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A recent issue of Trusteeship magazine features an article by Peter Smith titled “How Should Boards Respond to Disruption.” The article was written primarily for boards of universities and colleges, but it goes right to the heart of what it will take to lead a seminary through the next 30 or 40 years.

Smith looks at the rapid changes now taking place in education, including new models, new pricing, and new ways of measuring outcomes. He does this by highlighting the theory of “disruptive innovation”:

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” has its roots in the collapse and bankruptcy of four major computer companies in the late 1990s. Why did the Digital Equipment Company (DEC) and others, including Data General and Wang, go out of business while IBM survived? Christensen analyzed all the markers of success — satisfied customers, product dominance, strong organizational cultures, and competitive pricing — and concluded that they made it impossible for DEC and the others to respond to their emerging competitors. From the companies’ perspective, everything was going well. But before they knew it they were out of business. The newcomers to the marketplace boasted superior quality and dramatically lower prices, greater capacity, and innovative features that changed the market. Those that failed were locked into their historically successful status quo, making no effort to adjust to the new reality.

I suspect that many seminary leaders in the United States and Canada are making significant efforts to adjust to their new realities. Smith goes on to write about that reality -- in particular the changes brought about by technology (“learning anything, anywhere, anytime”) and the changes in demographics. With lower birthrates, colleges are finding fewer freshmen, and their campuses are not all that “adult-friendly.” Fortunately, seminaries are all about the older student these days, but cost and time still present an obstacle for many potential students.

There’s a lot in this piece that I think board members and seminary presidents might want to consider. Read Smith’s “How Should Boards Respond to Disruption” and let us know your thoughts on how seminaries are keeping up with this period of disruption.

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