Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation. (2012) Ben Wildavsky, Andrew P. Kelly, & Kevin Carey (Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. ISBN: 978-1-934472-87-7

James Krotz

NACADA Executive Office

Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS

[email protected]

“The difficulty lies not in new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…” - John Maynard Keynes.

When he uttered this quote, Keynes, one of the most noted economists in history, could have been sitting in a lecture on the current state of American higher education. Editors Ben Wildavsky, Andrew Kelly, and Keven Carey, all noted higher education commentators and reformers, would have nodded enthusiastically in agreement. As they so memorably quote in their opening paragraph, “The only part of higher education not mired in tradition is the price” (Wildavsky et al., 2012, p. 1). The six chapters highlight various areas for reform, bemoan barriers to higher education innovation, and publicize two innovative universities – Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and the University of Minnesota-Rochester – as models for future endeavors.

Nearly every chapter highlights the most flagrant of higher education’s offenses; ballooning costs without a subsequent increase in outcomes and risky new innovative practices. Some of these barriers include federal and state funding models, discouraging new, lean, cost-efficient universities from being chartered, and faculty governance stifling the decision-making power of university executives. To give examples, the authors of the various chapters highlight the for-profit schools as models to follow. The authors are careful to recommend such changes without a grain of salt, giving adequate column space to the shortcomings of “diploma mills”. However, especially around the issue of university governance, they believe for-profit education is the wave of the future. By streamlining the decision-making process, costs will go down and faculty, often the nay-sayers in any reform efforts, will be marginalized.

On the issue of cost, the authors argue for incentive-based or performance-based funding. Funding tied to real costs per student could incentivize universities to drive down costs, puncture bloated departments, and maintain the same quality of education. This change must be transformative, not on a department or university-wide basis that builds only a small cult of followers. Chapter Two author John Marcus contends that the private sector, think tanks, and public policy makers can partner to drive change. Thomas Jefferson himself developed a new innovation in higher education by opening the first utilitarian university that taught the “practical arts” such as agriculture, business, and modern languages (Marcus, 2012, p. 49).

By embracing new innovations in cost control, teaching technology, and governance, universities will be able to train the workforce the United States needs to meet the world’s needs. However, large-scale innovations rarely come from inside the academy. The authors acclaim two universities as the wave of the future. Harrisburg University of Science and Technology was a joint venture by the city government of Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania State Legislature and several large area businesses who saw the need to create a new highly skilled labor force to replace central Pennsylvania’s declining mining and manufacturing industries. Similarly, the University of Minnesota-Rochester was built in partnership with the Mayo clinic to train workers in the health professions. Both of these universities are less than 20 years old. Innovation comes with a “blank piece of paper” (Carey, 2012, p. 225).

Although they sometimes tend to glaze over the injustices of for-profit institutions and romanticize the word “innovation”, this book should be required reading for any student of higher education. Academic advisors can help to lead this sea change in higher education by getting informed on the issues, encouraging our students to try new programs, and encouraging our administrations to cut nonessential costs however they can. Bureaucratic protectionism is one of the reasons higher education has become so expensive, and advisors have a duty to their students to help them graduate with as little debt as possible. Be a Thomas Jefferson. Think innovation!


Wildavsky, B., Kelly, A. P., & Carey, K. (2011). Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation. Harvard Education Press. 8 Story Street First Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138.

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