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In My Words/Season of Change

When I arrived at St. Norbert College a little over two years ago, one of the first things I had to get used to was the rhythm of the seasons. I moved here from a part of the country – California, to be exact – that doesn’t really have seasons, per se. While each time of year reflects a transition from the last, fall in particular seems to be, at least to me, the season of change. The leaves turning colors and falling off the trees, the temperature dramatically dropping … the changes are more visible and dramatic than in other seasonal shifts. Or maybe they are just harder to bear, as we go from warm to cold.

Right now, higher education feels like it, too, is in a season of change. You only have to glance at a newspaper to see the signs: changing demographics that are resulting in a shrinking pool of “traditional” college-bound students; rising tuition costs and student debt; fears about unsustainable business models; and questions – from some really successful and well-educated people – about whether college is even worth it. (Which, by the way, we’re tackling head-on in this issue). Higher education, most agree, is heading for, or possibly already in the midst of, a season of disruption.

I’ve just come from a national conference for higher-education information technology professionals where disruption was a major theme. In many ways this makes sense, as much of the talk about disrupting forces in higher education thus far has centered on new and emerging technology-enabled models, like MOOCs (massive open online courses). Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor and well-known author, was the keynote speaker for the conference, and focused his address on “disruptive innovations” – those innovations that start at the bottom of a market, transform complex and expensive products into ones that are more affordable and easier to use, and end up displacing existing providers in the marketplace.

What disruption in higher education will look like is unclear. Christensen argues that disruptive innovations do not target the core business, and instead compete with “non-consumption.” (In the case of higher education, this means people who aren’t getting a college degree now.) This theory gives some hope that whatever upheavals occur, they won’t affect what colleges like ours do. But, Christensen contends, to survive a disruption in the marketplace an organization must be modular, with the ability to move its component parts around and draw revenue from different sources than before. And that’s enough to give some institutions pause.

St. Norbert College has been engaged in discussions about the changing nature of higher education for some time. Working with a president who hails from the newspaper business has made us all too aware of what disruptive innovations can do to an industry. One of my roles – and an area of my job that I love the most – is to promote innovation and consider what role technology might play in it, as well as the role it plays in a liberal arts education more broadly. We understand the benefits of diversifying, while still staying true to our unique identity, to ensure our long-term sustainability in our rapidly evolving field. Coincidentally, this approach aligns nicely within Christensen’s concept of modularity, with innovations coming from places other than “the core.”

The seasons follow their predictable cycle but it’s harder to forecast what will come after this season of change in higher education. Many have posited that we will see a winter – a time when institutions will retrench, or die altogether.

But for an institution like St. Norbert, that knows its core business but is willing to adapt and endure – ever ancient, ever new – our efforts will surely lead us to a season of renewal, one where we emerge with new blossoms, ready to flourish with the coming of another spring.

Nov. 13, 2014