Sometimes we forget to appreciate what is most valuable to us until we are on the verge of losing it. I fear this is the situation we are in with American higher education – a system most believe has been the best in the world. At times awareness of what matters most is restored by the comments or behavior of outside people who value and appreciate what we may have taken for granted. I was obliged to think about what matters most in American style, liberal arts, education when I attended a meeting in the Middle East. This experience made me believe that, if we are not careful, we could very well destroy what is greatest about our system of higher education.
In this era when anti-American sentiment is high in so many countries I was delighted to be invited to attend a meeting with educators from Muslim nations. This gathering, organized on behalf of the Hollings Center, was organized by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers. It was designed to bring 15 educators from Muslim majority countries together with five counterparts from the United States. Meeting in Istanbul, participants explored the reasons for the growing number of locally originated, American-style, liberal arts-oriented, independent undergraduate colleges and universities in these Muslim states.
Why would these types of institutions be developing at this time in history when relations between the U.S. and Muslim countries are at a particularly low point? The reason, as one participant said, is that “people from our countries who went away to college in the U.S. came back different, and changed in ways we value and which our societies need.” The basic question of the meeting was whether there is potential for the development of productive relationships between these independent universities in Muslim countries and institutions in the United States.
There was rich discussion along many dimensions, but the focus of my attention -- which I pursued in conversation during breaks and meal times -- was what makes “American-style” education different in the minds of these educators. While education in the tradition of the liberal arts can be accurately described as “distinctly American,” we Americans are notoriously inept in describing the essential characteristics of our educational approach.
It is not that we don’t try, but the hundreds of books and many thousands of articles and speeches on the topic -- often filled with educationese of little meaning to others -- vary widely in their accounts and terminology. I wondered whether these educators from places with very different educational traditions could be more profound in understanding and describing “American” higher education than their counterparts in the United States. Could their fresh views from the outside make them today’s educational de Tocquevilles -- as insightful about American-style higher education as was Alexis de Tocqueville in his writings about the development of American democracy based on his 1830s visit from his native France?
What became clear very quickly is that higher education in these countries is most often based on the content-expert model: the professor delivers knowledge in a disciplinary area and it is the student’s responsibility to memorize that information and report it back on some type of test. To be educated is to be a content specialist – a view also typical in traditional European approaches to higher education and which underlies most US government accountability measures. Yet they see this form of education as less valuable and useful than “American style” education.
What differentiates “American style higher education” from the modes more typically seen in their own nations? What are the most fundamental attributes of this preferred approach to learning? As I understood them, these de Tocquevilles from Muslim majority countries identified three essential and interrelated attributes of an American-style higher education – attributes that, though undoubtedly idealized, they believe create a better approach to college education. These attributes are, in fact, very obvious ones once stated; yet they are, like the air we breathe on a clear day, so obvious we often forget to pay attention to them:
Our Purpose. Higher education’s purpose is to accomplish the long term goal of preparing a person to contribute and be successful over a lifetime, not just preparation for a job after college. This purpose has societal value, for it creates societally leading intellects who question the assumptions of society and lead their societies forward; it has intellectual value, as it creates people who know how to formulate questions and think about the implications of knowledge and who are open to new ways of thinking; and it has individual value, as it develops the whole person, socially, personally and maturationally.
Centrality of Students. Students are the first priority; they are partners in the educational experience. Decisions about educational practices and priorities are based on what best serves the education of the students, not on the self-serving concerns or priorities of faculty, disciplines or professions. Further, respect for the student is role-modeled in every context; student thinking is valued even when it is flawed, with their errors used as opportunities for educational growth.
Role of Faculty. Faculty, while respected, are not viewed as fully informed experts who transmit their knowledge, but as professionals who must themselves be constant learners. Their capabilities and effectiveness, whether in their disciplinary expertise or their pedagogical effectiveness, must be grown and developed through institution-supported programs, workshops and policies.
These “obvious” characteristics of American-style higher education are troubling because of where I see us heading right now. They are contrary to the current regulatory emphasis on bringing K-12-style, fact-oriented outcomes assessment to higher education; they are unrelated to the U.S. News-type assumptions underlying the prestige-based competition among institutions that consumes ever-greater amounts of their attention and resources; and they run counter to the growing emphasis on technical and professional education that seems to be consuming every undergraduate institution – including many liberal arts colleges.
Most fundamentally, these insights from Muslim educators don’t support several trends that are currently most fashionable in higher education in the United States, including the idea that a good higher education is one that results in a job; the arms race-like rivalries that require that each institution to spend more resources every year to build prettier or larger athletic and other facilities; the emphasis, even at teaching institutions, of having faculty measured according to research productivity, even though that attribute seems more related to institutional prestige than student learning; and the priority so many parents (and their children) place on attending the best-ranked school rather than the one that seems best suited for an individual student’s learning.
Are these educators from Muslim countries merely describing American higher education as it was rather than as it should appropriately be for today’s world? Their answer, I believe, would be “no” – what has made American-style education the best in the world is not the pursuit of prestige, the delivery of job-ready graduates, nor the provision of unrivaled facilities. It is a context for learning that is without parallel in most other nations’ higher education traditions, and involves long term good for humanity and for a nation, a respectful focus on the development of the student, and an honest view of the role and needs of the faculty.
This “American style” approach is in contrast to the educational traditions in many other countries that have involved the provision of a few institutions of prestige where only the “best” are allowed to enroll, and where graduation is intended to certify a level of knowledge about a topic that makes graduates immediately employable in a particular profession. To paraphrase what a business executive in one of these Muslim nations once said to me: “Give me a graduate of an American-style university who knows how to think and learn and make decisions, for those are the competencies necessary for long-term success; within a few months I can teach them the specific knowledge they need to start their job, though with the reality of constant change people will need to continue to learn throughout their career.”
There is a certain irony in all of this: At the same time that people in other nations are founding American-style liberal arts-based colleges, or are working to transform their own institutions in ways that make them more consistent with the key attributes of traditional American higher education, colleges and universities in the U.S. are changing in ways that take them ever-farther from our historic educational ideals. We are losing what they are gaining: educated people who are “changed in ways we value and which our societies need.”
Perhaps these higher education de Tocquevilles are telling us that it is time for a back-to-basics movement in American higher education – one fundamentally different from that which we have seen in K-12 education. For higher education to realize its distinctively American purpose -- to retain its renown -- it must not aspire to teach the 3 R’s, to be the best system for filling brains with facts, nor to have the highest rankings status. Instead, American higher education must seek in all ways to transform individuals into more fully developed, thinking, and engaged citizens.
This outcome results, not from the prestige ascribed to an institution nor from the luxuriousness of the campus, but from an educational context which develops people in essential ways. As Jefferson knew in crafting his approach to education in his newly founded nation, our society will advance only to the degree that there are educated, thinking, always developing and inquiring, engaged citizens to inform and shape developments.
Last year -- my first as the president of a liberal arts college -- I attended a gathering of about 40 college and university presidents along with various experts on higher education where the challenges of higher education were being discussed. At one point during the meeting, all other attendees were asked to exit the room, leaving just the college leaders. The idea was to give us the opportunity to have an honest and forthright discussion, to offer questions and answers about issues such as increasing diversity and improving accessibility that we had all agreed were crucial.
I asked: since we effectively had the power in that room to transform the world of higher education, why weren’t we doing it? Much to my consternation, one of my peers responded that we are “lacking in both the individual and collective courage to do so.” This is indeed troubling.
I’ve been struck by the challenges facing higher education today. And, as someone who has spent his career in higher education, first as an academic and then as an administrator, I believe the issues facing higher ed leaders now are more profound than at any other time in the last several decades -- and are perhaps even unprecedented.
We face mounting pressure from all sides to do well in the rankings and increase revenue; but, as our institutions become significantly more market driven, we’re in grave danger of losing touch with our core academic missions. Reports like the one issued by the Spellings Commission are escalating the demands on leaders for new approaches to the pressing issues facing higher education including affordability, access, and outcomes assessment. There are also genuine real-world problems -- challenges that impinge directly on our institutions and missions -- from trying to keep pace with the breathtakingly rapid changes in technology to facing a global environment rife with injustice, violence, and a deepening divide between world cultures and religions.
And what do people hear about us, the leaders of these institutions? Often, media coverage characterizes college and university presidents as highly compensated career opportunists more concerned with our generous perks and benefits than in tackling the tough issues facing our institutions today.
It is therefore disconcerting to me that the traditional model of college leadership does not appear to be up to the challenge. The new and evolving demands being placed on our leadership need new and creative strategies. And we educational leaders must look to each other for examples of successful experimentation and innovation as well as for counsel and criticism.
There is cause for optimism. If we look beyond the overheated rhetoric, we see individual examples of educational leaders rising to meet these challenges. Deborah Bial, founder of the Posse Foundation, for example, is helping bring about greater social and intellectual pluralism on American campuses. Lloyd Thacker is working to restore reason and educational values to calm the admissions frenzy through the Education Conservancy. And with his colleagues, William Bowen has done groundbreaking work in setting a national agenda for substantive assessment and reform in the areas of race sensitive admissions, college athletics, and most recently, socioeconomic status and educational attainment.
At Lafayette College, we are in the throes of developing a strategic plan and using a very inclusive, time-consuming, and at times down-right frustrating process. The challenge has been to make this process open and interactive enough to gain the benefit of valuable individual contributions while creating a vision that is widely embraced and actively supported.
As we move forward, it seems increasingly clear to me that presidential leadership must acknowledge that fundamental tensions exist between what we feel pressured to do to be successful leaders today (such as raising funds and worrying about rankings) and what, ethically, we need to do (improving the quality of the academic core of the institution, increasing diversity and accessibility, and producing an engaged and enlightened citizenry.) As educational leaders, the most important challenge facing us today is balancing these fundamental tensions.
As we continue the work on our strategic plan here at Lafayette, we have been thinking about how to balance some of these conflicting pressures:
1) The commitment to educational excellence with the prudent management of costs. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To reach this seemingly straightforward objective, two fundamental facts have to be addressed.
First, especially at liberal arts colleges, our model of education -- that of faculty working closely with individual students -- is inherently inefficient and always will be. There is no substitute for individual mentoring, teaching in small classes, or interaction between students and faculty outside of the classroom. But there are opportunities to do this work more effectively, beginning with more efficient use of technology and better use of faculty time. (As a start, we might reduce by half the number of committees on which our faculty members are required to serve which would free up several additional hours per month for each of our professors to work with students).
Second, it requires college leadership to understand that a hand-tooled education is, above all else, what makes a student’s college experience distinctive -- and it is worth the cost. If we acknowledge these factors, we set priorities more clearly and manage more effectively.
2) The enduring values of a liberal education with support for the skills needed in an increasingly professional marketplace. Students and their families have begun to question the utility of a broad, values-based curriculum in this fast-paced, skills-driven economy. They are concerned, and justifiably so, about outcomes and their prospects for gainful employment. However, we need to make clear that, for most of our students, the real value of time at college is to obtain a liberal education: to encourage individual growth, the cultivation of ethics, new capacities for expression, and most important, the skills and desire to continue learning.
3) Preparing students to function in a global environment, regardless of where they are located or the limitations of resources. By providing them with an educational experience that is international in reach and presence, they will have a basis for understanding what it really means to be global citizens. I see this not so much as a technological or logistical challenge as a creative one requiring new thinking about curriculum, allocation of faculty resources, and campus climate. For example, at no additional cost, a small number of existing faculty positions might be redeployed to support a program for visiting international faculty in various content areas.
4) Strengthening our core programs by reaffirming our commitment to community and civic engagement. Our institutions need to show by example the type of community partners we can and should be. At Lafayette, service learning has been used to great educational and community benefit in many of our departments, including civil engineering, English, economics, sociology and mathematics. By modeling values and principles we espouse and encouraging students to join us in this work, we can help instill greater recognition of the importance of civic engagement and an educated citizenry. We serve our educational mission best when we foster our role as vital and engaged citizens, connected in myriad ways to our communities and to the world.
5) Embracing technology as a fundamental component of the educational process not merely its infrastructure. This too, at bottom, is not a resource problem -- it’s a question of vision. We must understand that technology is no longer a productivity enhancer nor a marginal benefit. Rather it is a core element of our educational system just as it is for our society. It’s difficult to be a technological leader if we can’t keep pace with the technological sophistication of our own students. This was brought home to me recently when a student complained about a faculty member who was still using old-fashioned e-mail rather than a hand-held PDA. Academic and facilities planning must include various perspectives on how technology contributes to learning across the disciplines and the campus.
6) Pursuing excellence and an agenda of pluralism. True diversity -- social and intellectual pluralism -- enriches the educational possibilities by a measure greater than any other means. Diversity in its broadest sense must be a core value of higher ed institutions because it provides us with the optimal access to talent, quality of learning environment, and service to our social mission. To achieve this, however, it requires rethinking the admission and financial aid paradigm, the structure of the curriculum, and the very nature of the communities we create. Difficult though it is, initial success in student recruitment is far easier than the ongoing challenge of maintaining a vibrant community that is fundamentally diverse.
The challenges are great but the opportunities to do the right things on the right issues are greater. If we wish to succeed in the new century -- if we wish to have a transformative impact on higher education in America and throughout the world -- we must accept the challenge that we can do more for our students and the broader communities that we serve. The work ahead will require both individual and collective courage.
Daniel H. Weiss
Daniel H. Weiss is president of Lafayette College. He was formerly the James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. An authority on the art of medieval Europe in the age of the Crusades, Weiss also was a professor of art history at Johns Hopkins.
Antioch is not just about Antioch. It is about the future of small liberal arts colleges. It is about the future of higher education. And it is finally about the kind of country we are and what role higher education has in preparing citizens for participation in public life.
As one small university undergoes a severe -- and quite possibly fatal -- crisis of both finances and shared governance, deciding to shut down for now the undergraduate college that defined the institution, it is worth differentiating between its unique and its representative contributions to the nation it has served. Both structurally and culturally, Antioch was and is distinctive. Its multigenerational "experiment," never fully adopted by other colleges, was nonetheless successful for many decades. By keeping its traditions alive, it offered them as imaginative possibilities for others to consider and modify. The loss of its controversial inspiration is fundamentally incalculable.
Taken together, the campus and the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, share a combined commitment to social justice that achieved a remarkable level of community consensus. Antioch’s history with Yellow Springs is far from conflict free, but it has left an impressive legacy nonetheless. While there are other roughly comparable small college towns, I know none other quite like this one.
Yet in other respects, Antioch is simply a member of its class. The faculty at many small liberal arts colleges regularly gather to debate the mission and the aims of undergraduate education. At our large multi-versity campuses, such conversations among English professors and engineers are not only impossible; they are unthinkable. On many campuses there is no real agreement about the purpose of undergraduate education and thus little possibility that such institutions can have any coherent impact on public life.
In an increasingly corporatized climate, higher education amounts to advanced job training. It does well at producing compliant employees, but it cannot be counted on to produce citizens capable of evaluating public policy or political debates, let alone taking an active role in them. As the multi-versity worldwide moves to defund humanities and interpretive social science education, higher education's role in producing informed citizens fades into the background. Although some academic disciplines in large institutions fulfill this role, the small liberal arts college remains its last comprehensive institutional base. The contribution the liberal arts college can make to the nation's political and cultural health is irreplaceable. Antioch has been a stalwart member of that tradition, producing generation after generation of socially and politically engaged graduates.
In one surprising way, however, Antioch has historically been on the opposite side of the cultural divide between general education and employment preparation. No other college in the country -- or so it seems on the surface -- was so intricately structured to combine a liberal arts education with job training. In its heyday, Antioch maintained an elaborate nationwide employment system for its students. It ran two simultaneous "divisions," each of about 750 students. Half of them were at work at jobs around the country, while the other half studied on campus. Every three or six months, the two divisions switched roles, with one group of 750 students returning to campus, while the other half went out to take up the jobs their counterparts just left. Students chose their jobs from among hundreds of options by reading through files of reports supplied by their predecessors. A group of college faculty members were tasked with visiting employers and seeking new job opportunities. Oddly enough, you could go through your entire undergraduate career without meeting your shadow classmates in the opposite division.
Certainly some students could sample jobs in exactly the careers they hoped to pursue. There were many jobs in science labs, some conventional, others exotic. I would count three months on an ocean going research vessel and six months in an Antarctic research station in the latter category. You could also try a job to see whether it was really for you -- in a factory, on a farm, in an ad agency, with a publisher, with an accounting firm, in a theater, with a radio station, in a department store. But there was in addition a more metaphysical dimension to these job experiments. Many jobs were fundamentally opportunities to enter into and experience a different world without making any sort of long-term, let alone lifelong commitment, to it. You could work on a small town newspaper for six months. You could work in a mental institution for a quarter. You could succeed or fail at any of these jobs without suffering major career consequences. And you didn't have to train for them for years before experiencing what they were like.
The result was thus not job training in the manner of technical schools, but rather a hands-on education in the nature of work. It did not produce compliant employees but rather employees with a distinctive comparative experience of the contemporary workplace. Antioch students came to know employment in depth, and they graduated ready to evaluate and, when appropriate, improve the work places they eventually joined long term.
The whole system was astonishingly efficient -- with one faculty and one physical plant, yet two entire student bodies. Most students took five, rather than four, years to complete an undergraduate degree, but the overall annual production of graduates was still impressive. Oddly enough, the Antioch model seems even more relevant today than it did two generations ago. It answers to the corporate pressure for job training, while adding a powerful and transformative philosophical dimension to what otherwise seems crass and instrumental. For work at Antioch was always "a meaningful learning experience."
Some of the job experiences, to be sure, were absolutely dreadful, for some exploitive employers took advantage of these youngsters to extract very long hours indeed. Yet there was always the escape hatch in sight. The job had a definite end. The Antioch campus could also be maddening. Student government had far more power than on most campuses, and the results were not always either fair or rational. Students were thus empowered not only to succeed but also to fail at running a community. Again, they learned.
In the 1970s a visionary but thoroughly impractical college president opened a great number of satellite campuses across the country. Seriously underfunded, they failed in large numbers and depleted the college's endowment. A few have survived and prospered, but the renamed Antioch University has struggled financially ever since. The economic effects of a long 1973 strike were also substantial. Had the endowment survived intact, its income could have sustained the physical plant and vastly facilitated student recruitment. Perhaps loyal alumni can still save the Yellow Springs campus.
The Antioch experiment aimed to produce informed and critical citizens who were ready to take up the struggle to make a better world, both locally and nationally, in their work places and in their country. Corporations interested in obtaining inventive, thinking employees could do worse than to invest in this model and bring it back to life.
Cary Nelson is the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He graduated from Antioch College in 1967.
Over the years, Antioch College birthed a number of campuses to constitute a university now composed of the college and five other campuses -- New England, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Seattle and McGregor. The five non-residential campuses comprise over 5,000 students, 400 faculty and staff members, and 18,000 alumni and constitute 92 percent of the total enrollments of Antioch University. Some 85 percent of the students in the non-residential colleges are enrolled in graduate programs -- master’s and doctorates -- in the professional fields of psychology, education, management, communication, leadership, creative writing, and environmental science.
The campuses are non-residential but not “virtual.” Students take classes in actual buildings on campus; instruction is delivered in a variety of formats (including some online components), but the substantive focus of all instruction is on reflective practice. Antioch University students aim to bring the ways of knowledge and expertise to bear on the needs and changing realities of the community and larger society. On multiple campuses but with one overarching purpose, Antioch University embodies values that are the core components of effective leadership, education, and social activism -- values which have been embedded in them by their mother campus, the college.
Indeed, the university mission statement reads “Antioch University is founded on principles of rigorous liberal arts education, innovative experiential learning and socially engaged citizenship. The multiple campuses of the university nurture in their students the knowledge, skills and habits of reflection to excel as lifelong learners, democratic leaders and global citizens who live lives of meaning and purpose.”
As is the case at some other progressive institutions, including Hampshire, Goddard, and Evergreen State ( Editors' note: Hampshire and Evergreen State have systems of long-term faculty employment that are in some ways equivalent to tenure.) Antioch chose not to establish tenure at these non-residential campuses. The campuses were intended to address a group of students whose needs would be ever changing -- adult students, many of them in professions and with families, returning to higher education to get the knowledge and qualifications they need to be effective in their careers and their communities. And to meet those students’ needs, the campuses realized their own need for flexibility in curricular offerings, the ability to anticipate program requirements and to fulfill them in creative and adaptive ways, engaging a diverse and at times non-traditional faculty.
Over some 30 years, the "adult campuses" grew and thrived by addressing the demand for graduate professional programs that are innovative and ensure quality while adapting to the working adult's schedule. To offer such programs took a group of faculty who are confident in the quality of their academic credentials and teaching ability in ways that enable them to be creative and flexible as they design programming and curriculum to stay current. It takes an amazing group of talented core faculty who spend hours on campus serving as instructors, faculty advisers, supervisors, and mentors while encouraging critical inquiry and challenging students to think in new and different ways. These core faculty hold doctorates and most are practitioners, researchers, and scholars.
Students at the Antioch University campuses do not receive a large portion of their education in courses taught by teaching assistants, as is often the case at many institutions. Rather, they are taught by these core faculty members, a significant number of whom have been with their campuses for over 20 years. In a practice that enhances the breadth and depth of their curricula, programs offered at the campuses often employ part-time faculty members who otherwise work as professional practitioners in their respective fields. These individuals, almost all of whom hold graduate degrees, many of them doctorates, commit to teaching at an Antioch campus over a period of time, providing students the opportunity to work with successful, often prominent figures in their fields of study and their professions.
The result of all of this is a faculty that brings multiple kinds of experience, expertise, and both theoretical and practical engagement with the knowledge, beliefs, and actions that are the hallmark of Antioch’s innovative and progressive education for change.
Across the years, students have responded enthusiastically -- in word and in action -- to this kind of educational process. "Antioch offers an opportunity to give yourself permission to think deeply about why you’re doing what you’re doing, then put it into practice,” wrote one. Another said, “Just a few years ago, if you talked about environmental or holistic sustainability, you were out on the edge or over the edge. Antioch has one foot in the mainstream and one foot not so.” And another: “Antioch is a school that did not seek to shape my voice, but rather helped me find and strengthen my own voice. My professors cared about how I thought; because that is the tool they taught me to sharpen.”
A few snapshots of programs and accomplishments will suggest something of the innovation, excellence, diversity, and commitment to the greater good that characterize Antioch University across its campuses:
Antioch University Seattle is the leading institution in the nation in reforming the delivery of education to Native American youth. Its innovative program, supported by multimillion-dollar grants from the Gates, Lumina and Kellogg Foundations, has established over 10 Early College models in three states that have witnessed amazing results in increasing the Native American high school retention, graduation, and successful passing of state required testing, in some cases far above the rates of middle- and upper-class students. Antioch Seattle has just named as its new president Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet, who is believed to be the first Native American woman to hold the presidency of an accredited university outside the tribal college system.
Antioch University New England’s doctoral program in psychology is noted for its quality by receiving a 10-year accreditation from the American Psychological Association. The majority of the psychology master's programs in Seattle and New England are accredited by their professional accrediting agencies.
Antioch University Los Angeles's Creative Writing program will be named in the forthcoming summer fiction issue of the Atlantic magazine as one of the top five low-residency MFA programs in the United States, in the company of the Bennington and Vermont College programs. The Los Angeles MFA has distinguished itself through the use of award-winning faculty in fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction, and through innovative features such as field study, the translation seminar, the alumni weekend residency, and a student-edited online literary journal.
Antioch University McGregor recently received accreditation from the National Council on Accreditation for Teacher Education (NCATE), which attests to its excellence, for its master's in education program while many other large public institutions have lost their accreditation.
The Antioch University Ph.D. in Leadership and Change has been recognized by the Ohio Board of Regents for its quality and innovation. In “Shift Happens" (published in the July/August issue of Educause), Bill Graves cites Antioch's Ph.D. program as "a paradigm-shifting innovation in doctoral education" with positive implications for both graduate-level curriculum and delivery design and undergraduate applications.
These few glimpses of the campuses should confirm that Antioch University is a community of educators and learners – advocates, activists, risk-takers, mavericks, entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, and problem solvers. Those who teach and study at the non-residential campuses fully believe in and work to extend the values upon which Antioch College was founded and for which it has stood across the decades. Indeed, as one current student in the Ph.D. in Leadership and Change program wrote recently in a letter to TheChronicle of Higher Education, “Many of us in the doctoral program profoundly value our program’s connection with the undergraduate, historically significant, values-driven college. We signed on to study at Antioch, among other reasons, because we wanted a program connected with a deep history and values, a program with deep roots. We chose Antioch.”
The Board of Trustees of Antioch University is committed to ensuring the future of Antioch -- across all its campuses and in a manner consonant with its proud history and accomplishments. The temporary suspension of operations at Antioch College was taken as a protective move to enable a time in which to regroup and revitalize the College. Its reopening is strongly advocated and anticipated. As that process moves forward, the five non-residential campuses of Antioch University continue to embody the Antioch vision of higher education, with its dedication to innovation and excellence.
All too often, especially in lean economic times, students and families disregard private institutions out of hand because of the perceived cost. But in the battle for talented students, private liberal arts colleges will win the day by showing students and families considering higher education that “private” doesn’t mean “expensive.”
A few weeks ago, my institution, Juniata College, released a new policy, guaranteeing our students the ability to graduate in four years, or the fifth year is on us.
Well, from the reactions of some of the public universities in Pennsylvania, you might have thought I had suggested eliminating college sports. The fact is, private liberal arts colleges excel at giving students the tools to maintain momentum toward graduation within four years.
National statistics bear this out. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities says nearly 80 percent of students at private colleges who finish graduate in four years, compared to about 50 percent at public institutions.
Juniata did not decide to guarantee that almost all our students will graduate in four years as a cheap marketing ploy designed to take shots at state universities. Rather, it’s a call to arms for all colleges and universities to start their own affordability comparisons.
Our numbers have been splashed across newspapers and read over the airwaves. You can Google them at will. They are: Juniata’s tuition of $28,920 per year goes down to $13,786 per year once our financial aid package kicks in. That makes the four-year bill, after we add in yearly education-related fees, $60,536.
Compare that with what U.S. News & World Report noted in the November 5 issue: “Since it is now taking the average public university student more than six years to graduate, the cost of a public college degree is now more than $90,000, about 25 percent more than it was for the freshmen of five years ago.”
When we compared our figures to the publics, we also added a cost not many people talk about: the earnings a person would have made if he or she had graduated on time. Based on a very conservative annual earnings estimate of $21,000, two extra years in school will “cost” an extra $42,000 above tuition.
So, if you consider lost earnings, that “state school” education isn’t looking so affordable, is it?
Instead of traditional majors, we use programs of emphasis, in which students can design their own educational plan. If they change their minds about a career path once (or even twice), they won’t lose momentum by taking new prerequisites. Our study abroad programs -- 40 percent of our students study abroad -- focus on programs that offer courses and credit applicable to our students’ programs. Finally, we use internships within our curriculum to offer students academic credit and experiential learning without sacrificing extracurricular time or activities -- 85 percent of our students have at least one real-world internship.
And before anyone sniffs at our flexibility as somehow a lack of “standards,” that favored panacea of bureaucrats everywhere, our results speak for themselves: 96 percent of graduates over the last five years either secured employment or went to graduate school within six months of graduation.
In 2006, 96 percent of those Juniatians who graduated, did so in four years or less. Over the past few years, 92 percent of our graduating students have done so in four years or less. In our system, in which two faculty members advise students throughout their college career, there is very little retracing of steps and no wrong turns -- mainly because our curriculum is highly adaptable. In reality, our guarantee isn’t much of a gamble because we are already succeeding beyond many of our private college peers and well beyond the state universities. Instead, it makes policy the good work that has long been practice at Juniata.
To those forward-looking institutions willing to take the challenge with us, to do everything we can to ensure the affordability of a great education, let us put our numbers on the table and let our constituents decide.
Thomas Kepple is president of Juniata College, an undergraduate liberal arts college in Huntingdon, Pa.
The 2004 Carnegie Classifications identified only 95 liberal arts colleges with no graduate school where 80 percent or more of all graduates are liberal arts and sciences, not career-based, majors. They accounted for a mere 0.8 percent of the total higher education enrollment in the U.S. In a 1990 Yankelovich survey, two-thirds of respondents believed the main reason to go to college was to get the skills necessary for a good job. A 2004 University of California at Los Angles survey reported that three-quarters of all students gave as their reasons for going to college "to get training for a specific career," "to be able to get a better job," and/or "to be able to make more money."
This year, a Special Commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings “to consider how best to improve our system of higher education” completed a year long study. Its 55-page report of analysis and recommendations does not even mention liberal education or the liberal arts.
The 95 "true" liberal arts colleges, the pure practitioners of liberal education, are in trouble. The number of persons who view themselves as liberally educated is declining. The number who wish they were liberally educated is declining even faster and the number who think they know what a liberal education is, or even that they would like to know, is shrinking fastest of all. In recent years, liberal education’s slide has been masked to some extent by demographics, the upsurge in applicants for all higher education resulting from the flood of college age children produced by the baby boomers. The flood is coming to an end.
A career-directed education has become the goal of many, if not most, young people eager to get ahead. A purely materialistic motivation for getting an education is now the norm, not the exception. There is economic pressure on liberal arts colleges to add career-directed courses and programs to attract students. The most prestigious colleges are to some extent relieved from this pressure by their wealth and the fact that so many of their graduates know they will go on to graduate and professional schools and therefore feel less need to collect a commercial credential at the undergraduate level; to learn what Elia Kazan’s immigrant father called something “use-eh-full.”
Even the richest colleges, however, are not immune from pressure to expand their curricula in vocational directions in order to attract students who are more interested in getting a good job and making money than in Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau, and to make sure top students are not lured away by so-called honors colleges at state universities.
Can liberal arts colleges be saved or are they, to take Paul Neely’s apt analogy, becoming like high end passenger trains that went out of business because no matter how well they performed, consumers had come to prefer traveling by plane and automobile? Unless the case liberal arts colleges make for liberal education and for themselves is reformed, their curricula restored, and the across the board teaching excellence of their faculties secured, the answer in all probability is that those that survive will evolve into purveyors of career-directed, not liberal, education.
The Case as It Is Made Now
Much of the Case currently made for liberal education is internally inconsistent, cynically cobbled together to pander to the preconceptions of high school students and their parents, unsupported and/or simply not credible. As the steady decline in the demand for liberal education shows, the Case is not persuasive to those who are not pre-sold, i.e. those who need to be persuaded. Consider the following Case elements:
(1) Even though it won’t get you a job, a liberal education really is useful because it teaches students how to think critically.
The "critical thinking" mantra is an especially good example of embracing a bad argument solely because it is not laughable on its face. Never mind that no one knows what “critical,” as opposed to plain good, thinking is, or that there is no reason to suppose that one is more likely to become a critical thinker studying English literature than business management, or that there is certainly no reason to suspect that English literature professors are themselves more critical thinkers, or more capable of teaching critical thinking than business management professors. Yet no single assertion is more central to the Case made for liberal arts educations than the claim it will make you a more critical thinker, whatever that is.
(2) A liberal education best provides oral and written communication skills.
It is certainly true that a liberal education can provide these skills, but is it more true than for career-based education (or for that matter for the education that comes from being in the workplace)? There is no convincing evidence that the liberally educated are more effective communicators and the fact that the assertion is totally unsupported undercuts the Case as a whole.
(3) Liberal arts colleges provide an international education.
We live in a global world and it behooves liberal arts colleges to internationalize their curricula to the maximum extent possible. This does not mean, however, that the following common liberal arts promotion makes sense: "The globe is shrinking, we live in an international world, and our college recognizes these important facts by encouraging all students to spend a semester abroad."
Let’s restate this promotion from the point of view of a potential student or parent: "You have told me that spending 26 months at your college over the next four years at a cost of $150,000-$200,000 is a sound investment, but now you say I should spend more than 10 percent of that time somewhere else. Are you trying to cut your costs by giving me less or do you simply believe 26 months is more than I need?"
Everyone knows that study abroad is a useful and often meaningful, even life-changing, experience. But it makes no sense to say that it should be done at the expense of, rather than in addition to, the 26 months.
(4) You can study the subjects you like best and are most interested in.
In an effort to attract students, liberal arts colleges have reduced, and some have even eliminated, course requirements. To the extent they do so they turn over liberal education curriculum design to students who by definition are not yet liberally educated and virtually insure that their education will be less broad, less liberal. Maria Montessori’s maxim “follow the child” may make sense in first grade, but not at a liberal arts college unless, of course, the college’s education philosophy is that students will find liberal education on their own without the college’s guidance, in which case why should they spend $200,000 for 26 months?
(5) You will get good grades and this will help you get into the graduate or professional school of your choice.
Colleges don’t explicitly include grade inflation in their pitches to students, but everybody knows it is going on. In fact, grade inflation serves only to cheapen the value of a liberal arts degree and signals to students that a liberal education is simply a part of playing the credential-seeking game, of getting ahead. Further, since everyone is doing it, it doesn’t work very well.
The Case That Needs to Be Made
In contrast to these frivolous, disingenuous or wrong claims, the distinctively desirable features of a liberal arts education are de-emphasized or omitted entirely from the Case because it is assumed by admissions staff that they won’t be believed or understood.
(1) The quality of a liberal education that makes it so effective is that the subject matter studied is not “use-eh-full.”
It is the very "uselessness" of what liberal arts students study that opens the door to their appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing, that drives home the point that learning is of value in and of itself whether or not it leads directly to a marketable skill. It is possible to realize these things while studying banking or engineering, but it is much more difficult because the student is constantly distracted from the utility of acquiring knowledge by the utility of the knowledge being acquired. The genius of the American system of liberal education is that it eliminates this distraction. Its uselessness separates knowing from need to know, learning from need to learn, desire to understand from need to understand.
(2) The best teaching is at liberal arts colleges.
If liberal arts colleges pay attention in hiring, training, supporting and tenuring faculty, there is really no way universities, no matter now highly ranked, can match them in teaching excellence. The mission of universities is diverse and complex, the mission of liberal arts colleges is singular, to provide a liberal education to undergraduates. For the most part, the most famous names in higher education are associated with major universities, not liberal arts colleges, but the severe limits on their worth to university undergraduates are well known: limited exposure to students, huge lecture courses, smaller classes taught by graduate students, and so on. Universities, by their very nature, inescapably focus on specialization, not breadth.
Universities are aware of their inherent disadvantages in providing undergraduate liberal arts education and in recent years some have made efforts to shore up their performance by creating so-called honors colleges and requiring full professors to teach an undergraduate course now and then. By and large, however, these are Band-Aid efforts. A Nobel laureate once complained to me about being required to teach an undergraduate seminar. "I’m a professor, not a teacher," he growled.
(3) Your life will be fuller and richer if you read Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau.
There is no doubt that this is a tough sell for college bound, wealth-seeking, "what’s in it for me" philistines and their nervous parents, but enrichment is inescapably central to the value of the liberal arts. Before I came to the academy, I was a lawyer. I know to a certainty that one does not learn how to practice law until one starts doing it. It is not learned in law school. Therefore, a career-directed, pre-law program at the undergraduate level makes no sense, i.e., even though vocational, it is neither useful nor enriching. By far the best, and often the only, way to learn any career skill is by practicing it. Career-directed courses are always of limited value; a liberal education is always enriching. The wise person, therefore, seeks both a liberal education and an on-the-job career education.
In the early 19th century, subject matter that made up the liberal arts curriculum was fixed: the ancient classics, rhetoric, logic, Greek and Latin. It was what a gentleman, a liberally educated person, had to know. Today, while the curriculum is flexible, taking advantage of the special skills and interests of the faculty, it still defines liberal education at each liberal arts college. It is the responsibility of the faculty -- not the students, not the administration -- to create a curriculum and the goal in doing so must be to make the best possible use of the faculty to insure that the college’s graduates are securely launched on a lifetime of liberal education.
Distribution, as opposed to course, requirements represent a partial abrogation of this responsibility. Perhaps after the first two or three years a distribution requirement makes sense, but course requirements come first. Elimination of requirements is a marketing, not educational, strategy. Since the objective of liberal arts colleges is to provide a liberal education the old Brown University no requirements strategy is disingenuous as well as wrong.
A liberal education is broad, not narrow. The more major requirements imposed, the narrower the resulting education. If all departments reduced their major requirements, liberal education would be facilitated. Experiencing some depth of inquiry is a part of a liberal education, but not at the expense of breadth. Graduate and professional schools, not to mention getting a job, will give students all the depth they need.
Which courses offered by a department receive the greatest departmental attention -- survey and entry-level courses or specialized advanced courses for major? Too often, it is the latter. I well remember a talk given by a creative writing professor who told us that the single most important and enriching course in his undergraduate career was Astronomy 101. At liberal arts colleges, his experience should be commonplace, not exceptional. 101 courses are the foundation of a liberal education.
Interdisciplinary courses are inherently pro-liberal arts. There are problems with them, however, including that creating a truly interdisciplinary syllabus is difficult and more work to teach, and that there is not the kind of recognition for success in interdisciplinary teaching that exists within departments. The steps colleges can take to ameliorate or eliminate these problems are obvious and should be taken.
A liberal education is best pursued when students share the learning experience. Common courses are a sound device for maximizing sharing. Similar problems inhere in teaching common courses as in interdisciplinary courses and require the same steps to remove them.
A much-used cost containment strategy is to combine departments, e.g. anthropology and sociology, art and art history, philosophy and religion. Reduction in, or failure to increase, the number of teachers in the departments is a common byproduct (or cause) of such combinations. While there is nothing inherently wrong with combined departments and, indeed, to some extent they may partake of the positive liberal arts qualities of interdisciplinary courses, combining departments can have unintended adverse consequences on the quality of instruction and should only be entered into after careful analysis. On the other side of the coin, too many departments can mark the way towards career-based education, especially in the social and physical sciences. Many universities, for example, offer dozens of economics majors, each directed to a specific career path and each leading away from breadth. Liberal arts colleges are to some extent insulated from this practice by the relatively small size of their faculties, but they are not immune.
There is nothing wrong with career-based courses and there is nothing wrong with encouraging students to pursue them, but not in lieu or instead of liberal arts courses. “Take them in the evening, in the summer, or before or after you graduate, but for the 26 months you are with us you will pursue a liberal education full time” is the correct rule for liberal arts colleges.
No course credit should be given for non-academic initiatives. If students have excellent summer work experiences or organize successful public service programs, they should put them on their resumes, not in their transcripts. The quality of the liberal education a college delivers is measured by what happens at the college, not in a congressman’s office or at a European university. If students can get a better liberal education somewhere other than at the college, why should they attend the college at all? Off-campus experience can supplement and enhance the liberal education a college offers, but not replace it.
Sadly, it is easier for liberal arts colleges to raise money for buildings, sports, or almost anything other than faculty salaries and support. If, however, liberal arts colleges do not offer the very best teaching, their prospects for the future are at best problematic. Faculties are the heart and soul of liberal education.
It makes no sense to staff a liberal arts college with teachers who are not themselves liberally educated. (Indeed, if college presidents, vice presidents, deans and other administrators are to play a meaningful role in directing the course of a liberal arts college, they also need to be liberally educated.) Hiring procedures used by liberal arts colleges – posting ads that ask candidates to furnish information about their qualifications to teach a particular specialty; 20 minute interviews in hospitality suites at professional society meetings where narrow specialists gather; observing candidates teach a 50-minute class to students chosen because they are majoring in the candidates area of specialization – are not well-calculated to reveal the extent and quality of candidates’ liberal education.
Certainly little that happened to candidates at the graduate schools where they earned their Ph.D.s provides assurance that the candidates are liberally educated. Graduate schools are antithetical to liberal education. They put a premium on and reward narrowness, not breadth. Indeed, most graduate schools have precious little to do with preparing their students to be effective teachers. The graduate school game is research and publication, no matter how frivolous or insignificant.
Worse, graduate schools dissemble about their graduates. A letter of recommendation from a graduate school dean or professor saying a graduate will be a good liberal arts college teacher frequently really means the graduate school believes the graduate will not be a successful researcher. Graduate school deans and professors often have little or no knowledge about the potential teaching capability of their students, and care less.
The one sure way to find liberally educated, potentially excellent teachers is to actively look for them, not wait for them to drop in at hospitality suite or respond to an advertisement. Networking is the key, talking to friends and friends of friends. Business understands this and there is no reason colleges can’t, too.
The number of new Ph.D.'s has increased faster than the number of college teaching positions. This can put colleges in the enviable position of having a surfeit of candidates to choose from. Too often, however, this advantage is lost because a first cut is made on the basis of the ranking of the universities from which candidates’ degrees were received. There is little reason to believe a social historian from Harvard is more liberally educated or more likely to become an excellent teacher than one from a lower ranked institution. The efforts and aptitudes required to gain admission to and earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (or any other first rate graduate school) are not closely correlated, if at all, with good teaching. Indeed, a respectable argument can be made that they are counter indicators. In fact, it is far from self-evident that liberal educatedness and teaching excellence are positively correlated with possession of a Ph.D. When a college has an opportunity to hire a potentially excellent teacher who lacks the Ph.D. credential, a retired judge or legislator perhaps, or a linguist or artist (even if an M.F.A. is also missing), the opportunity should be seized.
Hiring to fill a particular slot, the most common practice, itself risks losing teaching excellence. Obviously, a chemist cannot be hired to replace a retiring historian, but if a medievalist is the strongest candidate to replace a retiring professor of modern European history, changing course offerings should at least be seriously considered.
Flexibility in hiring is an especially important consideration in hiring minority faculty. The likelihood that a minority group member highly qualified and desiring to teach organic chemistry at a liberal arts college will happen to be available the very year old Charlie decides to retire from the chemistry department is not high. But such a candidate might have been available at an earlier time and, even though it did not fit perfectly into the then perceived staffing requirements of the chemistry department, grabbing the candidate before he or she went somewhere else could have made good sense.
If diversity in the student body is desirable, indeed essential, for a liberal education, as almost all liberal arts colleges acknowledge, then faculty diversity is essential, too. If there is no minority organic chemist available, there may be an outstanding astronomer or sociologist who will advance the liberal arts excellence of the college as well as the diversity of its faculty. When Branch Rickey set out to hire major league baseball’s first black player, he did not search for a third baseman, but rather for the best player he could find, and then played him where he fit in; at third base. Incidentally, in hiring Jackie Robinson, Mr. Rickey gave full consideration to Mr. Robinson’s personal, as well as athletic, qualifications. The parallel to giving full consideration to liberal educatedness as well as academic qualifications in hiring teachers is apt.
Once hired, most new teachers need to be taught how to teach. This did not happen to most of them at graduate school. Throwing them into the classroom and letting them sink or swim, a traditional approach, makes no sense. Instruction of new teachers by faculty members who are skilled teachers should be intensive and continuing, not hit or miss. The progress of new teachers needs to be systematically monitored. Too often what is known about a young faculty member’s teaching skills is as best anecdotal, largely based on passing comments by students. Reliable evaluation is essential to effective training and, of course, to making sound tenure decisions.
In the popular press, tenure is controversial, seen by many outside the academy as an undeserved life-long sinecure. The claimed centrality of tenure to preserving academic freedom, heavily relied on by tenure supporters, is not persuasive. The freedom to assert controversial positions is not an issue for the overwhelming majority of faculty members. Instances where it can reasonably be said that, but for tenure, a faculty member would be fired are rare. In addition, academic freedom can be contractually guaranteed without tenure, e.g. “No professor can be disciplined, demoted or terminated for expressing a controversial or unpopular view.”
Tenure is a ruthless, up or out system. A faculty member denied tenure at one college is less likely to get it somewhere else. Tenure denial is a wrenching experience not only for the teacher denied but also for the persons making the denial decision. The human response at most teaching-oriented institutions is to try to avoid making it. Doubts are resolved in favor or granting tenure. Weaknesses are under-weighted and strengths are over-weighted to reach the “grant” decision. Non-teaching contributions by the candidate are given significant weight to justify granting tenure to a candidate whose teaching is not first class. The result is “acceptable” or “pretty good,” but not excellent, teachers are rewarded with tenure and take possession of the college’s limited number of teaching positions for the next 25-30 years.
In making tenure decisions substantial weight is frequently assigned to a candidate’s publications. Indeed, at some of the finest liberal arts colleges a published book is a tenure requirement. This may make sense at graduate schools where the objective is to promote scholarship and research, not teaching. It makes no sense at liberal arts colleges. It is commonly observed that scholarship informs and enhances teaching. If this is so, as I strongly believe it to be, publications need not be considered separately as a part of the tenure review process because their enhancing effect will be reflected in the teaching performance of the candidate. On the other side of the coin, poor teachers can produce outstanding scholarship. They should be encouraged to devote their live to graduate school research, not liberal arts college teaching.
The first place most businesses look to save money is workers’ salaries. Such cost cutting efforts, however, are frequently frustrated by the pressures of competition and unions. At liberal arts colleges these pressures are more easily resisted. The result is that faculty salary increases tend to lag behind other employment venues and sometimes even languish below the rise in cost of living. Since far and away the most valuable resource of a college is its faculty, this is foolish.
The reluctance to grant salary increases to faculty is far less apparent in the case of college administrators. Perhaps in making salary decisions, business executive members of college boards of trustees identify faculty with their factory workers, and administrators with themselves. It has been observed that when the salary of a college or university president reaches three times that of senior faculty, a potentially destructive disequilibrium is created. This disequilibrium is becoming more common.
Salaries reflect perceived value. The fact that many liberal arts colleges pay their teachers poorly reflects how the institutions value teachers’ services, and inevitably how teachers value themselves. I am aware of no established benchmark for what faculty salaries ought to be, or of accepted comparables. There are, however, some useful guidelines. First, faculty salaries should increase no less rapidly than those of administrators. Second, salaries of senior faculty should increase no less rapidly than starting salaries for assistant professors. Third, teaching excellence should be rewarded by salary increases, not bonuses or prizes which are always sporadic, capricious and often devices designed to portray the institution as more generous than it in fact is. Fourth, special effort should be given to encouraging donors to earmark gifts for faculty salaries.
A not insignificant portion of the challenges now faced by liberal arts colleges are of their own making, resulting from competition between them. Costs have been increased by the addition of programs and resources for the specific purpose of attracting students away from competing colleges. Competition has caused dollars to be diverted from important uses, e.g. for faculty salaries and support, to flashy facilities and programs. Grade inflation and the elimination of requirements are examples of competition between liberal arts colleges that degrades the offerings of all of them.
A few liberal arts colleges are wealthy, but most struggle financially. They all, however, are threatened by declining demand for liberal education. If they have any long-run chance of resisting the vocationalizing of their curricula, they need to make common cause, to work together, not at odds with each other.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr. was president of Beloit College from 1991 to 2000. Before then, he practiced law in Washington. He is currently writing a book on liberal arts colleges.
In June 2007 my partner Paula Treichler and I attended a series of events at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Paula was on stage as a college alumna and member of the Antioch University Board of Trustees; I was in the audience as an alumnus and national president of the American Association of University Professors. The board had just announced that the college would close within a year. The message delivered by the chair of the board that day was clear: The college is hemorrhaging money; if we don't stop the flow, the whole university will die.
One may disagree with the financial analysis, taking issue, for example, with the impact of depreciation calculations on the college budget. One may wish the board had chosen a less drastic action, perhaps by issuing a challenge (with a deadline) to alumni and other donors. One may certainly insist that the faculty should have had an opportunity to offer alternative solutions. But the fact that the college was suffering financially was not in doubt.
In the months since, alumni have rallied dramatically, raising $18 million as a way to keep the college open while further solutions are sought. But many potential donors balked at supporting the six-campus university. They wanted the college freed from the university structure. To break the deadlock, and on the board's recommendation, a group of nine distinguished alumni formed the Antioch College Continuation Corporation (ACCC) and offered to buy the college from the university.
Certainly one might say, as numerous alumni did, that the "purchase price" should be $1. After all, the potential buyer is neither Dow Chemical nor Dubai Petroleum. The ACCC is a group of alumni acting out of love for the college and willing to use their expertise and resources on its behalf. But others argue that the university has an obligation to guarantee its own robust future by extracting the maximum price possible from the transaction. Yet that position vitiates the argument the board put forward last June, where the stated motivation was to avoid disaster, not maximize corporate profit. What has happened to the rationale publicly put forward in June?
The ACCC has taken a middle course, offering the university about $10 million dollars, motivated in part by the desire to assure the university's stability. Raising more money from other alumni is not an option: They are interested in donating to the college, not the university. So the members of the ACCC have come up with the $10 million themselves. They have also submitted a provisional though detailed financial and operational plan for the future; only one of us knows its details, and they are confidential, but the bare fact of its existence is not.
The offer from the ACCC presents an extraordinary opportunity to the university Board. The careers of current faculty, staff, and students are at stake. The Antioch legacy thousands of us carry in our hearts hangs in the balance. Now the board, paradoxically, has the chance to join the heroes of the Antioch revival. The pain so many have internalized for months can be alleviated. The board may fairly claim its tough love challenged alumni to save the college. It can preserve tenure, rather than abolishing it. It can make the issue of financial exigency moot. All it has to do is accept the ACCC offer.
Only days ago Antioch University put its free speech heritage at risk by threatening legal action against "The Antioch Papers," a web site run by Yellow Springs community members as a place for faculty, staff, and their friends to share college history and respond to the current crisis. That is merely the most striking instance of a preoccupation with confidentiality. After publicly pledging "complete transparency" in June, the board chair immediately imposed an obsessive and hostile form of secrecy on all negotiations. There is the uneasy feeling the university has severed its connections with Antioch's values.
Accepting the ACCC offer can reverse that trend. Indeed, an amicable divorce may make it possible to share the children. The college and the university could write contracts to operate some programs jointly. Antioch Education Abroad is one obvious choice. Does this guarantee the college will be thriving a decade from now? No one can. Alumni and their friends will have to give as never before. But the ACCC has extensive fund-raising experience. The current board has neither given generously nor raised significant sums. The ACCC has already done both. Indeed its members have been traveling the country obtaining conditional donations -- conditional upon reestablishing Antioch as an independent residential liberal arts college with a tenured faculty. Long-term success will also require many hundreds of students to choose Antioch College as their undergraduate school. Plans are now being developed to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile, the board has a stark choice: close the college immediately, or hand it over to alumni capable of keeping it open. Sufficient funds are in hand to keep the college operating next year and the year after. Extraordinarily accomplished people are working hard 24/7 to guarantee its long-term survival. It is a choice between certain death and hope. Both Paula and I trust the board will choose hope.
Cary Nelson teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He graduated from Antioch College in 1967 and is president of the American Association of University Professors.
I’ve spent most of my career other than where I should be. I’m a business professor teaching at a liberal arts college. When I walk outside my office door, I’m more likely to bump into a colleague discussing Buddhism or chaos theory than one who’s talking about the latest Academy of Management conference.
But having an unconventional career can engender an uncommon freedom -- the chance to think about things most others regard as settled. Bringing business education and the liberal arts into close proximity, as happens at many small liberal arts colleges today, can unsettle the assumptions of each. But if done well -- and it takes a serious commitment to do it well -- there are tremendous benefits, certainly to business education and, surprisingly to many, also to the liberal arts.
The key to a business program flourishing at a liberal arts college is threefold: blending, bridging, and building. Blending entails teaching traditional business subjects from a liberal arts perspective. Bridging involves connecting the content of business classes to other disciplines. Building entails using the innovative study of business to develop and enrich the broader liberal arts curriculum itself. This occurs when the distinctive nature of business programs prompts larger questions about the nature of liberal education. (I have adopted the terms “blending” and “bridging” here from my fellow scholars, E. Byron Chew and Cecilia McInnis-Bowers.)
Teaching traditional business subjects from a liberal arts perspective involves recognizing the hidden biases that can inhere in the instruction of core business functions, from marketing to accounting to management, when such subjects are taught in a purely technical manner. Such biases can take many forms. They can involve an uncritical acceptance of a particular goal, such as occurs when finance theory stipulates the maximization of shareholder wealth as the sole end of companies, notwithstanding several real-world examples to the contrary.
Biases can also happen when business courses explore central domains of commerce from a single vantage point rather than from multiple perspectives. Conventional business majors, for instance, are much more likely to include courses in marketing than in consumer protection, even though the introduction of goods and services into society can hardly be fully understood if viewed only from the perspective of producers. Further, business courses can subtly convey biases by failing to contextualize adequately for students their basic inquiries. Traditional courses in organizational behavior, for example, draw heavily from psychology, yet often leave the assumptions of psychological theory unexplored. The danger here is that students uncritically adopt understandings of the human psyche while believing they are merely learning the practical organizational dynamics of business firms.
Teaching business subjects from a liberal arts perspective thus requires professors to be cognizant of such traditional biases and to teach in ways that expose them as part of a larger dialogue. This means approaching business topics from a critical vantage point, engaging multiple perspectives, and richly contextualizing basic inquiries. This is what we are attempting in the introductory course to the major at my home institution, Franklin & Marshall College. Entitled “Organizing in the 21st Century: Theories of Organization,” the course focuses on traditional topics of strategic management, but does so critically, exploring alternative theories of work and organization. It engages the perspectives of the multiple stakeholders in our commercial world, from employees to managers to consumers to members of the larger community. It highlights the way many disciplines -- psychology, sociology, and anthropology, to cite only a few – provide frameworks that can illuminate our commercial lives.
There are a number of opportunities for connecting the content of business classes to classes offered in more traditional liberal arts disciplines. Such opportunities need not involve creating new courses. The necessary courses are frequently already established and successful. Some students are even making the connections on their own, as when a biology student with an interest in working for a pharmaceutical company seeks out some relevant business courses. But we owe it to students not to leave them without support in discovering and pursuing these rich connections.
As with the biology student, these connections may be ones that help a student develop his larger career aspirations. Even in the most traditional business programs, there is a need to make practical connections with courses in such areas as legal studies, environmental studies, and international studies. Such areas of study are intrinsically valuable to a straightforward business career, as business operates in an increasingly litigious society, becomes more environmentally conscious, and further internationalizes its operations.
But at least of equal value are the connective opportunities that can satisfy a student’s deeper intellectual curiosities that have arisen in the study of business – an interest in psychology prompted by the study of management, an interest in economic theory stimulated in a finance class, an interest in ethics engendered by seeing the conflicts of interests accountants face. The goal here should be to highlight and promote for students structured learning paths that encourage these sorts of avenues of inquiry. This can occur, informally, through simply enriching our advising of business students or, more formally, through the creation of curricular structures such as innovative minors.
Using the innovative study of business to develop and enrich the broader liberal arts curriculum is potentially the most far-reaching contribution a business program can make to a liberal arts college. For it involves raising larger questions about the nature of liberal education.
First, teaching business innovatively unsettles the way we have often thought of liberal education as arising only from the study of certain prescribed disciplines. Discipline-based notions of liberal education are prevalent today, even though the history of liberal education readily reveals its changing disciplinary nature. The natural sciences, for example, were not always an accepted part of the canon. Teaching business innovatively thus brings to the fore a basic, reoccurring issue for liberal education: Is the core of liberal arts instruction based on what we teach or how we teach?
Second, teaching business innovatively highlights the way in which we conventionally think about the distinction between basic and applied knowledge. We often conceive of applied knowledge in purely vocational terms, reserving for liberal study the pursuit of basic knowledge unfettered by constraining purposes. The innovative study of business unsettles this conventional dichotomy. For at the core of business study is the interplay between basic and applied knowledge. Thus, teaching business innovatively prompts a provocative question for liberal education: Does the application of knowledge diminish or deepen liberal education?
Third, teaching business innovatively spotlights the role of cross-disciplinary inquiry in liberal education. Those outside of business often forget business study involves the integration of a number of distinct academic disciplines. Accounting, marketing, finance, and management have their own distinctive set of knowledge bases, models, and assumptions – at least some of which are in tension with one another. One is likely to get a very different sense, for instance, of human motivation in a finance class than in a class on organizational behavior. With its successful integration of multiple academic disciplines, the study of business is a highly developed form of area studies. It thus poses in an especially cogent way the larger issue area studies raise for liberal education. Does the core of liberal education reside within disciplines or among them?
Liberal arts colleges that welcome the innovative teaching of business thus stand a better chance of addressing successfully such larger questions of liberal education. Of course, welcoming the study of our commercial lives into the world of liberal education is hardly the prevailing norm. It is rather, as this business professor read as an English major many years ago, taking the road “less traveled by.” But in my unconventional career, I can see how, it “has made all the difference.”
Jeffrey Nesteruk is chair of the Department of Business, Organizations, and Society at Franklin & Marshall College.
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.