Can CUNY Thrive with “Disruption”?

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who coined the term “disruptive innovations,” has followed his book with a recent Chronicle article entitled, “How Disruption Can Help Colleges Thrive.” Although his theme is that such “disruptions” produce better outcomes in the long term, it poses potential hardships to those industries or institutions who refuse to adapt to the new environment. I will review his short article in the context of institutional change, with an eye toward CUNY.

Christensen is a Harvard business professor whose primary focus for his theory is business and those who lose out to disruptive innovations along the way. Certainly, the lesson of Detroit auto makers, and the current default of that city’s bonds, can be considered Exhibit A in terms of how not being responsive to change in the auto industry led to loss of market share and eventual bankruptcy. In a similar vein, traditional newspapers’ finances were “disrupted” by the trend toward online classified ads as in Craig’s List. Is such a fate possible in the education sphere? In a word, “yes,” in time.

Paradigm Shift in Education

I believe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift throughout the field of education that will eventually replace our current instructional model with a teaching model, as I discussed in a previous post (link). Increasingly, many critics see the need to replace our current teacher-centered, 3-credit Carnegie units (seat time), over 15-week semesters, to a more dynamic, student-centered structure where learning is the center and students are the drivers of learning. This paradigm shift will take a generation to achieve, but the signposts toward this new model are now becoming more visible. Performance-based learning, badges for achievement, flex-time for semesters, learning facilitators, individualized learning programs, MOOCs, and many other trends, including the dis-aggregation of the traditional faculty role, are constant reminders that change is coming, but not immediately.

The rise of online education, which is the focus of this blog, has gone from a controversial sideshow, to an accepted fact of strategic importance at many colleges and universities. I regard online learning, with over a 20 year history in its wake, as a significant trend that can has been gradually adopted, yet in and of itself, is not transformative.  Largely, hybrid and online courses fall within the same academic structures that regulate traditional classes, although that may change with MOOCs. So, for example, online classes are often 3 credits, taught during a 15-week semester, with traditional assessments of learning, etc. That model is not transformative in and of itself, but rather it operates within the existing structures.

Can CUNY Adapt to “Disruptive” Innovations?

From our research on disruptive innovation, it does appear, though, there are two ways for an organization to survive and thrive when disruption happens,” Christensen writes (reference below). The first method is to create an “autonomous unit” which can quickly manage change to ride the disruption wave. For an institution like CUNY, this would mean creating new nimble structures — what I call “change incubators,” that operate outside the prevailing systems, processes and culture.

To some extent, CUNY has created alternative incubators with the Macauley Honors College, SPS Online, and the new Guttman Community College.  Each of these comes with a unique mission and focus, but operates outside of the institutional constraints that prevent good ideas from becoming actualized.  This is what I called “change in the margins” in a recent blog post.  Instead of directly confronting the unionized, tenured, silo-ed disciplined, bureaucratized, top-heavy, and largely unaccountable bodies of a typical CUNY college, when originally conceived, these alternatives were able to get exemptions from many of these barriers to innovation.

This is exactly the approach advocated by Christensen. In this manner, new ideas, technologies, and methods can be piloted and tested in an environment safe from the many institutional stakeholders who prefer to stifle innovation. Without such change incubators at this or any other similar institution, the “diffusion of innovation” explored by Everett Rogers, will instead yield to reinforcement of the status quo.

Next Post: Proposal for a New Structure


Barr, Robert B. and Tagg, John, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change,  November/December 1995.
Retrieved at:

Christensen, Clayton & Horn, Michael B.,  “How Disruption Can Help Colleges Thrive,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 30 ,2013.  Retrieved at:

Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of innovations. Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Tagg, John, The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA., 2003.


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