Could Harvard be disrupted?

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Jul 7, 2011

Could Harvard be disrupted?

On the surface of it, the question seems absurd. How could a university such as Harvard—which enjoys such a leading worldwide brand and enormous advantages over other universities, including an endowment of nearly $28 billion (the value as of June 30, 2010), which is more than 60 percent higher than the next closest university endowment; perhaps the most talented research faculty in the world that makes constant contributions to society; an alumni community to which aspiring students dream of entering; and a nearly unparalleled physical plant that makes life on campus luxurious in comparison to that of other universities—possibly lose its preeminence?

And yet, as I returned to campus for my Harvard Business School reunion a few weeks ago, the new dean, Dean Nitin Nohria, made this specter seem not quite as far fetched. In his opening remarks, he reminded us that just a little over a century ago, eight of the 10 leading universities in the world were located in Germany. Today there isn’t a single German university in the top 10 worldwide. To find just one university from Germany, you likely have to look outside of the top 50 universities in the rankings.

Certainly universities operate in a context, which likely explains a good deal of the German story; that is, for universities that have a physical campus, its fortunes are likely tied to its surrounding area and the country within which it operates.

That said, Nohria’s point remains. Nothing is inevitable. Just because Harvard is at the top of the university ladder today, does not mean it will be in 100 years. A mere century ago, Harvard was not ranked in the top 10 of universities, as a forthcoming book—The Innovative University by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring—that traces the history of Harvard (among other things) makes plain.

In industry after industry, the seemingly unassailable leaders have been toppled. Indeed, in the whole of human history, nations and empires have risen, built seemingly insurmountable advantages, and fallen.

Christensen and I recently penned a piece in the Harvard Magazine, titled “Disrupting Harvard” that, along with an accompanying piece titled “Colleges in Crisis,” explores how such a disruption might occur.

This is all by way of saying that for those who believe disruption—or change—can’t happen to them, over time, human history has shown otherwise—in a traditional market or not. As Nohria reminded us in his remarks, running in place is never really an option. Continuing to innovate is critical.

To that I would add that institutions should not only continue creating sustaining innovations, but also should heed the lessons of disruptive innovation and take steps to create the right structures that can prioritize these innovations when they make sense.

Sure, disruption generally does not happen overnight, as our friend and Innosight Asia-Pacific’s Managing Director Scott Anthony’s piece here makes clear, but that doesn’t mean the seeds won’t be sown and a collision course set. Leaders should heed the lessons.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.