Antioch University was given an advance copy of the following op-ed, with the permission of the author, and offered the chance to respond with its own statement that would have appeared simultaneously with the publication of this piece, so that the university could offer its views and analysis of the issues discussed. After initially indicating that it would do so, and confirming as late as Wednesday afternoon that it would do so, the university stopped returning calls or responding to e-mails about the op-ed piece and indicated through an outside public relations official that it would not respond at this time. At the same time, the university's lawyers sent a letter objecting to any use of the phrase "NonStop Antioch," the former name of an effort mentioned in this op-ed.
Hundreds of Antioch College alumni returned to Yellow Springs, Ohio for a reunion in June, and they packed Kelly Hall for the Alumni Board’s update on talks to save the college. Even as the Antioch University administration was proceeding with its plan to close the college at the end of the month, Antioch faculty took the stage to tell the audience about what was then being called "NonStop Antioch," an ambitious and indeed inspiring enterprise that will keep the Antioch spirit alive and in the village of Yellow Springs for the next two years: Without campus classrooms, dorms, or services, faculty will nevertheless design and teach courses in which students as well as community members will enroll while fund-raising staff work intensively with alumni to raise the money needed to reopen the college and begin its restoration to health. Several professors from surrounding colleges will teach NonStop courses and seminars gratis and individuals and organizations in Yellow Springs will provide teaching and study locations -- which they aren’t calling “classroom space” but “sanctuary.”
Longtime Antioch faculty member Hassan Rachmanian captured the spirit of the effort when he told the Kelly Hall audience that the university administration “may have taken the college’s body but we have its soul.” Ironically, the creators of this initiative cannot utter the words “NonStop Antioch” because the university has threatened legal action against any unauthorized use of the name “Antioch.” So old-fashioned call-and-response filled Kelly Hall: those on the stage shouted “NonStop!” and the audience, not subject to the university’s legal threats, roared back “Antioch!”
Some professors will offer their favorite courses. Others will create new courses designed to capitalize on Antioch’s co-op tradition as well as the town/gown relationship. In one such course, combining political science with investigative journalism, students will track the presidential election by conducting videotaped interviews in traditionally liberal Yellow Springs as well as in nearby Clark County, long considered a bellwether district in nationwide voting.
Inspiring as this weekend was, and brave as NonStop is, we have to ask: How did it come to this? How could the university’s Board of Trustees have decided to turn down three reasonable deals with great potential to save the college -- and at considerably less cost and effort than will now be required? As a board member from October 2001 until last month, I can offer my perspective on events since June 2007 and on what’s happening now.
The chancellor’s presentation also included a sweetener -- a plan to re-open the college in 2012. The plan had a couple of hitches: the chancellor would have to find corporate funding, and she and her “team” would direct the design of this “new Antioch College.” A lot of alums were skeptical the minute they heard “corporate funding” and “Antioch College” in the same sentence. And college faculty saw at once that the plan’s target date of 2012 would enable the university to terminate tenured appointments without violating AAUP requirements that faculty be rehired if the institution reopens within three years. (An earlier draft suggests that the plan’s original target date was 2011. If Murdock made the strategic change to evade AAUP censure, it would make sense. In her prior position as president of Antioch-Seattle, which like all of Antioch’s regional campuses operates without tenure, she had advocated eliminating tenure at the college and tried to ignore AAUP concerns about the dismissal of several Seattle faculty members.)
Last year’s reunion took place just two weeks after the board’s closure bombshell and elicited from alumni on behalf of their alma mater an outpouring of love and commitment that university administrators and board members had claimed did not exist. With 250 alums scheduled to attend, more than 600 showed up and turned the reunion into an old fashioned revival meeting that raised hearts, hopes, and more than $8 million dollars. Over the following year, alumni submitted a series of proposals to the trustees that sought to keep the college open, establish its autonomy from the university, and create an independent board. The critical argument was that alumni and other significant donors would support the college under conditions of independence but not when it remained within the university structure. Then on May 8 of 2008, the board rejected the last of these proposals, a move that most trustees must have hoped would finally bring this fraught and exhausting year to an end. But this wasn’t to be. When the board convened on June 5 in Keene, New Hampshire, trustees found campus advocates awaiting them with statements, arguments, petitions, and media packets, and promises of more to come. Unexpectedly, at the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to direct the Antioch Alumni Association to develop a plan to save the college that would include taking over its operations for good.
Thus this year’s reunion, too, came hard on the heels of a startling announcement from the Board of Trustees, and no one knew exactly what to think. While the June 2007 decision was the frustrated outcome of decades of heartache and hand-wringing by a series of boards about the college’s financial problems, this board’s vote in May 2008 to reject the last of the proposals not only acknowledged its own failure to solve those problems but also its stubborn determination to “stay the course” despite the massive re-engagement of alumni, the commitment of significant funds, and ongoing publicity critical of the university and the board. Though the board leadership spent incalculable hours and travel dollars in negotiations and acknowledged the college’s materially changed outlook, they treated the June 30, 2008 closure deadline like a holy grail. I joined the board in October of 2001. I resigned on May 7 this year, the day before that final negative vote, because I had violated the board’s cult-like oath of confidentiality that by then we were each required to renew at the beginning of every meeting and conference call. A number of trustees during the past year objected to the board’s secrecy, but largely in vain, and this helped doom all three plans to save the college. "Secrecy is for losers," said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but secrecy was a winner in the decision to close Antioch.
Of course, just about every board that hasn’t adopted radical sunshine laws conducts some of its business in confidence, notably personnel matters and especially the hiring or firing of chief executive officers. But our board, as the year proceeded, enlarged the cone of silence to encompass just about everything we did short of picking turkey or veggies for lunch.
Was this destructive? Yes. It helped isolate board members at a time when we badly needed outside voices and independent expertise. Information technology, for example, was a fairly large line item in the university’s reckoning of college expenditures, but many campus community members said IT was a joke: Faculty, students, and even administrative staff told me that they often had to leave campus to find a functioning computer and Internet connection, and there seemed to be only one working copy machine available to the whole campus. A more serious discrepancy involved the role of the college’s assets in providing security for the university’s capital expenditures. Professors charged that the assets -- including the endowment -- were used as loan and bond collateral for buildings on the adult campuses, including Antioch-McGregor’s controversial building in Yellow Springs. The university administration and the board categorically denied this charge.
Ironically, the board’s commitment to “transparency” served to obscure such discrepancies. True transparency, if such a thing can be achieved, is fine: It aims to illuminate what is not readily visible, acknowledge and articulate competing interests, identify the historical and cultural contexts that have shaped divergent positions, and vigorously articulate counter-arguments and interpretations. True transparency means less control, more contradiction, more openness.
The board and administrative leadership and the university’s legal counsel repeatedly espoused and asserted transparency, with Exhibit A being the chancellor’s PowerPoint forecast of financial doom in June 2007. But as negotiations continued and pressures mounted, presentations became dogmatically non-transparent. They had their version of the truth and selected facts, arguments, and documentation to support it. Sometimes the efforts were laughable: With hundreds of alumni and others loudly protesting Antioch’s closure each week in letters, e-mails, and national media, and with Google Alert making updates immediately accessible, board members would be forwarded only expressions of support for their decision: An e-mail complaining about the college from an embittered 1980 alum, a letter from the pissed-off mom of a recent college drop-out, a George Will column. More disturbing were the memoranda prepared for us by the university’s lawyers with their relentlessly narrow and corporate interpretations of our fiduciary responsibility and duty of care, the nature of trusteeship, and our risk of personal liability. The chancellor at one point characterized the college’s alumni as “chaotic” because they do not speak with a uniform or unified voice. These cautionary directives from the university’s legal counsel, in contrast, were designed to promote a unified voice on the board.
In part as a result of this controlled information flow, most board members have known little of the chancellor’s behind-the-scenes aggressions against the college this past year. She would no doubt say she was just doing the job we told her to do: closing down the campus. At first it just seemed like coincidence that when events took a pro-college turn, the chancellor would scorch some campus earth. But after awhile these actions began to look deliberately and unnecessarily hostile. Or, at least with regard to the first example, just callous. Just after the June 2007 announcement of closure and the negative outcry in the local and national press, a homeland security simulation had been scheduled by one of the chancellor’s minions. To be held in beloved Olive Kettering Library on the Antioch campus, the scenario called for several Antioch students to simulate being dead; even the Yellow Springs cops thought that under the circumstances this was a tad insensitive and offered alternative space. No, said the minion, the SWAT team wanted to practice in the library stacks, so -- as documented in the film “Antioch Confidential” -- the simulation went forward.
At the end of August, the board, together with the university administration, scheduled two days in Cincinnati to hear testimony from most of the college’s constituencies. By the end of the meeting the board, quite moved by the presentations, voted all but unanimously to step onto the slippery slope and support the Alumni Association’s efforts to keep the college open. So that the alumni could assemble a proper proposal with fund-raising targets and a business plan, the chancellor was directed to share all necessary financial data and to help. I left that meeting optimistic and full of respect for my fellow board members who, it seemed to me, genuinely wanted this initiative to succeed. And Steve Lawry, president of the college, said he was satisfied with this turn of events and would now be able wholeheartedly to resume his visits to potential donors.
The minions then created a management-sanctioned alumni newsletter, as though the professional alumni development staff were irresponsible cranks: In place of the familiar graphic of the Antioch towers, alumni opened their e-mails to the inaugural issue of “Good News!” with its upbeat account of the “positive” and “collaborative” meeting in Cincinnati. Alumni, also receiving the “real” alumni newsletter from the college development staff as well as the Yellow Springs News and the Antioch Record online -- all with reports of what had already been dubbed the Labor Day Massacre -- were understandably astonished and outraged. Yet when they, and I myself as a board member, asked Art Zucker, the board chair, to account for these actions, he denied their significance and impact. He characterized Steve Lawry’s dismissal as the decision any responsible CEO might make, changing the locks as “standard operating procedure,” and campus reactions as “over-reactions.” A member of the board’s executive committee chided me privately for questioning the chancellor’s actions; she was “following our mandated process” and was quite in order to take control over an unruly college staff. Whenever you shut down a division, he added, “you gotta expect anxiety and fallout.” In this instance, and thereafter, “fallout” was rarely discussed formally by the board, but the leadership did start issuing regular statements of praise for the chancellor, while “the board’s mandated process” became a familiar mantra.
Then in November, following a regular board meeting in Yellow Springs that seemed to last forever, the board voted to lift the suspension of operations. Students rang bells in the campus towers, but the vote turned out to have changed nothing: With financial exigency still in place, the chancellor argued, there could be no student recruitment, no renegotiation with the Ohio Board of Regents of the college’s degree-granting and accreditation status, no extension of faculty positions or student graduation dates. The chancellor had her marching orders and it was her legal and fiduciary duty to honor the timeline, no matter how many bells were ringing. Legal counsel chimed in.
In a 2006 essay on communication at Antioch University (posted on the Antioch Papers Web site), the chancellor clearly expressed her preference for top-down, fully controlled communication, with everything authorized or supervised by the chancellor. So when the alumni leaders scheduled an open meeting to talk with the campus community, the chancellor wanted to close the campus to them, and to outsiders in general -- anyone who might foster the free flow of information and specifically deliver misleadingly hopeful messages about the college’s future. As one of the minions said, “Hope is creating the problem.” Trying to close the campus to the alumni leaders also reflected the university’s position that they were not a group of alumni but a rival corporation seeking to engineer a hostile takeover of the college. In the same spirit, the university even forced the Alumni Association to rent back its own campus buildings for this June’s reunion and, with dorms already shut down, alumni had to sleep in tents or off campus; there was no cafeteria service because the university is suing the village over its chiller unit.
Such ways of thinking are common in corporate culture and most of the board seemed familiar and comfortable with them, but they’re at odds with academic principles and practices. While the university is, indeed, a corporation and the chancellor is its CEO and the members of the board are its directors, an academic institution is distinct in many ways from other corporate bodies. Not only Antioch but most American colleges and universities subscribe to principles advocated by the American Association of University Professors, widely regarded as a leading authority on sound academic practices. Most famous is the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which the Antioch College faculty references in their lawsuit against the university. Like other academics who’ve served on the board (sadly, a shrinking constituency), I’m an AAUP member who’s raised issues about academic practices, including “shared governance,” the association’s principle that the administration, board, and faculty of an academic institution should work together to shape its life and future. But the board and chancellor appear to have rejected shared governance, declaring financial exigency without prior or subsequent faculty consultation and even stating at one point that “shared governance may apply to the Antioch campus but does not apply to the relationship between the campus, the university administration, and the board.” I believe the AAUP would consider this interpretation incorrect.
As the scorched earth campaign continued, the chancellor found new ways to disrupt fund raising and alumni relations, and board deadlines came and went. College support staff would find their corporate credit cards canceled, so they couldn’t schedule fund-raising trips or meet with alumni chapters (in June 2007, eight alumni chapters existed; today there are nearly 50). Or they would be told that as college employees they couldn’t raise money for an outside corporation, or their reservations for meeting rooms would be canceled without notification, or they’d be prohibited from contacting certain donors or accessing certain records, or a minion would be installed as their supervisor, or they’d be threatened with being audited or fired. Alumni leaders were regularly summoned to mediate conflicts, further delaying progress. And the campus grew dimmer and grimmer. Housekeeping and security services on campus were sharply curtailed, buildings were closed, long-time faculty and staff members were fired. The Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom, opened in March 2007, was closed, and a funding proposal from its director was rejected. When the chancellor learned that many of the confidential documents posted on the Antioch Papers Web site had not been leaked by insiders but legitimately acquired by members of the public from Antiochiana, the institution’s archive, where board materials were routinely sent for storage, she changed the archives’ locks and restricted its hours and access to the public, including the alumni who have donated many of its holdings.
Some actions were taken without full board notification, consultation, or approval. Although many of them will radically increase the financial and administrative burden of re-opening the college and its campus, the full board never directed her to explore putting off the deadline for closure. They just let her run out the clock.
So now it’s July 2008. Students, faculty, and staff have left, retired, taken other jobs, or moved to the NonStop campaign, while the physical plant is on a forced march to oblivion. Historic G. Stanley Hall Hall has been razed along with the huge trees that surrounded it. Heat and air conditioning have been turned off. Furniture, equipment, curtains, and carpeting will be discarded. The buildings will accumulate moisture all summer and be subjected to a hard freeze when cold weather comes. The minions found algae in the campus pool and drained it, depriving the Yellow Springs community of a long-shared facility. Next year zero-occupancy rules apply. If, or when, the Alumni Association’s plans for the college come to fruition, the buildings may not be permitted to reopen unless they meet current construction codes.
Of course we’re joyful that we still might get our college back. But are we like Charlie Brown, eternally wooed by Lucy’s promise that this time will be different -- this time she won’t pull the football out from under him, this time she’s on his/our side? Or is the chancellor determined to wreck the college by any means necessary? As one of my Antioch friends channels her, in a screech, from the Wizard of Oz: “I’ll have your college -- and your little dog too!”
Some alumni believe that if they can raise enough money, the board will now cooperate.
I agree about the money. And I agree that the board has moved in a significantly different direction. But the reign of terror against the campus and its ongoing human cost, which I have sketched briefly here, are significant realities as well.
Scholars of conflict, like anthropologist Victor Turner, tell us that during prolonged conflicts, especially under conditions of structural inequity or ambiguity, the less powerful are likely to paint the more powerful in apocalyptic terms. In writing here about Antioch, I have likened the chancellor to the wicked witch, hinted that the board and university leadership share qualities with the George W. Bush administration, and even used “ground zero” in my title. But when I look coldly at the outcomes of this past year, I see something more mundane: a failure of imagination, an aversion to risk, a regime fixated on management instead of governance, and ultimately an overall pattern of incompetence.
“The chancellor calls the alumni chaotic,” said one community member recently: “This is a woman who can’t even change a lock without throwing the whole campus into chaos.”
Whether apocalyptic or mundane, the college struggle has not unfolded on the flat playing field trumpeted by Toni Murdock’s idol Thomas Friedman. The chancellor is still the CEO of this corporation. The board is still the decider. The university is still the entity its legal counsel prioritizes and protects. Against such odds, alumni and Antioch’s other friends must continue financially and politically to support the activities and organizations that can still provide direction and leverage: Direct action, legal services, NonStop, the Alumni Association and the College Revival Fund, the Antioch Papers, and the many creative projects that help document the Antioch story. Even as we hope for a happy ending, we have to stay vigilant. In the largest sense, this means we all have to be involved, NonStop.
Paula Treichler, who graduated as a philosophy major from Antioch College in 1965, grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio; her parents served on the Antioch faculty for 34 years. With a Ph.D. in linguistics and psycholinguistics, she has held faculty and administrative positions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1972. She has published numerous essays on higher education.
As we approach the second decade of the century, it is fair to ask what young medical doctors should know and where and when they should learn it. But amid calls for revisions to the undergraduate premedical curriculum, undergraduate colleges must guard against being co-opted as “farm clubs” for “big league” schools of medicine.
In the American system of higher education, to paraphrase the opening of a popular television series, the task of educating and training tomorrow’s doctors is shared by two separate yet equally important institutions: baccalaureate colleges of arts and sciences and professional schools of medicine. And, as the ubiquitous use of the term “pre-med” implies, undergraduate educators have long accepted their responsibility to equip students who aspire to become physicians with the knowledge and skills essential for admission to medical school. It follows from this premise that changes in the scope and focus of medical school curricula will raise legitimate questions about the courses most appropriate for premed students.
This argument furnishes the starting point for a recent contribution by Jules L. Dienstag to the New England Journal of Medicine (“Relevance and Rigor in Premedical Education”). In his essay, Dienstag notes the demands placed on medical school faculties by an ever expanding range of “new scientific material” and deplores the “widely varied levels of science preparation” among first-year medical students. As a remedy, he proposes a radical reshaping of the pre-medical science curriculum and a corresponding revision of both the Medical College Admissions Test (or MCAT) and the criteria used by medical school admissions committees. By “refocusing” and “increasing [the] relevance” of the science courses pre-med students take, Dienstag argues, undergraduate institutions could better prepare graduates for professional school while simultaneously opening up additional space in the curriculum for “an expansive liberal arts education encompassing literature, languages, the arts, humanities, and social sciences.”
Dienstag’s prescription deserves serious consideration by faculty and administrators at baccalaureate and professional institutions alike. He offers valuable suggestions on a range of issues. But Dienstag naturally approaches this topic from his own perspective -- that of the dean for medical education at Harvard Medical School. In advocating for changes that would address the challenges facing his own colleagues, he ignores (or at least passes too quickly over) complications and contradictions that those changes would create at undergraduate colleges.
Each entering class at any undergraduate institution contains many more students who express their firm intention to become medical doctors than will ever apply to a medical school, let alone gain admission. Some will learn in Chemistry 101 that their intellectual gifts are not those of a scientist. Others will be seduced by the excitement of laboratory research and pursue Ph.D. rather than M.D. degrees. Still others will surprise themselves (not to mention their parents) by discovering a passion for literature or archaeology, economics or music that overwhelms their earlier conviction about their destined career paths.
Such defections are scarcely surprising, given the limited knowledge and experience that high school students rely on as the basis for forming their views about possible life goals. But it is also important to recognize that many undergraduate institutions – liberal arts colleges in particular – actively encourage their students to remain intellectually curious and open to the full range of disciplines that they sponsor. “Pursue your passion,” we advise incoming first-year students at the College of the Holy Cross. “Find what excites and fulfills you and see where it may lead.” Tracking pre-med students into what Dienstag describes as a science curriculum with “a tighter focus on science that ‘matters’ to medicine” runs counter to this liberal arts ethos. While it might better prepare the minority of those students who will one day matriculate at a school of medicine, it could handicap those whose scientific interests point them toward industry or teaching and research. It could also restrict the breadth of the scientific education that non-science majors would take with them if later decisions led them towards majors in the humanities, arts or social sciences. And even for the small number of students who would in fact emerge from such a streamlined curriculum and enter medical school, one has to question the wisdom of targeting “biologically relevant” material at the expense of courses in topics as critical to the future of our planet as ecology and population genetics.
Another way of explaining the unease that some faculty members at liberal arts colleges may feel over Dienstag’s proposal is that it implies that the study of biology, chemistry, physics and statistics is undertaken as a means -- and to one very particular end. The attitude we seek to foster in our students at liberal arts institutions, by contrast, is that one studies a discipline for what it reveals about the universe we inhabit and about what the mission statement at the College of the Holy Cross calls “basic human questions.” The knowledge and skills that one acquires in the process will be equally useful in one’s career and in one’s life outside the workplace and certainly do not limit who one may become, either professionally or personally.
There is no question that the combined eight-year premedical and medical school curriculum that has served us well for decades is coming under increasing pressure. With each year that passes, society expects more of its physicians; as Dienstag notes, we now demand that they be trained not only in medical science but also in “ethics, … listening skills, and skills relevant to health policy and economics.” Unless we are to extend the already long training period by another year, changes in what we teach and how we teach it are inevitable.
Dienstag urges those of us who teach undergraduates not to “shy away from the challenge” posed by this shifting environment. I suggest that the challenge we confront can not be addressed effectively without all parties being open to possible changes in the way they contribute to the process. More importantly, our colleagues in the professional schools must understand that the term “pre-med” designates a provisional career aspiration far more often than it does a firm commitment. Undergraduate students are by definition still learning about their world and seeking out their place in it, so our institutions serve their needs when we balance the importance of effective pre-professional preparation with the equally compelling need for curricular flexibility and disciplinary breadth.
Timothy R. Austin
Timothy R. Austin is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at the College of the Holy Cross, which sent 43 members of the Class of 2008 to medical schools -- 29 of them at top research universities.
Bill Bowen, who was a longtime president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, describes getting colleges to collaborate as "a very difficult, much unappreciated" task. From my experience in trying for 25 years to get 37 college presidents to collaborate, I'd go further. I have concluded that real collaboration across institutions is virtually impossible.
Collaboration as a concept is great, but as a reality it rarely exists. Centralization (providing benefits that each college can access) and even cooperation (helping when it doesn't hurt) are far easier practices to implement than true collaboration (working for the benefit of the whole even when some of the individual parts have to sacrifice).
Working first as director of a program at a major research university funded (by Mellon) to provide fellowships for faculty at small colleges in the mountains of central Appalachia, and then as president of the consortium that grew from that program, I feel qualified to make a few observations about why collaboration is so difficult:
Presidents of independent colleges are independent; as the primary representative of the institution they have a strong need for autonomy and to claim distinctiveness for their institutions -- even when the institution is very similar to others within the same classification of higher education institutions. While they do not want to disagree with their peers in public and will often appear to be in agreement, promises made in a public setting often do not get fulfilled in a private setting. Similarly, commitments made privately are often changed when a public vote with their peers is taken. As one college president said in a presentation at a meeting of the Association for Consortium Leadership, "We will promise anything to appear agreeable in a meeting of the consortium members."
Rosalynn Carter once said that a leader is someone who takes people where they want to go; a great leader is someone who takes people where they need to go.
Getting 37 presidents to agree on where they wanted to go was impossible for me; finding out where they needed to go -- by asking presidents, foundation officers, program directors in federal agencies and others from outside the Association -- was easier. Some consortium directors talk about the importance of building consensus, but I found the adage that "consensus is what everyone is willing to agree on in public but no one believes in private" was far too true.
I quickly learned that the way to get the presidents of our 37 colleges to make a commitment to a project was to present the project as the idea of another of the presidents or of a foundation representative and ask for volunteers for the pilot stages. I was fortunate to have 37 presidents with which to work because even though there were usually those who had no intention of fulfilling a commitment to the project, there were always enough who did fulfill their commitments to make the project successful. Directors of consortia with only a few members have a harder job. They have to know they have the sincere commitment of all their presidents to assure success; they do have to worry about building consensus.
Presidents do not accept ownership of what they do not control; academic deans, on the other hand, seem to be quite comfortable claiming ownership in situations where they feel they at least have some authority to make decisions. As a program at the University of Kentucky, the Appalachian College Program was guided by the academic deans of the participating colleges; they accepted those rare occasions when some idea they had proposed was vetoed by the university's officials (usually because there were other projects within the university that would be competing for the funding).
Once the presidents met to discuss expanding the program to include more than faculty development (joint purchasing, training for staff, etc.), it was clear immediately that they would not accept with grace a veto of their ideas by authorities at the university. As a result, the Appalachian College Program became the Appalachian College Association, an independent 501(c) 3 organization directed by a board made up of the presidents of member colleges.
Given the need of the presidents for autonomy, there is generally little reason to expect them to be concerned about the impact the program might have on education within the region generally; each president in my consortium was primarily concerned about the benefits his or her institution would derive individually. The question for each of the presidents was almost inevitability, "How will this project impact my institution?" While the mission of the Appalachian College Association was broadly defined as "strengthening private higher education in the region," the primary goal on which the presidents could agree was that the Association should raise money that all the colleges could share -- but only if raising that money did not jeopardize the fund raising of any individual member college.
The only aspect of their operations that the presidents seemed completely comfortable allowing the Association to address was faculty development and, later, centralized library services. At a roundtable session with Bob Zemsky (founding director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Research on Higher Education) to set priorities for the next president of the Association, they quickly concluded that the focus of the Association should remain on faculty, that they did not need another organization that provided a social setting where the presidents could meet, or joint purchasing contracts that would probably overlap with contracts already in place through their state associations. What they most appreciated about the work of the Association was the fellowships and travel grants made available to faculty for individual research and study—a central service not requiring much collaboration.
At that same roundtable session, the question was asked, "If there were a disaster in your region that destroyed one of the member campuses, would the other campuses come together to help rebuild that campus?" After a long pause, a response came: "If the association called us together, we would. " The wise observation made by Zemsky was that the loyalty among the presidents was to the association and not to each other -- more evidence that centralization, not collaboration was the primary benefit they saw for the association.
When college presidents (across multiple institutions including some from my association) at a Council of Independent Colleges meeting were asked, "What is your favorite consortium among those to which you belong?," the answer was always one in which that president's college was the lead institution. A president will usually name a small local collaborative with the county high school over a regional or national one where their voice is much weaker.
Consortia directors or presidents work hard to "fulfill the vision of their members," but many do not seem to know what that vision is -- beyond working together for the benefit of the whole. And, unfortunately, it seems to be the financially weak institutions that are most interested in being active in a consortium because they have the greatest need for help, though they are least able to provide funding for the organization's staff and operations. As a result, many consortia can provide only what the weakest members among them can sustain.
Despite my frustration that as a collaborative our colleges never soared beyond 10,000 feet when 30,000 was my goal, our consortium of private Appalachian colleges (most with small endowments and small enrollments) was touted as one of the most successful in the nation. Calls came monthly from colleges outside our region wanting to become members; my advice was usually, "Start your own."
Keeping more than 30 colleges across five states working together on any level was more than a full-time job for our core staff of about five. Several of those calls actually resulted in meetings of groups of colleges anxious to replicate our model -- a regional consortium supported by nominal membership dues and lots of funding from foundations and federal agencies that managed to build an endowment for programs of roughly $25 million and reserve funds totaling over $500,000. None of those who called ever called back for advice, but if any had, here is what I would have told them:
1. Have a specific mission before you meet to organize. Forming a consortium for collaboration without knowing what you will collaborate to do is like having a meeting without knowing what the purpose of the meeting is: not much is likely to be accomplished. Recognize that providing central services or getting cooperation across the campuses is as worthy a goal as true collaboration.
2. Hold the initial organizational meeting with those who will be the primary beneficiaries to be sure they are receptive to the new opportunities provided. With our Association, the primary beneficiaries of the program that started the Association were faculty of the participating colleges. Faculty from the colleges met multiple times in groups on their own campuses and across the various campuses for five years before the academic deans of the colleges actually held their first meeting. The deans and faculty continued to meet for another five years before the presidents got involved, formed the Appalachian College Association and moved the organization away from the university.
3. Find a funding source -- the member colleges or an outside foundation, individual, or federal agency -- to support the first effort adequately. If the first venture fails, the consortium is likely to fail as well. Be sure that the project has appeal that will generate sustained funding -- either by the members or other agencies. Take advantage of the natural appeal consortia have for funders: program officers have to meet with only one consortium director, not with multiple college presidents.
4. Find a strong leader, someone who is able to listen to faculty and students or whoever the beneficiaries are and not be intimidated by those serving on the board of the consortium who may think they best know what the beneficiaries need. Choose someone who is bold enough to be able to solicit honest responses to ideas from the board members but is flexible enough to shape the ideas of those board members into fundable projects that will serve the major constituencies as they want to be served. Find someone who is able to present a good case to funders but wise enough to know that it is the funder who ultimately decides if the project is worthy of funding. Recognize that it makes little sense to argue a case that is not a good match for the funding agency. Someone said as I was leaving the Appalachian College Association that the new president should not allow himself to be controlled by the presidents but he will need to allow the presidents to believe they control him if they feel the need to control him. Ideally the college presidents will have enough confidence in the president of their consortium to trust that he or she will take the colleges both where they want to go and where they need to go. A consortium director or president has to listen to everyone and then do what he or she deems is in the best interest of most. Trying to make everyone happy with every decision is a sure way to slow the productivity of the organization, if not kill it.
5. Develop an organizational voice that is independentof the member institutions and the beneficiaries. For our Association, an Advisory Council was established as a result of the first strategic plan. That council was made up of representatives retired from the foundations and federal agencies that had supported our multiple projects and of other individuals in higher education with a special interest in the region and/or the member colleges, but no ties to any one particular college.
Such a council can help the consortium director consider what the colleges want to do in relation to broad views of higher education. Appeals to funders can be more convincing if there is evidence of a potential impact on multiple institutions outside the one group of colleges served by the consortium. Advisory Council members can provide positive reinforcement for good ideas and add suggestions for further refinements. They can also challenge ideas that may lead to problems for the colleges or consortium. In short, they can serve as a sounding-board for discussion of ideas before presentation to the college presidents and also present issues at meetings of college presidents to draw out their views before the ideas of the consortium leader are discussed. The same process can be useful when developing a strategic plan. If the planning is not directed by someone completely independent of the association, there needs to be provision for multiple voices from outside the group to be heard.
Working together -- either centrally, cooperatively or collaborative -- is becoming increasingly important, given current economic trends. Perhaps true collaboration in higher education will become more evident as new financing models call upon some institutions to pay a little more than they currently do so the many can pay less.
I hope that the consortium I led (with lots of help from lots of people ) will continue to thrive. I also hope that other consortium leaders may gain from my reflections on what I learned over more than 25 years so they can develop new models of collaboration to strengthen the education of students via working together for the common good.
Alice Brown retired in July as the first president of the Appalachian College Association.
It is high time for the federal government to adjust the antitrust laws to allow American undergraduate colleges and universities to “disarm” unilaterally from wasteful expenditures. Current law does not permit us to disarm because we cannot talk to each other about how to control costs without running the risk of being accused of what can only be considered anti-competitive trade collusion.
It is time for all of us in higher education to think about what it would be like to compete only on the quality of our academic programs and not on the excesses of our amenities. Why can’t we be bold and courageous enough to come to the common sense conclusion that not competing on amenities would in the long run be good for students and for those who have to pay tuition? Why can’t we temper our “capitalistic compulsion” to compete with each other in ways that only serve to drive up tuition costs? Wouldn’t we be in a position to render better service to the American public if we arrived at some common conclusions about how to reduce costs?
Colleges and universities are feverishly rushing to cut expenses because of the current and very real economic crisis. Witness all the presidents announcing hiring freezes, postponements of construction projects, furloughs, lay-offs, salary freezes and modest tuition increases. While none of my colleagues want these cuts to affect the quality of the academic program, it may, in fact, be an unavoidable result.
Yet with all this trimming and restraint, the public is not likely to see the price of an undergraduate education decrease any time soon. The traditional higher education business model does not permit it. At many, if not most, institutions the cost is significantly higher than the sticker price. At Dickinson, for example, it costs us $13,000 above the sticker price of $47,800 to educate a single student. What rational “business” begins with costs always being significantly higher than price and then tries to sustain that model by further increasing costs? The constraints higher education imposes upon itself now might well soften somewhat the threat of the current economic crisis by reducing marginally the gap between cost and price, but will do nothing to alter a business model that does not work because you cannot have your cake and eat it too.
The only way to control cost and moderate price is to perform radical surgery. Since the historic mission for many colleges and universities is to offer a liberal education that prepares students for informed participation in a democracy, the activities that undergraduate education has added over the centuries to this essentially academic intent are the most vulnerable to “the knife” -- residential life, student life, athletics. A combination of classroom and out-of-classroom experiences is now defining a distinctively American undergraduate education that is distinguished from classroom-only university programs in other countries. It is this very surgery that for-profit universities have already performed to keep tuition across their sector more affordable. Academic degrees are offered online (excepting short-term residencies on a host college campus or coursework in a modest office building); there are no residence halls; there is no athletic program; and, of course, there is no student life except conversation about coursework online. For-profit universities are already growing rapidly in enrollment and if tuition keeps rising among non-profits, this opportunity may become increasingly attractive to the American public.
I suggest that nonprofit education will be reluctant to go so far as the for-profits in altering what has evolved over the centuries as the American “model” of undergraduate education. That said, a viable first step to control costs without sacrificing the academic experience is for colleges and universities to pull back as a “sector” from the extravagances that have developed in the out-of-classroom amenities over the last few decades because of a compulsion to outspend the competition in what is most visible to the paying public -- sports palaces, fancy hotel-like accommodations, spa-like student unions, gourmet-style dining facilities, etc.
On behalf of the public and our own desire to remain a key contributor to the national ambition, we ought to disarm in at least one aspect of our activity. We should have a positive deflation of our ambitions and our competitive fever (regardless of the numerical ranking gimmicks) in those areas that are not historically related to our role in advancing knowledge.
What would happen, for example, if all of us came to the conclusion that it would make sense only to build residence halls that conform in design and purpose to the academic program of our respective college or university and to the pricing and construction standards of eco-friendly “low-income housing” that offer inhabitants perfectly livable, attractive space without extravagance? The initial cost may still be high (although not higher than luxury-hotel accommodations), but the long-term energy savings would be significant. What if we all agreed that students could, indeed, survive and even thrive in double rooms? What if we all scaled back our competition for student athletes? What if we pledged to reduce conference and meeting costs by relying more heavily on virtual technology? What stands in the way is not only antitrust laws but also our own attitudes and egos.
It is quite obvious that none of this radical change could be accomplished systemically by a single president or a small group of institutions; it would take a sea change across higher education. But even if we have the best of intentions and can overcome our reluctance to change, the antitrust laws stand squarely in our way. Right now, any discussion with the intent of disarmament cannot prudently be attempted.
The federal antitrust laws were applied in the 1990s to challenge financial aid meetings among colleges that had an “overlap” in the students they recruit. The aftermath of that litigation has had the unfortunate consequence of severely limiting discussion among colleges and universities about cost and competition, at great detriment to the public. I assert that if we, as a nation, are serious about reducing the cost while improving the quality of higher education, we in higher education need a “safe” space in which to talk candidly. Congress should revisit the law and permit such conversations for the benefit of the public. We can’t disarm if we can’t talk. That is Diplomacy 101!
Let me be clear. I am not talking about encouraging discussion among institutions about faculty salaries, annual tuition charges and the like. I do, however, believe we need the will and determination to try to achieve change in those current practices that have escalated our costs. As a first step we need change from the federal government that would give us the legal means to help the public with the cost of higher education. Not to entertain disarmament leaves us with an intolerable alternative -- escalating tuition without foreseeable limit.
Leadership is also required and that probably best comes from established associations. It is time for an organization like the American Council on Education to issue that call for us and to work productively with the federal and state governments to revisit the antitrust laws to allow us to work towards affordability.
There will, of course, be those who decry any form of cooperation among those who meet to discuss cost. They distrust us. This caution is understandable were it not for the intractable crisis in higher education. If we do not find ways to reduce the cost of our colleges and universities, students will potentially seek alternatives such as for-profit universities or study at foreign universities, or be shut out of higher education. And many of those who attend our colleges and universities will be saddled with increasing debt that will burden them and/or their families for years – all at the wrong time in our economic cycle. If “self-interest” is not a consoling safeguard for the skeptics, let us request a temporary exemption of two years to allow colleges to address the exorbitant tuition issue to demonstrate that there are benefits to the public in this approach. If there are such benefits, let the exemption be extended. If not, shame on us!
William G. Durden
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College and a member of the Board of Directors of Walden University.
As a college president, I see the world through the lens of education, and I can’t help thinking there’s a lesson or two to be learned from our current financial woes. A quick review: For a number of years we all watched housing prices rise seemingly without end only to be surprised when revelation of the extent and toxicity of sub-prime mortgage lending caused the credit markets to seize up, bursting the bubble with a bang and bringing some very large financial institutions to their knees. Just like someone surveying the morning-after remains of one helluva party, we are now asking our collective hung-over selves: What were we thinking? Why didn’t we see this coming, and why didn’t the very smart and well-educated folks who head these institutions take steps to prevent this?
I’m not thinking about specific courses economics majors and future M.B.A.'s and bankers should have taken but didn’t. I’m thinking of deeper patterns of rewards and expectations taken for granted for so long that we don’t reckon with their impact at all. Much of what lies behind our current economic train-wreck stems from short-sightedness -- focus on short-term goals and gains -- and near-sightedness -- seeking to maximize one vector without regard for context in which that vector has value to begin with. So we have had big players making millions, nay billions, in ways that ultimately blew up the very system that made such gain and growth possible. I think there’s a proverb about a goose and golden eggs that applies.
Most of the players had earned at least a bachelor’s degree along the way, many of them at pretty selective colleges and universities. Virtually all had learned to compete and succeed in a grading system that rewards students for mastering — and in the worst cases just regurgitating — discrete packages of information. How much is retained after each exam and each course varies by student, and of course many do integrate what they have learned into larger ensembles. But not every course of study insists on integrative learning, and colleges and universities may inadvertently set themselves up to promote a certain type of achievement by measuring their own worth as many rating systems do: by the SAT scores and rank in class of their incoming students.
This system of values is not lost on prospective college students and their parents, who, if they can afford it, have their kids coached to excel at standardized tests and tutored to a fare-thee-well. Students experience terrible levels of performance anxiety and stress, all the more if they come to believe that education is a steeplechase that one “wins” by jumping hurdles, one at a time, ever higher, ever faster. In rewarding the most successful grade and score hounds, aren’t we, even if inadvertently, promoting the pursuit of short-term gains?
It’s not likely students forget this lesson upon leaving school and entering a world only too happy to prize short-term gain. Get the best result now and don’t worry about the day after tomorrow. Maximize stock value at the end of the quarter. That way you’ll get the biggest bonus package this year. Is there a way to take advantage of market movements and make a killing tomorrow, in the next hour, in the next 10 minutes?
It goes on. Get as many folks signed up for mortgages at the low introductory interest rate and don’t worry about what happens when the rate resets. Home buyers: Get that introductory rate. Don’t worry about resets or the possibility the economy may sour. Back to brokers and local banks: Take the commissions and sell the mortgages now. Bigger banks: Bundle those mortgages and take the profits by selling them. Get the risk off your books. Put it elsewhere. Don’t worry what happens once you resell the mortgage. Just jump that next hurdle.
The system we use to grade students doesn’t just mirror this scale of values. It blesses and promotes it. Even as the admissions officers of our most prestigious colleges and universities claim to seek “well-rounded students,” they are choosing among students who have already learned to play the high-score-and-grades game in high school. Most colleges and universities do not question what students and their parents want of them: Enough seats in the “right” majors so they can get their passport to a professional school. How? By wracking up the same string of A’s during their undergraduate years as they did before. Little time for experimentation, for taking risks -- where the only “loss” might be a less than perfect transcript. If they don’t get into the right graduate or professional program they might not get the credential that is the ticket to a job where they can reap larger profits more quickly than those who went before them, in the same fields. Because, the assumption is, those fields will always be profitable.
Is there an alternative to the short-term, shortsighted thinking the pursuit of grades has encouraged our students to internalize? A handful of colleges, Hampshire among them, have long been tweaked for maintaining narrative evaluations in place of letter grades. Hampshire, the example I know best, confronts its students with detailed and nuanced performance evaluations. Some might equate escape from the tyranny of A, B, C, D, F to an invitation to slack off; the few students who enter Hampshire with that very fantasy soon discover its hollowness. Success at Hampshire and comparable colleges — and for the best students, in my view, everywhere — involves each student owning his or her learning and understanding the context and significance of that learning. Just the other day I overheard a proud Hampshire student (who didn’t know I was within earshot) tell a group of visiting high school seniors: “I knew how to get A’s on quizzes and examinations and for courses in high school. As soon as the course was over, I forgot most of the stuff that got me the A. I like Hampshire because I hold on to what I learn, because I know why I’m learning it and make it my own.”
This philosophy undergirds Hampshire’s whole system of education. Instead of choosing among pre-set majors -- predetermined fields with established questions -- each student crafts a unique educational plan of work that must be approved by two professors. Each student submits a portfolio to show that she or he has achieved the agreed-upon goals, and faculty evaluate the totality of each student’s accomplishments. Our students come to know that the first step in learning is defining the question and setting it in context. Even more: To take responsibility for deciding which questions to ask, quite often of a status quo that seems unassailable, and then by means of study, research, interrogation, and creative reflection, to reframe the question in light of changing circumstances.
While I know first-hand how Hampshire fosters a distinctive brand of self-reliance and critique among our students, I believe that there are ways comparable qualities can be promoted in more traditional systems. You cannot imagine doing away with grades? Faculty can still ask students to assess their own achievement and meet with them to share perceptions. There are distribution requirements and specific courses patterns in each major? Students could write a narrative that explains how the courses they chose to fulfill their distribution requirement contributed to their intellectual formation. The point would be to have students see how what they learned fits into a larger pattern, and could lead them toward a sense of personal ownership of their education. They would write another narrative on the eve of graduation in which they would evaluate the disciplinary mastery the courses with which they fulfilled their major led them to. And where the gaps in their mastery of the discipline remained, and what the limits of the discipline were. This would not only deepen their own ownership of the learning they had acquired but bring them face-to-face with the defining limitations of every field, of every perspective.
Wouldn’t it have been helpful if we had more corporate executives and board members who’d had such training in their college years and were primed to question the fundamental assumptions of the industries in which they were engaged? Who didn’t assume that if they got a big bonus at year’s end, they must be doing everything right?
Instead, we are left with an economy in near-ruin by the collective action of individuals who, I’m quite sure, got good grades, who knew how to ace the examinations on which they’d been coached, and whose long-term vision stretched no further than the end of the term. That view is great while it lasts, but, like that shiny “A” one crams for on the quiz, the substance is gone before the ink is dry.
Ralph Hexter is president of Hampshire College. This essay is also being published on his new blog.
At first glance, Peter Drucker might seem an unlikely candidate to have published an academic novel. Famous for writing books such as Concept of the Corporation and The Effective Executive, Drucker was dubbed “The Man Who Invented Management” in his 2005 Business Week obituary. Drucker’s audience was to be found among the Harvard Business Review crowd, not the Modern Language Association coterie, and, not surprisingly, his two novels are no longer in print.
But the university he presented in his 1984 novel, The Temptation to Do Good, confronted some key questions that face higher education institutions in today’s unprecedented financial downturn: Are current practices sustainable? Have we strayed from our core mission? Will the liberal arts survive increasing budget pressures?
As these questions -- hardly the usual literary fare -- demonstrate, Drucker’s work is a rarity among academic novels. These texts typically provide a send-up of academic life, by making fun of intellectual trends through characters such as Jack Gladney, who chairs the department of Hitler studies in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, or by parodying the pettiness of department politics, as in Richard Russo’s Straight Man, in which one English professor’s nose is mangled during a personnel committee meeting, courtesy of a spiral notebook thrown at him by one of his peers. By contrast, The Temptation to Do Good is almost painstakingly earnest in its portrayal of Father Heinz Zimmerman, president of the fictional St. Jerome University.
Like other contemporary academic novels, The Temptation to Do Good depicts the problems of political correctness, the tensions between faculty and administration, and the scandal of inter-office romance. But St. Jerome’s problems are no laughing matter. Lacking the improbable events of other academic novels -- in James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale, the adjunct-protagonist even gains super-human powers -- the plot of The Temptation to Do Good is completely plausible, and the problems above destroy a good man.
St. Jerome’s chemistry department decides not to hire Martin Holloway, a job candidate with a less-than-stellar research record. Feeling sorry for the soon-to-be-unemployed Ph.D., Zimmerman decides to recommend Holloway to the dean of a nearby small college. Zimmerman knows he shouldn’t interfere, but he feels he must do the Christian thing, and so, succumbing to “the temptation to do good,” he makes the call. Meanwhile, Holloway’s angry wife spreads unfounded rumors about a dalliance between the president-priest and his female assistant. The faculty overreact to both events, and although most of them come to regret it, Zimmerman’s presidency is brought down, and he is eased out by the church into a sinecure government position.
Often reading like an intricate case study of one university’s internal politics, The Temptation to Do Good aims to do more than that, too, raising questions about the purpose of higher education institutions writ large. Representing the contemporary university as a large, bureaucratic institution -- much like the companies that Drucker’s theories would shape -- The Temptation to Do Good portrays Zimmerman as a successful executive, one who “converted a cow college in the sticks” into a national university with a reputation unrelated to its religious roots. He even makes the cover of Time magazine for increasing his endowment by a larger percentage than any other university over the past five years.
Although some faculty recognize, as one physics professor admits, that they wouldn’t be able to do their research without the money he has brought in, many of them are also disenchanted with Father Zimmerman, CEO. The chemistry chair chose to come to St. Jerome because he expected it to be “less corrupted by commercialism and less compromised by the embrace of industry” than other institutions, which he realizes isn’t the case.
“We have a right,” says the chair of modern languages, upset over the abolition of the language requirement, “to expect the President of a Catholic university to stand up for a true liberal education.” In both cases, we see the ideals of a Catholic university being linked to the ideals of a liberal arts education, both focused on a pure devotion to the pursuit of knowledge seen as incompatible with Zimmerman’s expanded professional schools and intimate sense of students’ consumer needs. Can St. Jerome be true to both the liberal arts and the practical, professionalized realm at the same time?
This question is never resolved in the novel, but outside of his fiction writing, Drucker was deeply interested in the practicality of the liberal arts. In his autobiography, he discusses his deep appreciation of Bennington College, a school designed to combine progressive methods -- connecting learning to practical experience -- with the ideas of Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president and famed proponent of classical liberal ideals. William Whyte’s sociological classic Organization Man cites Drucker as saying that “the most vocational course a future businessman can take is one in the writing of poetry or short stories.”
Although Drucker was unusual in actually writing novels himself, he was not alone among business thinkers in expressing the values of the liberal arts. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies describes an investment banker who suggests closing business schools and providing students with a “liberal arts literacy,” that includes “a broader vision, a sense of history, perspectives from literature and art.”
More recently, Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat includes a section focusing on the importance of a liberal arts education in the new integrated, global economy. “Encouraging young people early to think horizontally and to connect disparate dots has to be a priority,” writes Friedman, “because this is where and how so much innovation happens. And first you need dots to connect. And to me that means a liberal arts education.”
Books like Rolf Jensen’s The Dream Society: How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination will Transform Your Business, Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore’s The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage, Daniel H. Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, and Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Information Age make these points more specifically, often showing how certain “literary” skills, such as storytelling and empathy, are crucial to success in the current time.
Out of the authors mentioned above, only Lanham is a humanities professor, and in a field (rhetoric) largely out of scholarly vogue today. “Let’s go back to the subject of English a moment. Of all subjects none is potentially more useful,” Whyte writes. “That English is being slighted by business and students alike does not speak well of business. But neither does it speak well for English departments.”
What’s significant about Whyte’s account -- along with that of Drucker, Friedman, and others -- is that none of them claim that colleges and universities should merely churn out students of technical writing or focus on the practicality of the composition course; instead they want students to think about narrative complexity and story-telling through the liberal arts. Whyte himself focuses on the study of Shakespeare and Charles Lamb.
However, instead of embracing these potential real-world allies, liberal arts disciplines have seemed to withdraw, letting others become the experts in -- and proponents of -- the relevance of their subjects. Consider, for example, that in January 2008, one of the most famous English professors in the world proclaimed on his New York Times blog that the study of literature is useless. Asserting that the humanities don’t do anything but give us pleasure, Stanley Fish wrote that, “To the question of ‘what use are the humanities?’ the only honest answer is none whatsoever.” The arts and humanities, Fish contended, won’t get you a job, make you a well-rounded citizen, or ennoble you in any way.
Not surprisingly, readers were appalled. Within the next 48 hours, 484 comments were posted online, most of them critical of Fish. The majority of these comments, from a mix of scientists, humanists, business people, and artists, could be divided into two categories: first, the humanities are useful because they provide critical thinking skills that are useful for doing your job, whether you’re a doctor or CEO; and second, the humanities are useful for more than just your job, whether that means being a more informed citizen or simply a more interesting conversationalist.
However, perhaps the most fascinating comments came from those who recognized Fish’s stance as a professional one: in other words, one that relates to attitudes toward the humanities held by practitioners inside the academy (professors), as distinct from those held by general educated readers outside it (the Times audience). “Let’s not conflate some academics -- those who have professionalized their relationship with the humanities to the point of careerist cynicism -- with those [...] still capable of a genuine relationship to the humanities,” said one reader. Another added that the “humanities have been taken over by careerists, who speak and write only for each other.”
In other words, while readers defend the liberal arts’ relevance, scholars, who are busy writing specialized scholarship for one another, simply aren’t making the case. This was an interesting debate when Fish wrote his column over a year ago; now in 2009, we should consider it an urgent one.
Traditionally, economic downturns are accompanied by declines in the liberal arts, and with today’s unparalleled budget pressures, higher education institutions will need to scrutinize the purpose of everything they do as never before. Drucker’s academic novel provides an illustrative example of the liberal arts at work: as Fish’s readers would point out, literature can raise theoretical questions that help us understand very practical issues.
To be sure, the liberal arts are at least partly valuable because they are removed from practical utility as conceived in business; the return on investment from a novel can’t be directly tied to whether it improves the reader’s bottom line.
But justifiable concerns among scholars that the liberal arts will become only about utility has driven the academy too far in the opposite direction. Within higher education, we acknowledge that the writing skills gained in an English seminar might help alumni craft corporate memos, but it is outside higher education where the liveliest conversations about the liberal arts’ richer benefits -- empathic skills and narrative analysis, for example -- to the practical world seem to occur.
Drucker and his antecedents may be raising the right questions, but these discussions should be equally led by those professionally trained in the disciplines at hand. In today’s economic climate, it may become more important than ever for the liberal arts to mount a strong defense -- let’s not leave it entirely in the hands of others.
Melanie Ho is a higher education consultant in Washington. She has taught literature, writing and leadership development courses at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Why don’t we declare the bachelor’s degree obsolete? No, not education, not colleges and universities, not professors or libraries or students, just the four-year bachelor’s degree. (You might turn on your iPod while you read. You’ll see why.)
Western history traces this four-year package back to the University of Bologna, before Gutenberg, when the pedagogical constraint was the shortage of books. Students had to gather in large rooms while the professor read from one of the scarce books. Only Wikipedia, in my scrounging around, notes that the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco and Al-Azhar University in Egypt preceded Bologna in their founding and in granting multi-year degrees.
Before dismissing any questions, note that this academic year has not been kind to U.S. higher education. Dead canaries litter the coal mines and the executive suites of U.S. colleges and universities as another academic year draws to a close. The capital markets have pulled out of major segments of lending for college loans. Wouldn’t even a Finance 101 student say this exit means the capital markets are challenging the value of a college degree? The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has demanded explanations about outcomes from the wealthiest colleges and universities.
Charles Miller, the Spellings Commission chair, gutted the College Board for poor math after the College Board offered the old chestnut that college is a good investment because graduates will earn $1 million more in their lifetimes. In Massachusetts, legislators, unable to find the public good from the nation’s wealthiest and self-described best colleges and universities, had the temerity to wonder about taxing endowments. A problematic solution (taxing endowments) does not erase a solid question.
The latest trend in higher education is how many students need five and even six years to arrange four years of college. Half the nation’s twenty million college students are in two-year community colleges, with the odds of achieving a four-year degree against them. The price of the degree, what customers pay in tuition, discounted or not, keeps rising. This cripples families in cost and debt and shuts out those whose income prohibit them from even thinking about college. This nation, any nation, needs all the educated citizens we can create. We seem to be failing.
I am the first to agree that students fortunate enough to go to an Ivy League school, Stanford, Duke, Williams, Amherst, Grinnell, or the flagship state universities are part of what any gathering of one or more educational leaders calls “the best higher education system in the world.” I am one of those graduates. What, though, does that greatness do for those the millions shut out or struggling as part-time students? All the undergraduate spots in all those fine institutions amount to a tiny fraction of the 20 million students now in college.
I keep looking for how to describe what’s going on. I keep reading the fine anthologies of war reporting and civil rights reporting from the Library of America. In metaphor, I feel closer to the war correspondents. People are dying in the rest, the “not the best in the world,” segment of U.S. higher education today.
In the civil rights comparison, I keep looking for the James Farmer, the Julian Bond, the Martin Luther King, the Thurgood Marshall to speak out for the students whom we, the people, are failing to educate. I keep looking for the Justice Department officials -- the Nicholas Katzenbach, the John Doar, the Burke Marshall -- or someone who will stand up for equality and against a federal system that allocates tens of thousands of federal dollars in tax benefits and other subsidies to students at Yale and Williams and Harvard while arcane rules and impenetrable paperwork prevent a student working two jobs at a community college from receiving a $4,000 federal Pell Grant. I keep asking in my reporting, “Never mind how Yale and Princeton spend their own money. What about just what the federal government spends on each student who has found his or her way to college? Aren’t the Yale student and the community college student both U.S. citizens?” I know, I know how many people are weary of that question from me.
I’m left to wonder what I’m missing. Perhaps the next unasked question is about this product we call college, the four-year bachelor’s degree. In defending the high cost of education, college and university presidents and business officers have taken everything into account except the fundamental cost of delivery. In MBA speak, the central cost driver of a college education is not health insurance, salaries, rising oil costs, or even costly academic journals. It is the four-year, 36-course structure that determines the cost of a college degree. This model, leading to annual tuitions and fees of $25,000 at public colleges and $50,000 at many private ones, crushes families with $100,000 to $200,000 in cost and debt.
Impossible to imagine the end of the bachelor's degree packaged into four years? Most of us -- households or other enterprises -- from time to time take a look at the fundamentals of our budgets and ask, “Is there another way?” As an example, consider the bloodless iPod and MP3 revolution. What happened? A demographic cohort, people roughly 16 to 25 years old who wanted access to one song at a time in a form that could easily be shared among friends, revolted and created a new market when the music industry refused any modifications or price breaks.
How can I present this outlandish question, and some solutions, with any hope of a hearing? I put my “greatest education in the world” to use and pulled out Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a man with a mind and a pen who did get we, the people, thinking. Using Paine’s structure to think these issues through, I wrote a pamphlet. I asked Frank Kramer, owner of the independent Harvard Bookstore, what a price would be that’s low enough for an impulse purchase but high enough to make the pamphlet worth ringing up if the store keeps all the proceeds. “Three dollars, but you need endorsements,” he said. Columnists cannot be choosy. I accepted damnations, too.
Before cashiering this question about ending the bachelor’s degree, consider a passage from the introduction to patriot Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776.
“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
Wick Sloane, who writes The Devil’s Workshop, won a fellowship to write about community colleges from the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. This column and the attached pamphlet flow from that work.
The continuing saga over the closure of Antioch College (including a plan to revive it) heightened concern that many storied, but financially stressed, liberal arts colleges may be in danger of closing in a time of economic turmoil. Antioch educated prominent Americans like the civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and the Nobel Prize winner Mario R. Capecchi. The threatened demise of any innovative and influential college that has nurtured generations of leaders, scholars, public servants and social critics would be a loss both to higher education and our nation.
But the focus by reporters and educational policy makers on the potential closure of some colleges may mask a more serious threat to liberal arts colleges: a slow abandonment of their traditional mission in favor of a more “professional” orientation.
This longer-term and more significant trend was first highlighted by the economist David Breneman nearly 20 years ago in a 1990 article that asked, “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” At that time he concluded that many one-time liberal arts colleges were not closing, but gradually transforming into “professional colleges” as they added programs in vocational fields such as business, communications and allied health.
Recent research we have conducted using data from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms that the trend Breneman identified has continued. The 212 liberal arts colleges that Breneman identified in 1990 have now decreased to 137. Many former liberal arts colleges are evolving, consciously or unconsciously, into more academically complex institutions offering numerous vocational as well as arts and science majors. In the process, they may have lost the focused mission and carefully integrated academic program that for generations made small liberal arts colleges a model of high quality undergraduate education. Most likely this trend will persist.
In a recent interview, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, predicted that 10 to 15 years from now there will be even fewer institutions that look like traditional residential liberal arts colleges. Little by little, we may be losing an alternative model of undergraduate education that has challenged and inspired many other types of higher education institutions to take risks, experiment, and improve the quality of their educational programs.
The gradual, and almost invisible, transformation of many “liberal arts colleges” to more comprehensive institutions is similar to another gradual trend that has reshaped the composition and the work of the American academic profession. Over the past three decades, colleges and universities have replaced tenure-track faculty positions with part-time and full-time term-contract positions -- a phenomenon Jack Shuster and Martin Finkelstein referred to as the “silent revolution” in their bookThe American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). This piecemeal process at most institutions was not the result of a careful review of academic staffing needs or a systematic effort to improve the quality of instruction and scholarship. Nor was it the outcome of a national debate on the nature of the academic profession in the 21st century.
Instead, as research on contingent faculty documents, most colleges and universities added part-time and term-contract faculty in response to immediate staffing needs or short-term budget constraints. The gradual but profound shift in the focus of many liberal arts colleges appears to follow a similar pragmatic but also very reactive pattern.
Change in higher education is inevitable and highly desirable. It is essential in order to craft a lean, efficient educational system capable of meeting the educational demands of an era defined by demographic diversity, economic uncertainty, rapid technological advances, and a global market place. The evolution we see in liberal arts colleges is symptomatic of a much larger evolutionary process underway throughout higher education. We recognize that liberal arts colleges and all of higher education must adapt to the demands of the times.
Our concern is not with change itself. Our concern is with the way change unfolds in our complex and loosely coordinated higher education system. Should evolution in higher education follow a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” course or should we intervene to preserve and update valued types of educational institutions because of the important roles they play in serving our pluralistic society?
The Value of Liberal Arts Colleges
The current saga of the U.S. auto industry may contain some useful lessons for higher education. Although the final chapter on this story has yet to be written, the news media has chronicled a national dialogue on the fate of the American manufacturing sector. Rather than letting U.S. automobile manufacturers disappear in the midst of a dramatic economic recession, we have decided as a nation to preserve GM and Chrysler but also to require them to retool and streamline their operations. This decision was driven by the belief that losing the backbone of our manufacturing sector would ultimately be harmful to our country.
It may be time for a similar dialogue on the shape of the U.S. higher education system and the place of liberal arts colleges within that system. For generations, small liberal arts colleges have demonstrated their educational value. As Thomas Cech noted in his article “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education,” they produce scientists and scholars at a higher per capita rate than other types of postsecondary institutions. Furthermore, many leaders in business, politics, education, and other fields received their education at liberal arts colleges, as noted in the Annapolis Group’s report, “The Nation’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges.” In addition, liberal arts colleges have served as a valuable “test kitchen” for other more complex but less nimble higher education institutions.
According to the education historian Frederick Rudolph, numerous educational innovations, such as freshman seminars, single-course intensive study terms, honors programs, and senior theses emerged from liberal arts colleges before they spread to other types of colleges and universities. Likewise, many second and third-tier liberal arts colleges have demonstrated a special talent for serving first-generation college students. Essentially, these small colleges with nurturing environments have served as a portal to liberal education for many students whose families have never before participated in higher education.
In a 2005 report on the impact of liberal arts colleges, Ernest Pascarella and his co-authors observe that the liberal arts college is unique in its total dedication to undergraduate education. Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini in their comprehensive study of college outcomes concluded that the liberal arts college in its traditional form provides a supportive psychological environment that promotes institutional impact on students. Pascarella and his 2005 co-authors concluded the attributes that have made the liberal arts college a powerful learning environment include “a strong emphasis on teaching and student development, a common valuing of the life of the mind, small size, a shared intellectual experience, high academic expectations, and frequent interactions inside and outside the classroom between students and faculty.”
Alexander Astin, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles, drawing upon extensive national research on higher education, reported that liberal arts college students expressed higher satisfaction with teaching and general education programs than students from other types of postsecondary institutions. Similarly, Indiana University researchers Shouping Hu and George Kuh found that students in liberal arts colleges, in general, are more engaged in their college experience than their counterparts in research universities and comprehensive colleges.
Many liberal arts colleges today are working to update their academic programs and better connect them with the outside world and career opportunities. Writing in a 2009 Liberal Educationarticle, Richard Freeland notes that these changes are driven by recognition that “a traditional liberal education may not, by itself, be a sufficient preparation for the adult world.” Freeland further reports that colleges such as Bates and Wellesley have established programs to enhance civic engagement and develop skills needed for constructive citizenship.
Many liberal arts colleges are trying to make liberal education more relevant and practical by making internships, study abroad, service learning, and other forms of problem-based and experiential learning opportunities available to their students. The challenge for all liberal arts colleges is to adapt their educational programs in a turbulent environment without losing their educational souls and distinctive identity. Can they preserve their core values and mission that have made them particularly effective educational institutions throughout the history of American higher education while adapting to the challenging demands they confront in the early 21st century?
Given their powerful educational environments and important contributions to society, it would be unfortunate to see liberal arts colleges disappear or become so few in number that they lose their ability to influence and inspire other types of colleges and universities. Yet national data on liberal arts colleges suggest that their numbers are decreasing as many evolve into “professional colleges” or other types of higher education institutions.
Fundamentally, the future of the liberal arts college is uncertain. The traditional residential liberal arts college offering a coherent educational program based firmly in arts and science fields and offering a shared intellectual experience to all of its students may be dying out. Or the liberal arts college may gradually be evolving into a new, more up-to-date form. Are we witnessing a process of extinction of the traditional liberal arts college or a healthy process of adaptation and evolution? Whichever process is underway, it seems to be largely unplanned and incremental rather than strategic.
What to Do?
In a dynamic society, change is inevitable and, in most cases, desirable. However, how change occurs is important as well. Do we let change unfold without direction or do we guide change through a careful process of assessment, dialogue, and strategic initiative?
The American liberal arts college has reached an important crossroad. We believe that assertive and coordinated action is necessary to stem the gradual demise of the liberal arts college sector. For this reason, we urge private philanthropic foundations with a tradition of supporting liberal arts colleges (for example the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Teagle Foundation) to take the lead with two important steps:
1. Convene a series of meetings to discuss the future of the liberal arts college with the goal of recommending specific actions to update and strengthen these institutions. These meetings should include a diverse mix of liberal arts colleges, voluntary college consortia, other major education interest groups, and representatives of the public at large.
2. Establish a competitive funding program encouraging liberal arts colleges to design innovative and entrepreneurial educational programs that preserve the best aspects of the liberal arts college model while adapting the model to the demands of a rapidly changing world. This initiative should encourage creative proposals within the liberal arts college framework rather than the addition of new programs on the margins that dilute the mission and intellectual coherence of these colleges.
The future of a core component of the U.S. higher education system is at stake. It is time for bold action before the liberal arts college sector becomes too small to be relevant and influential. It would be shameful if we allow the liberal arts college model to dwindle to the scale of an educational boutique accessible only to the academic and socioeconomic elite. We do not advocate a GM-style bailout for liberal arts colleges. However, we hope that one or more private foundations that recognize the important contributions of liberal arts colleges will step up to the plate and assume the vital leadership role that is needed before many more of these esteemed colleges disappears.
Roger G. Baldwin and Vicki L. Baker
Roger G. Baldwin is professor of educational administration and coordinator of the graduate program in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University's College of Education. Vicki L. Baker is an assistant professor of economics and management at Albion College.
There has been much discussion recently over the plight of liberal arts colleges in the new global century. The closure of some institutions, the deep financial challenges faced by others that are tuition-driven, and the fiscal constraints at liberal arts colleges with traditionally large but now battered endowments, all raise questions regarding the future of this sector of higher education. Perhaps more controversially, some observers have identified the addition of professional and vocational programs to the curriculum at liberal arts colleges as a long-term threat to the focused mission and intellectual well-being of these institutions.
But while economic challenges may pose a threat to the viability of some small to medium-sized liberal arts colleges, there is really nothing new about this phenomenon. As historians of higher education have pointed out, the mortality rate for small baccalaureate colleges has been high throughout the nation’s history. From tiny sectarian colleges on the frontier, to campuses where the curriculum was too small, to underfunded institutions that perished with their founders, the story is as varied as it is persistent.
The more troubling claim about the fate of liberal arts colleges, it seems to me, involves the argument that the addition of professional and applied fields including business, engineering, communications, or health and wellness, somehow dilutes the core values of a liberal arts education. This argument appears to center on the notion that the liberal arts experience is largely defined by academic majors, and that only by remaining pure to an arbitrary constellation of allied fields can the uniqueness of the liberal arts college experience be preserved.
I would like to suggest that a different paradigm may be in order, one that acknowledges the simple fact that residential liberal arts colleges have always been attuned to the imperatives of professional and vocational life. Europe’s earliest medieval universities were all about the practical, dare we say “vocational” needs of the universal Roman Catholic Church. When students at Bologna began the study of law in the late 12th century, one suspects they had a modicum of interest in getting on with their careers.
The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke graduated Christ Church College, Oxford in 1656. But he also took a medical degree and employed his training to save the life of his future patron, the political operative Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury. And it was under the employ of Shaftesbury that Locke wrote what would later be published as Two Treatises of Government, a text that proved to be of some value to leaders of the American Revolution like Thomas Jefferson. Locke found no incongruity between his liberal education and his more practical studies. Why do we?
The future of the liberal arts college, in my view, is secure so long as administrators, faculty leaders, and innovative boards continue to reject the antithesis between liberal arts and professional studies. One emerging sector in higher education is doing just that. The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) is a consortium of 26 state-supported institutions committed to a high quality, largely residential liberal arts education. One way these colleges are different from some more traditional private liberal arts colleges is that the publics, without reservation, offer majors in business and communications and other fields, while also taking pride in their majors in biology and classics and English.
Admittedly, most of us do not associate liberal arts education with public universities. Much more familiar is the former state teachers’ college, the large land-grants, the comprehensives, and the sprawling Research I campuses. COPLAC colleges and universities have chosen another path. For COPLAC, a quality liberal arts education is about small class size, close faculty-student interaction, an innovative and interdisciplinary common core in the arts and sciences, undergraduate research experiences, senior capstone projects, service learning and community engagement, and a rich and diverse co-curricular life. Moreover, faculty members from professional programs at COPLAC institutions fully support and engage in this unified experience.
Some years ago, I was teaching in an interdisciplinary core humanities program at a COPLAC member institution. At their weekly meeting, the 12-person faculty team was discussing the upcoming common reading. The topic was the Industrial Revolution and the common reading was Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
As a historian, I went into the session thinking that I should lead the discussion. But as things turned out, the most perceptive insights into the text, and how to teach the text, came from a wonderful colleague in management and accountancy. In describing the shock horror that thinkers like Marx must have represented to the self-confident industrialist of the mid-19th century, it was a professor of management who brought the liberal arts experience into sharper focus, both for his colleagues and, more importantly, for his students.
The resiliency of the liberal arts college has been demonstrated across many generations, and with the addition of a growing public liberal arts sector to reaffirm the value of broad-based learning in a small campus setting, the future offers great promise. We should applaud, not criticize, liberal arts colleges that respond to the growing demand for skilled professionals in a variety of applied fields. These graduates will bring to their work the habits of critical inquiry and the integration of knowledge -- both liberal arts outcomes -- that serve to temper the narrow instrumentalism often found at the center of our professional lives.
Bill Spellman is director of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.
The liberal arts are higher education’s answer to Broadway, that "fabulous invalid" whose demise is predicted with both certainty and regularity. Claims that the liberal arts are in jeopardy have taken on increased urgency in the current economic climate. As students swell the ranks of community colleges, the presumption is that readily identifiable and employable skills rather than broad and deep learning are the primary focus of their educational ambitions.
But in the case of the liberal arts, conventional wisdom is at odds with what experience and current data suggest. For example, the benchmark freshmen surveys conducted each year by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute show an increasing appetite for the kind of educational experience typically associated with the liberal arts. In 2008, for the first time since 1982, more than 50 percent of first year students identified “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as an important or very important goal of their college experience.
Similarly, the venerable pollster John Zogby has found that a growing segment -- including but not limited to the traditional college age population -- of United States citizens believes living a "meaningful life" is central to the realization of the American dream. And despite dire predictions, enrollment at most liberal arts colleges, including my own, has risen during this difficult economic year.
There are likely two reasons for this gap between conventional wisdom and student decision making. The first is that the separation of liberal arts education from employment is simply unfounded. Employers consistently say that they want to hire graduates who can write and speak clearly, who are innovative and critical thinkers, and who are sophisticated and comfortable with diversity. While not exclusively the domain of liberal education, these traits are certainly cultivated in a liberal arts environment.
The second probable reason for the persistence of the liberal arts is the focus of students themselves. Today’s traditional college age population is more globally-minded, less interested in work as a means only to material success, more willing to find middle ground on issues that typically lead to bi-modal responses (such as abortion), and entirely comfortable with differences in race, gender, and sexual orientation.
In short, today’s young people are balm to the liberal educator’s soul. Ideally, liberal education should literally do just that – it should be education that liberates, that frees the mind from the vagaries and prejudices of received opinion and limited life experiences.
Of course, a reinvigorated focus on liberal education in this light suggests that some of the country club amenities of recent college life may not be particularly essential. Yet material gain is not eschewed in recent findings; it is simply not sufficient. Student expectations for material comfort and the search for meaning are not incompatible, but they may not be attainable in institutions whose resources are strained.
When in doubt, we should follow the example of Bobby Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis: ignore unreasonable demands and respond to the best of their aspirations. In this case, the liberal arts should provide a model of education that offers both a path to employment and faith in learning for its own sake; a set of useful skills along with the ability to reflect and find value in something beyond oneself. And a campus with older residence halls housing two and three students to a room is not only defensible, it is quite probably a sign of an institution focused on -- well, on education.
To add to the economic anxiety, there is also frequent hand wringing over the fate of the liberal arts due to the growth and proliferation of technology. It was not so long ago that technology was seen as a threat to educational engagement, whether it was through online learning or in society at large as we all “bowled alone.” Yet much of this anxiety evolved from a false dichotomy -- the notion that high tech and high touch are incompatible.
Students see no contradiction between technological sophistication and a personally connected learning community, and they expect both to be a part of their education. The reflection and personal engagement implied by the search for a meaningful life is fully compatible with the Internet age. Students are increasingly sophisticated in online work, while simultaneously they thrive, as much as ever, from strong relationships with faculty. Students expect fully contemporary technological resources, even as they seek the depth and meaning promised by a liberal arts education. The practical and financial challenge is to secure the necessary technological resources and fully integrate them into a sophisticated liberal arts education.
The threat to the liberal arts, if there is one, is not from the recession -- although our resources in higher education are limited. And it is not from a failure to offer marketable skills, for liberal education prepares students for both life and employment. The threat is the enduring challenge of education: to engage eternal truths even as we respond to contemporary issues. It is to ensure that liberal education evolves, that meaningful reflection can employ contemporary technological tools, that cultural exchange should extend beyond the boundaries of western democracies, that understanding identity does not inevitably lead to a chasm of difference. It is to create a liberal education that is both contemporary and enduring, evolving and profound. This is, simply and as always, the promise and the challenge of liberal education.
Mary B. Marcy
Mary B. Marcy is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.