This past December, we got news that Elon Musk plans to launch a new university. On one hand, this is potentially exciting news. Higher ed is ripe for disruption; of that, there can be no debate. Across the country, colleges and universities are struggling to fill classes and balance budgets, while recruiting a rapidly dwindling pool of prospective students. Meanwhile, public trust in higher education is at an all-time low, and in the face of ever-escalating costs, questions about the value of higher ed are at an all-time high.
If there was ever a time when we needed a SpaceX-style entrant into the higher ed space to shake up our industry’s calcified thinking, this is it. The question on my mind is whether “Musk U” will follow in the footsteps of successful ventures like SpaceX and Tesla, or go the way of the absurd burning bag of poo that is Twitter/X.
Innovator in Chief or Dean of Disarray?
There are many reasons to believe Musk’s foray into education might not create the kind of innovation we want. Musk’s triumphs have predominantly been in areas rooted in software and advanced manufacturing. Higher education, in contrast, is a service-oriented field that relies heavily on human interaction and unique cultural norms to create transformative experiences for students. The skills and strategies that work in manufacturing and tech may not translate seamlessly into academia.
Then, there’s Elon Musk’s public persona. A few years ago, one could argue Musk was chaotic good. These days, it seems charitable to describe him as simply chaotic. Consider what we’ve seen from Musk over the last 18 months. During that time, he challenged fellow billionaire Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight, bungled Twitter’s pricing strategy, launched a half-baked rebrand of Twitter to X (because it’s his favorite letter, bro), told an audience of blue-chip advertisers to “go f__ yourself,” tangled with world leaders over the use of Starlink in major world conflicts, and spread antisemitic conspiracy theories to his 160 million followers on X. With this, a whole lot more in mind, it’s hard to imagine any institution thriving under Musk’s impulsive and chaotic approach to leadership.
Take the best, leave the rest
Musk’s divisive antics make it easy to dismiss his ideas as a whole, but in my view, that would be a mistake. Despite the chaos, Musk is a proven innovator, and those who are looking to disrupt the status quo would be smart to study his approach. In our time left together, I’d like to explore three elements of Musk’s innovation playbook that could benefit higher ed.
Unlocking new value through first principles thinking
Musk attributes much of his success as an innovator to first principles reasoning, a problem-solving approach commonly used in the world of physics. Unlike ordinary decision-making, which relies heavily on prior experience and copying what others have done, thinking from first principles involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic truths and then reconstructing a solution from the ground up.
Think of first principles reasoning as the intellectual equivalent of baking sourdough bread from scratch rather than using Bisquick. It’s slow and labor intensive, but it significantly increases the odds of making something legitimately new and novel, instead of simply making incremental improvements on the existing way of doing things.
This first principles approach led SpaceX to challenge the astronomical costs of commercial spaceflight that were widely accepted as the industry norm. Instead of blindly following the industry’s baked-in assumptions, SpaceX asked fundamental questions: What makes commercial spaceflight expensive? What is a rocket made of? How much do those materials cost on the open market? Why are rockets only used once?
Answering these questions helped SpaceX realize it could build its own rockets in-house more cheaply than purchasing finished rockets and that solving the reusability problem would unlock enormous value and competitive advantage. Ultimately, SpaceX’s innovation led to a 10x reduction in the cost of commercial spaceflight and helped the company earn it’s now dominant share of the global launch market.
Applying first principles to higher education
The power of first principles thinking is that it requires us to interrogate our most overlooked assumptions. Within the context of higher education, that could mean taking a closer look at the practice of accreditation. Applying a first principles approach here would start by asking basic questions: what is the fundamental purpose of accreditation? What is the process to become accredited? What criteria must be met to achieve it? What is the cost? The opportunity cost? In what ways does accreditation benefit us? Hinder us? Is it aligned with our objectives?
From there, one might consider alternatives by asking more questions: If we were building a new accreditation system from scratch, what would be the most effective way to assess educational quality? What process might we use? What metrics might we consider? How else might we achieve the same benefits?
Ultimately, the decision to accept or reject traditional accreditation isn’t necessarily the point. What’s most important is that the answer isn’t simply: that’s what other universities do.
Risk-taking as the default mode
Musk is infamous for the “ultra hardcore” work culture that permeates his companies, and you don’t have to look far to find accounts of burnout, toxicity, and non-existent work/life balance. What is less controversial is that Musk has also successfully built a culture of risk-taking and innovation. Although it’s hard to know from the outside looking in, there appear to be numerous deliberate choices that have helped to cultivate this aspect of Musk’s companies. Here are three:
Aversion to silos and strict hierarchies – In a now famous email to Tesla employees, Musk made it clear that “anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company,” regardless of one’s position within the organization. Further, he emphasized that “managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an us vs. them mentality.”
An emphasis on doing over discussing – In another email to Tesla employees, Musk tackled one of the workplace’s most notorious productivity killers: excessive meetings. Here, he laid out three basic rules for meetings:
- No large meetings, unless you’re certain they provide value to every member. And in that case, keep them very short.
- If you’re not adding value to a meeting, leave. It’s not rude to leave. It’s rude to waste someone’s time.
- No frequent meetings unless dealing with an urgent matter. Once the matter is resolved, the meetings should be dropped.
Ultimately, as Musk commented in a WSJ interview, the goal should be to “spend less time in conference rooms, less time on PowerPoint, and more time just trying to make your product as amazing as possible.”
Unrelenting continuous improvement – Baked in as a foundational premise of Musk’s approach to business is the urgent pursuit of perfecting the product, which necessarily involves getting as much candid feedback as possible. As Musk explained, “It’s basically just be like an absolute perfectionist about the product that you make, the service that’s provided. Seek negative feedback from all quarters; from customers, from people who aren’t customers.”
Vertical integration FTW
One of the less sexy strategies in Musk’s playbook is an old standard from manufacturing: vertical integration. Originally pioneered by Andrew Carnegie, vertical integration occurs when companies take ownership of additional steps along the supply chain. While less common in higher education, it’s not without precedent. In 2017, Purdue University launched the Purdue Polytechnic High School, with the express purpose of helping improve college readiness for low-income students and students of color, and ultimately, building Purdue’s student pipeline from those communities.
Likewise, the filing for Musk’s new schools suggest an intent to vertically integrate the schools on some level. According to the filing, Musk intends to build a primary and secondary school, followed by a university at a later date. Additionally, the schools will be located in Austin, Texas, home of Tesla HQ and offices for other companies like SpaceX and the Boring Company.
At least on paper, the potential benefits of vertical integration could be interesting. Let’s consider a few of them.
Curriculum design and teaching philosophy – By vertically integrating curriculum, the schools could provide a more seamless curriculum across primary, secondary, and university levels.
Resource optimization – Conceivably, this could also lead to more efficient use of resources, such as shared faculty, research facilities, and technology across different educational levels.
Innovative learning environments – The filing also indicates that the schools will have a strong focus on “hands-on learning, including simulations, case studies, fabrication/design projects, and labs.” Given the schools’ proximity to Musk’s companies, it seems only natural that they might provide students with one-of-a-kind learning experiences that expose students to dynamic, real-world problem-solving and entrepreneurial thinking. At the university level, one can easily see how this could result in strategic research partnerships and the development (and transfer) of IP.
In the end, where Elon Musk’s foray into higher education goes is anyone’s guess. In theory, it could usher in a new era of innovative learning, much like SpaceX transformed commercial spaceflight, but it’s easy to imagine it becoming yet another rolling dumpster fire. Either way, Musk U should serve as a reminder that in education, as in technology, the courage to reimagine the fundamentals is often the first step towards progress and that ultimately, the future of education requires not just new buildings or curriculums, but new ways of thinking.