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Following Good Theory: Paul LeBlanc

Clay Christensen, 9/7/2016


I first met Paul LeBlanc when he was working towards his PhD in English Literature at Amherst College. He had chosen an arcane topic for his dissertation: Teaching by computers. Upon graduation he landed a faculty spot at Springfield College, with the scope to continue studying computers and education. Paul then was hired in about 1994 by one of the major publishing companies to head an effort to make books available to students by computer. After three years of trying, the company shut down the effort.

Paul then took his credentials to become president of Marlboro College, a tiny liberal arts college in Vermont, between 1996 and 2003. He guided the college to offer the first graduate degrees college completely online. Paul invited me to be the commencement speaker for the pioneers at Marlboro. There were about 20 of them. It was the first time that any of the graduates had met their classmates in person! In 2003 LeBlanc became president of Southern New Hampshire University – another small private liberal arts college that struggled annually to pay its bills. As he had done in Marlboro, LeBlanc led the establishment of online courses and degrees. In the decade since 2003, enrollment increased from 2,900 to 35,000. Revenues grew from $75 to $220 million per year. The SNHU endowment of $17 million (which generates about $1 million annually from investing the endowment) is dwarfed by the $35 million in cash flow each year generated by the online offerings of SNHU.

The journalists who follow Paul LeBlanc have concluded that Paul finds and follows theories assiduously. Three of the most prominent theories that guide him are disruption, jobs-to-be-done, and business model change. The theories allowed Paul to see the future of higher education more than a decade ahead of anyone else. Though his competitors had access to the same data he did, they lacked a theory. And without a theory, data has no voice.