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Revolution in Higher Education (Review)

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However, DeMillo not only discusses how to reach new markets, but also presents the need to transform the higher education system to better serve current customers as well as society as a whole.


The posting below is a review by Robert P. Delprino* of the book, Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable, by Richard A. DeMillo (MIT Press 2015
334 pages
ISBN: 978-0-262-02964-3). The review appeared in Planning for Higher Education. Volume 44, Number 1 | October – December 2015. Society for College and University Planning (  Copyright © 2015 Society for College and University Planning. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (review)

Richard DeMillo is the Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren Professor of Computing and Professor of Management, former John P. Imlay Dean of Computing, and executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has authored over 100 articles, books, and patents. He directed the Computer and Computation Research Division of the National Science Foundation and was Hewlett-Packard’s first chief technology officer. He is the 2013 Lumina Foundation Inaugural Fellow, which recognized his founding of the Center for
21st Century Universities. He is also a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Computing Machinery. He is the author of the influential 2011 book Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press).

DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a
Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible
and Affordable provides a comprehensive review of the developments that, in the author’s opinion, have led to a higher education system that has fallen short in responding to the current needs of students and society. Included in the list of identified afflictions plaguing higher education and student stakeholders are rising costs, lack of suitable employment for graduates, rising student loan default, and a system that does not always deliver a quality education. A small band of revolutionaries, referred to by the author as heroes and martyrs, will remake higher education and thus provide a solution to these issues.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” is a quotation attributed to Margaret Mead. The sentiment behind this statement can be applied to DeMillo’s view of those determined to change and transform higher education. The catalysts used by these revolutionaries in this transformation will be technology-centered innovations that allow for greater accessibility of knowledge though a variety of online learning technologies, such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

The idea of—and need for—innovators in revolutionizing
a system is not new. The concept of disruptive innovation,
a term coined by Clayton Christensen, has been applied to higher education (Christensen and Eyring 2011). A premise of disruptive innovation is fostering a transformation to make a product more affordable and accessible to a larger population. As a result, a new market of customers can be reached and served (Christensen, Raynor, and McDonald 2015). This seems to be a focus of this book. However, DeMillo not only discusses how to reach new markets, but also presents the need to transform the higher education system to better serve current customers as well as society as a whole. DeMillo documents the historical development of this movement; he also notes the ripple effects of this disruption and provides a road map for the future. For example, in the discussion of “The $1,000 Degree,” he describes how the use of technology could allow a professor to teach more students. Potential benefits include lower costs for students as well as greater prominence for the institution as it develops a reputation for educating more people in the world. However, as DeMillo explains, universities are more than sellers of credit hours. Universities and colleges provide numerous services to a variety of stakeholders. Among these stakeholders are groups that may have conflicting goals and may be threatened by a technological disruption.

The author makes the point that many of the revolutionary innovators presented in his book do not view institutions of higher education as unique from other institutions. This is
an interesting perspective. There are some universal truths for all institutions; however, there are also characteristics that make institutions distinct from one another. As with other organizations, higher education institutions are required by economic realities to have a great appreciation of the financial forces that influence their operations. These institutions however do have distinct cultures. While some commonalities exist across the many institutions of higher education, the culture of a Research I institution may vary greatly from that of a community college. As the author notes, many within higher education view their work as existing on a different level from the work of other institutions. Indeed, higher education does have characteristics that make it unique from other institutions and businesses. DeMillo provides a thoughtful explanation of the rationale for this revolution, which is in part due to the distinct culture of higher education. It appears that the potential benefits to be gained from the revolution DeMillo presents can be realized only in a culture that is supportive of the process and capable of adapting as needed. Any revolution in higher education will need to confront the resistance of its members and an academic culture that has been developed over generations. This may explain in part why in some industries, such as music or fashion, change and disruptive ideas go viral in a relatively short time as compared to academia, where the host, the higher education institution, seems often to fight back against forces of change and innovation. This is despite the fact that the technology innovation DeMillo describes appears to be highly accepted by the end user, the student.

The question of the worth of technological innovations such as MOOCs in higher education may not be answered in terms of good or bad, but rather in finding their appropriate fit
and role. DeMillo’s work makes it very clear that technology is one of the many forces working on institutions of higher education, and that force has already influenced and compelled the evolution of universities and colleges. So rather than questioning the value of these revolutionaries and what they offer, we might ask where and how this force can be optimally applied so that institutions of higher education can serve those they are meant to serve, the people.

DeMillo’s work provides insight into what has contributed to the decline in public confidence in higher education and offers a road map that institutions should consider following to gain back that confidence and successfully adapt to the forces of change working on them. The following statement is often credited to Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.

It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” The disruption that has been caused by a small band of innovators makes it very clear that higher education needs to continuously adapt and respond quickly to change. The ability of revolutionaries and innovators to transform and save higher education will be evaluated in time. The more immediate contribution of DeMillo’s work and that of the small band of innovators about whom he writes may be in helping refocus higher education on its mission. In this way, higher education may fulfill its mission of knowledge sharing, not just with an elite few, but with all. In explaining the revolution DeMillo quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. When sending his priests into the world to build a network of universities, he told them “Go forth and set the world on fire.” Reaching this goal may not require a total disruption of higher education, but rather a refocusing of its power to create a premier student-centered experience.


Christensen, C. M., and H. J. Eyring. 2011. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the inside out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Christensen, C. M., M. E., Raynor, and R. McDonald. 2015. What Is Disruptive Innovation? Harvard Business Review, December, 44–53.


Reviewer biography

ROBERT DELPRINO, PH.D., is a professor of psychology at SUNY Buffalo State. He earned his doctorate in industrial/ organizational psychology from Old Dominion University and his master’s degree in forensic psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.

He is a 2007 graduate of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) Institute and has been an instructor for the SCUP Planning Institute since 2009. He is the author of the 2013 SCUP publication The Human Side of Strategic Planning in Higher Education