing to be personally acquainted with those colleagues.


  2. Yes, that is an important distinction. However, if you watch the exchange, it seems clear – at least to me and to a colleague with whom I spoke about it – that the respondent to Christensen was unable to speak to the work that these “imaginary” panel members were doing. And it’s the work coming out of these other institutions (e.g. SNHU) that is the subject of the exchange. In other words, the respondent didn’t “know of” these people. His response, by the way, had little relation to the question posed; it focused on the “tenets of liberal arts” education.


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