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Defending the Liberal Arts College

January 4, 2011

Raynard S. Kington may not have been the likeliest choice to be president of Grinnell College. His (numerous) degrees came from research universities, and his career has been focused on biomedical research institutions in large metropolitan areas -- he was deputy director of the National Institutes of Health when he was named to lead Grinnell, His selection also attracted attention because Kington is something of a demographic rarity among college presidents: a black gay man moving to campus with his partner and their two young children.

Kington discussed his transition in this podcast interview while on a recent visit to Inside Higher Ed's offices.

Moving to a small community in Iowa has been gratifying, but also an adjustment, he said. "My neighborhoods were usually larger" than Grinnell, Iowa is. And for the first time in his career, he said, he's instantly recognized everywhere he goes in the area. (He joked about standing out as the "gay black dad president.")

While many liberal arts colleges have faced tough economic decisions in recent years, Grinnell is in a strong position, even with the economic downturn, Kington said. During the better years on Wall Street, as the college's endowment grew, officials used much of the income to bolster the college for the long term (for instance by taking care of deferred maintenance) rather than creating many new programs. As a result, while the college faces the same economizing as other institutions, it hasn't had to impose layoffs or radical cuts.

Even if the college is "not in crisis," Kington said, it is important to think about the future, in an era with reduced endowment income, a tougher fund-raising environment, and increased student need for financial aid. Liberal arts colleges, he said, are going to need to examine "the tradeoff between depth and breadth."

While some liberal arts colleges are adding more business or career-oriented majors, Kington doesn't favor such an approach for Grinnell. He noted that the college has debated the idea many times over the years, going back to when land-grant universities were created with a more practical orientation than that of liberal arts colleges. But with "people living longer and having multiple careers," Kington said he believes students are better off with writing and other communication skills, quantitative literacy and "a broad understanding of the world and how it got there," plus the imagination to think about how the world might improve than they would be with a more career-oriented undergraduate experience.

New graduates of liberal arts colleges may "have fewer technical skills as they walk out the door," but they will be better suited for careers "in the long run," he said.

While defending the liberal arts mission, Kington also said that colleges like Grinnell need to be open to talking about assessment in ways that make many uncomfortable. He said that while assessment, "if carried to an extreme," might hurt colleges, there is a role for numerical measures of what goes on in higher education.

He noted that 20 years ago, when hospitals were pressured to start comparing mortality rates, many had objections, pointing out that hospitals "with the sickest patients" may have higher mortality rates than other institutions. Those objections were "all true," Kington said, but it's also the case that "there's something to it" in that mortality rates do (with context) convey important information.

The complete podcast of the interview may be found here.

 

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