The Forum | Costs

In Memoriam: Clayton Christensen

January 29, 2020 by Michael B. Poliakoff

Clayton Christensen, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School who famously predicted that as many as half of American universities could go bankrupt, passed away on January 23 at the age of 67, following a battle with leukemia.

Dr. Christensen was born in Salt Lake City and went on to attend Brigham Young University, where he took two years off school to fulfill a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Korea. After receiving his B.A. summa cum laude in economics with honors, he attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, earning his Ph.D. in economics. Later, he attended Harvard Business School for his Master’s in business administration.

Dr. Christensen began his career as a business consultant for Boston Consulting Group and a White House Fellow to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, but eventually found himself more suited for academia, joining Harvard Business School’s faculty.

In his research, he focused on questions of market disruption. How does a small startup overtake an established industry giant? How does an innovative variant of an existing product change the complexion of the competitive marketplace? And his ultimate question: How does a company that comes out with a less expensive, base-line quality alternative to an existing brand affect the market?

These questions led him to his defining theory of “disruptive innovation,” which posits that a firm undercutting an existing market with a less expensive alternative essentially creates a new market.

In 2011, Dr. Christensen applied his theory of disruptive innovation to higher education, authoring The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out along with Henry Eyring, president of Brigham Young University–Idaho. The text highlighted how online college has drastically transformed the higher education marketplace and how colleges need to change their business practices in order to survive. He issued his warnings in a spirt of love for higher education and college students. He shook academic leaders and policymakers out of a dangerous status quo mentality. For this, we all owe him deep thanks.

A champion of access and excellence in higher education, Dr. Christensen was a dear friend to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He wrote to trustees on our behalf, urging them to think about how they could streamline operations and maximize efficiency. He was a firm and articulate advocate of higher education accountability.

I cherish the memories of my friendship with Clayton that began in 1975 with our time together at Oxford University. He was kind, soft-spoken, and thoughtful, with an enormous intellect that he graciously shared. He was a dedicated family man with a wife and five children and was deeply involved with his church and its mission. He left us a model of character and service and will be sorely missed.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More