Liberal arts colleges

Collaboration Among Colleges: Impossible Mission?

Bill Bowen, who was a longtime president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, describes getting colleges to collaborate as "a very difficult, much unappreciated" task. From my experience in trying for 25 years to get 37 college presidents to collaborate, I'd go further. I have concluded that real collaboration across institutions is virtually impossible.

Collaboration as a concept is great, but as a reality it rarely exists. Centralization (providing benefits that each college can access) and even cooperation (helping when it doesn't hurt) are far easier practices to implement than true collaboration (working for the benefit of the whole even when some of the individual parts have to sacrifice).

Working first as director of a program at a major research university funded (by Mellon) to provide fellowships for faculty at small colleges in the mountains of central Appalachia, and then as president of the consortium that grew from that program, I feel qualified to make a few observations about why collaboration is so difficult:

Presidents of independent colleges are independent; as the primary representative of the institution they have a strong need for autonomy and to claim distinctiveness for their institutions -- even when the institution is very similar to others within the same classification of higher education institutions. While they do not want to disagree with their peers in public and will often appear to be in agreement, promises made in a public setting often do not get fulfilled in a private setting. Similarly, commitments made privately are often changed when a public vote with their peers is taken. As one college president said in a presentation at a meeting of the Association for Consortium Leadership, "We will promise anything to appear agreeable in a meeting of the consortium members."

Rosalynn Carter once said that a leader is someone who takes people where they want to go; a great leader is someone who takes people where they need to go.

Getting 37 presidents to agree on where they wanted to go was impossible for me; finding out where they needed to go -- by asking presidents, foundation officers, program directors in federal agencies and others from outside the Association -- was easier. Some consortium directors talk about the importance of building consensus, but I found the adage that "consensus is what everyone is willing to agree on in public but no one believes in private" was far too true.

I quickly learned that the way to get the presidents of our 37 colleges to make a commitment to a project was to present the project as the idea of another of the presidents or of a foundation representative and ask for volunteers for the pilot stages. I was fortunate to have 37 presidents with which to work because even though there were usually those who had no intention of fulfilling a commitment to the project, there were always enough who did fulfill their commitments to make the project successful. Directors of consortia with only a few members have a harder job. They have to know they have the sincere commitment of all their presidents to assure success; they do have to worry about building consensus.

Presidents do not accept ownership of what they do not control; academic deans, on the other hand, seem to be quite comfortable claiming ownership in situations where they feel they at least have some authority to make decisions. As a program at the University of Kentucky, the Appalachian College Program was guided by the academic deans of the participating colleges; they accepted those rare occasions when some idea they had proposed was vetoed by the university's officials (usually because there were other projects within the university that would be competing for the funding).

Once the presidents met to discuss expanding the program to include more than faculty development (joint purchasing, training for staff, etc.), it was clear immediately that they would not accept with grace a veto of their ideas by authorities at the university. As a result, the Appalachian College Program became the Appalachian College Association, an independent 501(c) 3 organization directed by a board made up of the presidents of member colleges.

Given the need of the presidents for autonomy, there is generally little reason to expect them to be concerned about the impact the program might have on education within the region generally; each president in my consortium was primarily concerned about the benefits his or her institution would derive individually. The question for each of the presidents was almost inevitability, "How will this project impact my institution?" While the mission of the Appalachian College Association was broadly defined as "strengthening private higher education in the region," the primary goal on which the presidents could agree was that the Association should raise money that all the colleges could share -- but only if raising that money did not jeopardize the fund raising of any individual member college.

The only aspect of their operations that the presidents seemed completely comfortable allowing the Association to address was faculty development and, later, centralized library services. At a roundtable session with Bob Zemsky (founding director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Research on Higher Education) to set priorities for the next president of the Association, they quickly concluded that the focus of the Association should remain on faculty, that they did not need another organization that provided a social setting where the presidents could meet, or joint purchasing contracts that would probably overlap with contracts already in place through their state associations. What they most appreciated about the work of the Association was the fellowships and travel grants made available to faculty for individual research and study—a central service not requiring much collaboration.

At that same roundtable session, the question was asked, "If there were a disaster in your region that destroyed one of the member campuses, would the other campuses come together to help rebuild that campus?" After a long pause, a response came: "If the association called us together, we would. " The wise observation made by Zemsky was that the loyalty among the presidents was to the association and not to each other -- more evidence that centralization, not collaboration was the primary benefit they saw for the association.

When college presidents (across multiple institutions including some from my association) at a Council of Independent Colleges meeting were asked, "What is your favorite consortium among those to which you belong?," the answer was always one in which that president's college was the lead institution. A president will usually name a small local collaborative with the county high school over a regional or national one where their voice is much weaker.

Consortia directors or presidents work hard to "fulfill the vision of their members," but many do not seem to know what that vision is -- beyond working together for the benefit of the whole. And, unfortunately, it seems to be the financially weak institutions that are most interested in being active in a consortium because they have the greatest need for help, though they are least able to provide funding for the organization's staff and operations. As a result, many consortia can provide only what the weakest members among them can sustain.

Despite my frustration that as a collaborative our colleges never soared beyond 10,000 feet when 30,000 was my goal, our consortium of private Appalachian colleges (most with small endowments and small enrollments) was touted as one of the most successful in the nation. Calls came monthly from colleges outside our region wanting to become members; my advice was usually, "Start your own."

Keeping more than 30 colleges across five states working together on any level was more than a full-time job for our core staff of about five. Several of those calls actually resulted in meetings of groups of colleges anxious to replicate our model -- a regional consortium supported by nominal membership dues and lots of funding from foundations and federal agencies that managed to build an endowment for programs of roughly $25 million and reserve funds totaling over $500,000. None of those who called ever called back for advice, but if any had, here is what I would have told them:

1. Have a specific mission before you meet to organize. Forming a consortium for collaboration without knowing what you will collaborate to do is like having a meeting without knowing what the purpose of the meeting is: not much is likely to be accomplished. Recognize that providing central services or getting cooperation across the campuses is as worthy a goal as true collaboration.

2. Hold the initial organizational meeting with those who will be the primary beneficiaries to be sure they are receptive to the new opportunities provided. With our Association, the primary beneficiaries of the program that started the Association were faculty of the participating colleges. Faculty from the colleges met multiple times in groups on their own campuses and across the various campuses for five years before the academic deans of the colleges actually held their first meeting. The deans and faculty continued to meet for another five years before the presidents got involved, formed the Appalachian College Association and moved the organization away from the university.

3. Find a funding source -- the member colleges or an outside foundation, individual, or federal agency -- to support the first effort adequately. If the first venture fails, the consortium is likely to fail as well. Be sure that the project has appeal that will generate sustained funding -- either by the members or other agencies. Take advantage of the natural appeal consortia have for funders: program officers have to meet with only one consortium director, not with multiple college presidents.

4. Find a strong leader, someone who is able to listen to faculty and students or whoever the beneficiaries are and not be intimidated by those serving on the board of the consortium who may think they best know what the beneficiaries need. Choose someone who is bold enough to be able to solicit honest responses to ideas from the board members but is flexible enough to shape the ideas of those board members into fundable projects that will serve the major constituencies as they want to be served. Find someone who is able to present a good case to funders but wise enough to know that it is the funder who ultimately decides if the project is worthy of funding. Recognize that it makes little sense to argue a case that is not a good match for the funding agency. Someone said as I was leaving the Appalachian College Association that the new president should not allow himself to be controlled by the presidents but he will need to allow the presidents to believe they control him if they feel the need to control him. Ideally the college presidents will have enough confidence in the president of their consortium to trust that he or she will take the colleges both where they want to go and where they need to go. A consortium director or president has to listen to everyone and then do what he or she deems is in the best interest of most. Trying to make everyone happy with every decision is a sure way to slow the productivity of the organization, if not kill it.

5. Develop an organizational voice that is independentof the member institutions and the beneficiaries. For our Association, an Advisory Council was established as a result of the first strategic plan. That council was made up of representatives retired from the foundations and federal agencies that had supported our multiple projects and of other individuals in higher education with a special interest in the region and/or the member colleges, but no ties to any one particular college.

Such a council can help the consortium director consider what the colleges want to do in relation to broad views of higher education. Appeals to funders can be more convincing if there is evidence of a potential impact on multiple institutions outside the one group of colleges served by the consortium. Advisory Council members can provide positive reinforcement for good ideas and add suggestions for further refinements. They can also challenge ideas that may lead to problems for the colleges or consortium. In short, they can serve as a sounding-board for discussion of ideas before presentation to the college presidents and also present issues at meetings of college presidents to draw out their views before the ideas of the consortium leader are discussed. The same process can be useful when developing a strategic plan. If the planning is not directed by someone completely independent of the association, there needs to be provision for multiple voices from outside the group to be heard.

Working together -- either centrally, cooperatively or collaborative -- is becoming increasingly important, given current economic trends. Perhaps true collaboration in higher education will become more evident as new financing models call upon some institutions to pay a little more than they currently do so the many can pay less.

I hope that the consortium I led (with lots of help from lots of people ) will continue to thrive. I also hope that other consortium leaders may gain from my reflections on what I learned over more than 25 years so they can develop new models of collaboration to strengthen the education of students via working together for the common good.

Alice Brown
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Alice Brown retired in July as the first president of the Appalachian College Association.

Let Us Disarm!

It is high time for the federal government to adjust the antitrust laws to allow American undergraduate colleges and universities to “disarm” unilaterally from wasteful expenditures. Current law does not permit us to disarm because we cannot talk to each other about how to control costs without running the risk of being accused of what can only be considered anti-competitive trade collusion.

It is time for all of us in higher education to think about what it would be like to compete only on the quality of our academic programs and not on the excesses of our amenities. Why can’t we be bold and courageous enough to come to the common sense conclusion that not competing on amenities would in the long run be good for students and for those who have to pay tuition? Why can’t we temper our “capitalistic compulsion” to compete with each other in ways that only serve to drive up tuition costs? Wouldn’t we be in a position to render better service to the American public if we arrived at some common conclusions about how to reduce costs?

Colleges and universities are feverishly rushing to cut expenses because of the current and very real economic crisis. Witness all the presidents announcing hiring freezes, postponements of construction projects, furloughs, lay-offs, salary freezes and modest tuition increases. While none of my colleagues want these cuts to affect the quality of the academic program, it may, in fact, be an unavoidable result.

Yet with all this trimming and restraint, the public is not likely to see the price of an undergraduate education decrease any time soon. The traditional higher education business model does not permit it. At many, if not most, institutions the cost is significantly higher than the sticker price. At Dickinson, for example, it costs us $13,000 above the sticker price of $47,800 to educate a single student. What rational “business” begins with costs always being significantly higher than price and then tries to sustain that model by further increasing costs? The constraints higher education imposes upon itself now might well soften somewhat the threat of the current economic crisis by reducing marginally the gap between cost and price, but will do nothing to alter a business model that does not work because you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

The only way to control cost and moderate price is to perform radical surgery. Since the historic mission for many colleges and universities is to offer a liberal education that prepares students for informed participation in a democracy, the activities that undergraduate education has added over the centuries to this essentially academic intent are the most vulnerable to “the knife” -- residential life, student life, athletics. A combination of classroom and out-of-classroom experiences is now defining a distinctively American undergraduate education that is distinguished from classroom-only university programs in other countries. It is this very surgery that for-profit universities have already performed to keep tuition across their sector more affordable. Academic degrees are offered online (excepting short-term residencies on a host college campus or coursework in a modest office building); there are no residence halls; there is no athletic program; and, of course, there is no student life except conversation about coursework online. For-profit universities are already growing rapidly in enrollment and if tuition keeps rising among non-profits, this opportunity may become increasingly attractive to the American public.

I suggest that nonprofit education will be reluctant to go so far as the for-profits in altering what has evolved over the centuries as the American “model” of undergraduate education. That said, a viable first step to control costs without sacrificing the academic experience is for colleges and universities to pull back as a “sector” from the extravagances that have developed in the out-of-classroom amenities over the last few decades because of a compulsion to outspend the competition in what is most visible to the paying public -- sports palaces, fancy hotel-like accommodations, spa-like student unions, gourmet-style dining facilities, etc.

On behalf of the public and our own desire to remain a key contributor to the national ambition, we ought to disarm in at least one aspect of our activity. We should have a positive deflation of our ambitions and our competitive fever (regardless of the numerical ranking gimmicks) in those areas that are not historically related to our role in advancing knowledge.

What would happen, for example, if all of us came to the conclusion that it would make sense only to build residence halls that conform in design and purpose to the academic program of our respective college or university and to the pricing and construction standards of eco-friendly “low-income housing” that offer inhabitants perfectly livable, attractive space without extravagance? The initial cost may still be high (although not higher than luxury-hotel accommodations), but the long-term energy savings would be significant. What if we all agreed that students could, indeed, survive and even thrive in double rooms? What if we all scaled back our competition for student athletes? What if we pledged to reduce conference and meeting costs by relying more heavily on virtual technology? What stands in the way is not only antitrust laws but also our own attitudes and egos.

It is quite obvious that none of this radical change could be accomplished systemically by a single president or a small group of institutions; it would take a sea change across higher education. But even if we have the best of intentions and can overcome our reluctance to change, the antitrust laws stand squarely in our way. Right now, any discussion with the intent of disarmament cannot prudently be attempted.

The federal antitrust laws were applied in the 1990s to challenge financial aid meetings among colleges that had an “overlap” in the students they recruit. The aftermath of that litigation has had the unfortunate consequence of severely limiting discussion among colleges and universities about cost and competition, at great detriment to the public. I assert that if we, as a nation, are serious about reducing the cost while improving the quality of higher education, we in higher education need a “safe” space in which to talk candidly. Congress should revisit the law and permit such conversations for the benefit of the public. We can’t disarm if we can’t talk. That is Diplomacy 101!

Let me be clear. I am not talking about encouraging discussion among institutions about faculty salaries, annual tuition charges and the like. I do, however, believe we need the will and determination to try to achieve change in those current practices that have escalated our costs. As a first step we need change from the federal government that would give us the legal means to help the public with the cost of higher education. Not to entertain disarmament leaves us with an intolerable alternative -- escalating tuition without foreseeable limit.

Leadership is also required and that probably best comes from established associations. It is time for an organization like the American Council on Education to issue that call for us and to work productively with the federal and state governments to revisit the antitrust laws to allow us to work towards affordability.

There will, of course, be those who decry any form of cooperation among those who meet to discuss cost. They distrust us. This caution is understandable were it not for the intractable crisis in higher education. If we do not find ways to reduce the cost of our colleges and universities, students will potentially seek alternatives such as for-profit universities or study at foreign universities, or be shut out of higher education. And many of those who attend our colleges and universities will be saddled with increasing debt that will burden them and/or their families for years – all at the wrong time in our economic cycle. If “self-interest” is not a consoling safeguard for the skeptics, let us request a temporary exemption of two years to allow colleges to address the exorbitant tuition issue to demonstrate that there are benefits to the public in this approach. If there are such benefits, let the exemption be extended. If not, shame on us!

William G. Durden
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William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College and a member of the Board of Directors of Walden University.

The Economic Collapse and Educational Values

As a college president, I see the world through the lens of education, and I can’t help thinking there’s a lesson or two to be learned from our current financial woes. A quick review: For a number of years we all watched housing prices rise seemingly without end only to be surprised when revelation of the extent and toxicity of sub-prime mortgage lending caused the credit markets to seize up, bursting the bubble with a bang and bringing some very large financial institutions to their knees. Just like someone surveying the morning-after remains of one helluva party, we are now asking our collective hung-over selves: What were we thinking? Why didn’t we see this coming, and why didn’t the very smart and well-educated folks who head these institutions take steps to prevent this?

I’m not thinking about specific courses economics majors and future M.B.A.'s and bankers should have taken but didn’t. I’m thinking of deeper patterns of rewards and expectations taken for granted for so long that we don’t reckon with their impact at all. Much of what lies behind our current economic train-wreck stems from short-sightedness -- focus on short-term goals and gains -- and near-sightedness -- seeking to maximize one vector without regard for context in which that vector has value to begin with. So we have had big players making millions, nay billions, in ways that ultimately blew up the very system that made such gain and growth possible. I think there’s a proverb about a goose and golden eggs that applies.

Most of the players had earned at least a bachelor’s degree along the way, many of them at pretty selective colleges and universities. Virtually all had learned to compete and succeed in a grading system that rewards students for mastering — and in the worst cases just regurgitating — discrete packages of information. How much is retained after each exam and each course varies by student, and of course many do integrate what they have learned into larger ensembles. But not every course of study insists on integrative learning, and colleges and universities may inadvertently set themselves up to promote a certain type of achievement by measuring their own worth as many rating systems do: by the SAT scores and rank in class of their incoming students.

This system of values is not lost on prospective college students and their parents, who, if they can afford it, have their kids coached to excel at standardized tests and tutored to a fare-thee-well. Students experience terrible levels of performance anxiety and stress, all the more if they come to believe that education is a steeplechase that one “wins” by jumping hurdles, one at a time, ever higher, ever faster. In rewarding the most successful grade and score hounds, aren’t we, even if inadvertently, promoting the pursuit of short-term gains?

It’s not likely students forget this lesson upon leaving school and entering a world only too happy to prize short-term gain. Get the best result now and don’t worry about the day after tomorrow. Maximize stock value at the end of the quarter. That way you’ll get the biggest bonus package this year. Is there a way to take advantage of market movements and make a killing tomorrow, in the next hour, in the next 10 minutes?

It goes on. Get as many folks signed up for mortgages at the low introductory interest rate and don’t worry about what happens when the rate resets. Home buyers: Get that introductory rate. Don’t worry about resets or the possibility the economy may sour. Back to brokers and local banks: Take the commissions and sell the mortgages now. Bigger banks: Bundle those mortgages and take the profits by selling them. Get the risk off your books. Put it elsewhere. Don’t worry what happens once you resell the mortgage. Just jump that next hurdle.

The system we use to grade students doesn’t just mirror this scale of values. It blesses and promotes it. Even as the admissions officers of our most prestigious colleges and universities claim to seek “well-rounded students,” they are choosing among students who have already learned to play the high-score-and-grades game in high school. Most colleges and universities do not question what students and their parents want of them: Enough seats in the “right” majors so they can get their passport to a professional school. How? By wracking up the same string of A’s during their undergraduate years as they did before. Little time for experimentation, for taking risks -- where the only “loss” might be a less than perfect transcript. If they don’t get into the right graduate or professional program they might not get the credential that is the ticket to a job where they can reap larger profits more quickly than those who went before them, in the same fields. Because, the assumption is, those fields will always be profitable.

Is there an alternative to the short-term, shortsighted thinking the pursuit of grades has encouraged our students to internalize? A handful of colleges, Hampshire among them, have long been tweaked for maintaining narrative evaluations in place of letter grades. Hampshire, the example I know best, confronts its students with detailed and nuanced performance evaluations. Some might equate escape from the tyranny of A, B, C, D, F to an invitation to slack off; the few students who enter Hampshire with that very fantasy soon discover its hollowness. Success at Hampshire and comparable colleges — and for the best students, in my view, everywhere — involves each student owning his or her learning and understanding the context and significance of that learning. Just the other day I overheard a proud Hampshire student (who didn’t know I was within earshot) tell a group of visiting high school seniors: “I knew how to get A’s on quizzes and examinations and for courses in high school. As soon as the course was over, I forgot most of the stuff that got me the A. I like Hampshire because I hold on to what I learn, because I know why I’m learning it and make it my own.”

This philosophy undergirds Hampshire’s whole system of education. Instead of choosing among pre-set majors -- predetermined fields with established questions -- each student crafts a unique educational plan of work that must be approved by two professors. Each student submits a portfolio to show that she or he has achieved the agreed-upon goals, and faculty evaluate the totality of each student’s accomplishments. Our students come to know that the first step in learning is defining the question and setting it in context. Even more: To take responsibility for deciding which questions to ask, quite often of a status quo that seems unassailable, and then by means of study, research, interrogation, and creative reflection, to reframe the question in light of changing circumstances.

While I know first-hand how Hampshire fosters a distinctive brand of self-reliance and critique among our students, I believe that there are ways comparable qualities can be promoted in more traditional systems. You cannot imagine doing away with grades? Faculty can still ask students to assess their own achievement and meet with them to share perceptions. There are distribution requirements and specific courses patterns in each major? Students could write a narrative that explains how the courses they chose to fulfill their distribution requirement contributed to their intellectual formation. The point would be to have students see how what they learned fits into a larger pattern, and could lead them toward a sense of personal ownership of their education. They would write another narrative on the eve of graduation in which they would evaluate the disciplinary mastery the courses with which they fulfilled their major led them to. And where the gaps in their mastery of the discipline remained, and what the limits of the discipline were. This would not only deepen their own ownership of the learning they had acquired but bring them face-to-face with the defining limitations of every field, of every perspective.

Wouldn’t it have been helpful if we had more corporate executives and board members who’d had such training in their college years and were primed to question the fundamental assumptions of the industries in which they were engaged? Who didn’t assume that if they got a big bonus at year’s end, they must be doing everything right?

Instead, we are left with an economy in near-ruin by the collective action of individuals who, I’m quite sure, got good grades, who knew how to ace the examinations on which they’d been coached, and whose long-term vision stretched no further than the end of the term. That view is great while it lasts, but, like that shiny “A” one crams for on the quiz, the substance is gone before the ink is dry.

Ralph Hexter
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Ralph Hexter is president of Hampshire College. This essay is also being published on his new blog.

Business and the Relevance of Liberal Arts

At first glance, Peter Drucker might seem an unlikely candidate to have published an academic novel. Famous for writing books such as Concept of the Corporation and The Effective Executive, Drucker was dubbed “The Man Who Invented Management” in his 2005 Business Week obituary. Drucker’s audience was to be found among the Harvard Business Review crowd, not the Modern Language Association coterie, and, not surprisingly, his two novels are no longer in print.

But the university he presented in his 1984 novel, The Temptation to Do Good, confronted some key questions that face higher education institutions in today’s unprecedented financial downturn: Are current practices sustainable? Have we strayed from our core mission? Will the liberal arts survive increasing budget pressures?

As these questions -- hardly the usual literary fare -- demonstrate, Drucker’s work is a rarity among academic novels. These texts typically provide a send-up of academic life, by making fun of intellectual trends through characters such as Jack Gladney, who chairs the department of Hitler studies in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, or by parodying the pettiness of department politics, as in Richard Russo’s Straight Man, in which one English professor’s nose is mangled during a personnel committee meeting, courtesy of a spiral notebook thrown at him by one of his peers. By contrast, The Temptation to Do Good is almost painstakingly earnest in its portrayal of Father Heinz Zimmerman, president of the fictional St. Jerome University.

Like other contemporary academic novels, The Temptation to Do Good depicts the problems of political correctness, the tensions between faculty and administration, and the scandal of inter-office romance. But St. Jerome’s problems are no laughing matter. Lacking the improbable events of other academic novels -- in James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale, the adjunct-protagonist even gains super-human powers -- the plot of The Temptation to Do Good is completely plausible, and the problems above destroy a good man.

St. Jerome’s chemistry department decides not to hire Martin Holloway, a job candidate with a less-than-stellar research record. Feeling sorry for the soon-to-be-unemployed Ph.D., Zimmerman decides to recommend Holloway to the dean of a nearby small college. Zimmerman knows he shouldn’t interfere, but he feels he must do the Christian thing, and so, succumbing to “the temptation to do good,” he makes the call. Meanwhile, Holloway’s angry wife spreads unfounded rumors about a dalliance between the president-priest and his female assistant. The faculty overreact to both events, and although most of them come to regret it, Zimmerman’s presidency is brought down, and he is eased out by the church into a sinecure government position.

Often reading like an intricate case study of one university’s internal politics, The Temptation to Do Good aims to do more than that, too, raising questions about the purpose of higher education institutions writ large. Representing the contemporary university as a large, bureaucratic institution -- much like the companies that Drucker’s theories would shape -- The Temptation to Do Good portrays Zimmerman as a successful executive, one who “converted a cow college in the sticks” into a national university with a reputation unrelated to its religious roots. He even makes the cover of Time magazine for increasing his endowment by a larger percentage than any other university over the past five years.

Although some faculty recognize, as one physics professor admits, that they wouldn’t be able to do their research without the money he has brought in, many of them are also disenchanted with Father Zimmerman, CEO. The chemistry chair chose to come to St. Jerome because he expected it to be “less corrupted by commercialism and less compromised by the embrace of industry” than other institutions, which he realizes isn’t the case.

“We have a right,” says the chair of modern languages, upset over the abolition of the language requirement, “to expect the President of a Catholic university to stand up for a true liberal education.” In both cases, we see the ideals of a Catholic university being linked to the ideals of a liberal arts education, both focused on a pure devotion to the pursuit of knowledge seen as incompatible with Zimmerman’s expanded professional schools and intimate sense of students’ consumer needs. Can St. Jerome be true to both the liberal arts and the practical, professionalized realm at the same time?

This question is never resolved in the novel, but outside of his fiction writing, Drucker was deeply interested in the practicality of the liberal arts. In his autobiography, he discusses his deep appreciation of Bennington College, a school designed to combine progressive methods -- connecting learning to practical experience -- with the ideas of Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president and famed proponent of classical liberal ideals. William Whyte’s sociological classic Organization Man cites Drucker as saying that “the most vocational course a future businessman can take is one in the writing of poetry or short stories.”

Although Drucker was unusual in actually writing novels himself, he was not alone among business thinkers in expressing the values of the liberal arts. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies describes an investment banker who suggests closing business schools and providing students with a “liberal arts literacy,” that includes “a broader vision, a sense of history, perspectives from literature and art.”

More recently, Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat includes a section focusing on the importance of a liberal arts education in the new integrated, global economy. “Encouraging young people early to think horizontally and to connect disparate dots has to be a priority,” writes Friedman, “because this is where and how so much innovation happens. And first you need dots to connect. And to me that means a liberal arts education.”

Books like Rolf Jensen’s The Dream Society: How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination will Transform Your Business, Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore’s The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage, Daniel H. Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, and Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Information Age make these points more specifically, often showing how certain “literary” skills, such as storytelling and empathy, are crucial to success in the current time.

Out of the authors mentioned above, only Lanham is a humanities professor, and in a field (rhetoric) largely out of scholarly vogue today. “Let’s go back to the subject of English a moment. Of all subjects none is potentially more useful,” Whyte writes. “That English is being slighted by business and students alike does not speak well of business. But neither does it speak well for English departments.”

What’s significant about Whyte’s account -- along with that of Drucker, Friedman, and others -- is that none of them claim that colleges and universities should merely churn out students of technical writing or focus on the practicality of the composition course; instead they want students to think about narrative complexity and story-telling through the liberal arts. Whyte himself focuses on the study of Shakespeare and Charles Lamb.

However, instead of embracing these potential real-world allies, liberal arts disciplines have seemed to withdraw, letting others become the experts in -- and proponents of -- the relevance of their subjects. Consider, for example, that in January 2008, one of the most famous English professors in the world proclaimed on his New York Times blog that the study of literature is useless. Asserting that the humanities don’t do anything but give us pleasure, Stanley Fish wrote that, “To the question of ‘what use are the humanities?’ the only honest answer is none whatsoever.” The arts and humanities, Fish contended, won’t get you a job, make you a well-rounded citizen, or ennoble you in any way.

Not surprisingly, readers were appalled. Within the next 48 hours, 484 comments were posted online, most of them critical of Fish. The majority of these comments, from a mix of scientists, humanists, business people, and artists, could be divided into two categories: first, the humanities are useful because they provide critical thinking skills that are useful for doing your job, whether you’re a doctor or CEO; and second, the humanities are useful for more than just your job, whether that means being a more informed citizen or simply a more interesting conversationalist.

However, perhaps the most fascinating comments came from those who recognized Fish’s stance as a professional one: in other words, one that relates to attitudes toward the humanities held by practitioners inside the academy (professors), as distinct from those held by general educated readers outside it (the Times audience). “Let’s not conflate some academics -- those who have professionalized their relationship with the humanities to the point of careerist cynicism -- with those [...] still capable of a genuine relationship to the humanities,” said one reader. Another added that the “humanities have been taken over by careerists, who speak and write only for each other.”

In other words, while readers defend the liberal arts’ relevance, scholars, who are busy writing specialized scholarship for one another, simply aren’t making the case. This was an interesting debate when Fish wrote his column over a year ago; now in 2009, we should consider it an urgent one.

Traditionally, economic downturns are accompanied by declines in the liberal arts, and with today’s unparalleled budget pressures, higher education institutions will need to scrutinize the purpose of everything they do as never before. Drucker’s academic novel provides an illustrative example of the liberal arts at work: as Fish’s readers would point out, literature can raise theoretical questions that help us understand very practical issues.

To be sure, the liberal arts are at least partly valuable because they are removed from practical utility as conceived in business; the return on investment from a novel can’t be directly tied to whether it improves the reader’s bottom line.

But justifiable concerns among scholars that the liberal arts will become only about utility has driven the academy too far in the opposite direction. Within higher education, we acknowledge that the writing skills gained in an English seminar might help alumni craft corporate memos, but it is outside higher education where the liveliest conversations about the liberal arts’ richer benefits -- empathic skills and narrative analysis, for example -- to the practical world seem to occur.

Drucker and his antecedents may be raising the right questions, but these discussions should be equally led by those professionally trained in the disciplines at hand. In today’s economic climate, it may become more important than ever for the liberal arts to mount a strong defense -- let’s not leave it entirely in the hands of others.

Melanie Ho
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Melanie Ho is a higher education consultant in Washington. She has taught literature, writing and leadership development courses at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The Bachelor's Degree Is Obsolete?

Why don’t we declare the bachelor’s degree obsolete? No, not education, not colleges and universities, not professors or libraries or students, just the four-year bachelor’s degree. (You might turn on your iPod while you read. You’ll see why.)

Western history traces this four-year package back to the University of Bologna, before Gutenberg, when the pedagogical constraint was the shortage of books. Students had to gather in large rooms while the professor read from one of the scarce books. Only Wikipedia, in my scrounging around, notes that the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco and Al-Azhar University in Egypt preceded Bologna in their founding and in granting multi-year degrees.

Before dismissing any questions, note that this academic year has not been kind to U.S. higher education. Dead canaries litter the coal mines and the executive suites of U.S. colleges and universities as another academic year draws to a close. The capital markets have pulled out of major segments of lending for college loans. Wouldn’t even a Finance 101 student say this exit means the capital markets are challenging the value of a college degree? The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has demanded explanations about outcomes from the wealthiest colleges and universities.

Charles Miller, the Spellings Commission chair, gutted the College Board for poor math after the College Board offered the old chestnut that college is a good investment because graduates will earn $1 million more in their lifetimes. In Massachusetts, legislators, unable to find the public good from the nation’s wealthiest and self-described best colleges and universities, had the temerity to wonder about taxing endowments. A problematic solution (taxing endowments) does not erase a solid question.

The latest trend in higher education is how many students need five and even six years to arrange four years of college. Half the nation’s twenty million college students are in two-year community colleges, with the odds of achieving a four-year degree against them. The price of the degree, what customers pay in tuition, discounted or not, keeps rising. This cripples families in cost and debt and shuts out those whose income prohibit them from even thinking about college. This nation, any nation, needs all the educated citizens we can create. We seem to be failing.

I am the first to agree that students fortunate enough to go to an Ivy League school, Stanford, Duke, Williams, Amherst, Grinnell, or the flagship state universities are part of what any gathering of one or more educational leaders calls “the best higher education system in the world.” I am one of those graduates. What, though, does that greatness do for those the millions shut out or struggling as part-time students? All the undergraduate spots in all those fine institutions amount to a tiny fraction of the 20 million students now in college.

I keep looking for how to describe what’s going on. I keep reading the fine anthologies of war reporting and civil rights reporting from the Library of America. In metaphor, I feel closer to the war correspondents. People are dying in the rest, the “not the best in the world,” segment of U.S. higher education today.

In the civil rights comparison, I keep looking for the James Farmer, the Julian Bond, the Martin Luther King, the Thurgood Marshall to speak out for the students whom we, the people, are failing to educate. I keep looking for the Justice Department officials -- the Nicholas Katzenbach, the John Doar, the Burke Marshall -- or someone who will stand up for equality and against a federal system that allocates tens of thousands of federal dollars in tax benefits and other subsidies to students at Yale and Williams and Harvard while arcane rules and impenetrable paperwork prevent a student working two jobs at a community college from receiving a $4,000 federal Pell Grant. I keep asking in my reporting, “Never mind how Yale and Princeton spend their own money. What about just what the federal government spends on each student who has found his or her way to college? Aren’t the Yale student and the community college student both U.S. citizens?” I know, I know how many people are weary of that question from me.

I’m left to wonder what I’m missing. Perhaps the next unasked question is about this product we call college, the four-year bachelor’s degree. In defending the high cost of education, college and university presidents and business officers have taken everything into account except the fundamental cost of delivery. In MBA speak, the central cost driver of a college education is not health insurance, salaries, rising oil costs, or even costly academic journals. It is the four-year, 36-course structure that determines the cost of a college degree. This model, leading to annual tuitions and fees of $25,000 at public colleges and $50,000 at many private ones, crushes families with $100,000 to $200,000 in cost and debt.

Impossible to imagine the end of the bachelor's degree packaged into four years? Most of us -- households or other enterprises -- from time to time take a look at the fundamentals of our budgets and ask, “Is there another way?” As an example, consider the bloodless iPod and MP3 revolution. What happened? A demographic cohort, people roughly 16 to 25 years old who wanted access to one song at a time in a form that could easily be shared among friends, revolted and created a new market when the music industry refused any modifications or price breaks.

How can I present this outlandish question, and some solutions, with any hope of a hearing? I put my “greatest education in the world” to use and pulled out Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a man with a mind and a pen who did get we, the people, thinking. Using Paine’s structure to think these issues through, I wrote a pamphlet. I asked Frank Kramer, owner of the independent Harvard Bookstore, what a price would be that’s low enough for an impulse purchase but high enough to make the pamphlet worth ringing up if the store keeps all the proceeds. “Three dollars, but you need endorsements,” he said. Columnists cannot be choosy. I accepted damnations, too.

Inside Higher Ed and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity invite you to download the pamphlet (and sell if you wish) for free. (To make and distribute your own pamphlets, print this version on 8x11 paper, run through a double-sided copier, and fold in half.)

Before cashiering this question about ending the bachelor’s degree, consider a passage from the introduction to patriot Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776.

“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

Wick Sloane
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Wick Sloane, who writes The Devil’s Workshop, won a fellowship to write about community colleges from the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. This column and the attached pamphlet flow from that work.

The Case of the Disappearing Liberal Arts College

The continuing saga over the closure of Antioch College (including a plan to revive it) heightened concern that many storied, but financially stressed, liberal arts colleges may be in danger of closing in a time of economic turmoil. Antioch educated prominent Americans like the civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and the Nobel Prize winner Mario R. Capecchi. The threatened demise of any innovative and influential college that has nurtured generations of leaders, scholars, public servants and social critics would be a loss both to higher education and our nation.

But the focus by reporters and educational policy makers on the potential closure of some colleges may mask a more serious threat to liberal arts colleges: a slow abandonment of their traditional mission in favor of a more “professional” orientation.

This longer-term and more significant trend was first highlighted by the economist David Breneman nearly 20 years ago in a 1990 article that asked, “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” At that time he concluded that many one-time liberal arts colleges were not closing, but gradually transforming into “professional colleges” as they added programs in vocational fields such as business, communications and allied health.

Recent research we have conducted using data from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms that the trend Breneman identified has continued. The 212 liberal arts colleges that Breneman identified in 1990 have now decreased to 137. Many former liberal arts colleges are evolving, consciously or unconsciously, into more academically complex institutions offering numerous vocational as well as arts and science majors. In the process, they may have lost the focused mission and carefully integrated academic program that for generations made small liberal arts colleges a model of high quality undergraduate education. Most likely this trend will persist.

In a recent interview, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, predicted that 10 to 15 years from now there will be even fewer institutions that look like traditional residential liberal arts colleges. Little by little, we may be losing an alternative model of undergraduate education that has challenged and inspired many other types of higher education institutions to take risks, experiment, and improve the quality of their educational programs.

The gradual, and almost invisible, transformation of many “liberal arts colleges” to more comprehensive institutions is similar to another gradual trend that has reshaped the composition and the work of the American academic profession. Over the past three decades, colleges and universities have replaced tenure-track faculty positions with part-time and full-time term-contract positions -- a phenomenon Jack Shuster and Martin Finkelstein referred to as the “silent revolution” in their book The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). This piecemeal process at most institutions was not the result of a careful review of academic staffing needs or a systematic effort to improve the quality of instruction and scholarship. Nor was it the outcome of a national debate on the nature of the academic profession in the 21st century.

Instead, as research on contingent faculty documents, most colleges and universities added part-time and term-contract faculty in response to immediate staffing needs or short-term budget constraints. The gradual but profound shift in the focus of many liberal arts colleges appears to follow a similar pragmatic but also very reactive pattern.

Change in higher education is inevitable and highly desirable. It is essential in order to craft a lean, efficient educational system capable of meeting the educational demands of an era defined by demographic diversity, economic uncertainty, rapid technological advances, and a global market place. The evolution we see in liberal arts colleges is symptomatic of a much larger evolutionary process underway throughout higher education. We recognize that liberal arts colleges and all of higher education must adapt to the demands of the times.

Our concern is not with change itself. Our concern is with the way change unfolds in our complex and loosely coordinated higher education system. Should evolution in higher education follow a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” course or should we intervene to preserve and update valued types of educational institutions because of the important roles they play in serving our pluralistic society?

The Value of Liberal Arts Colleges

The current saga of the U.S. auto industry may contain some useful lessons for higher education. Although the final chapter on this story has yet to be written, the news media has chronicled a national dialogue on the fate of the American manufacturing sector. Rather than letting U.S. automobile manufacturers disappear in the midst of a dramatic economic recession, we have decided as a nation to preserve GM and Chrysler but also to require them to retool and streamline their operations. This decision was driven by the belief that losing the backbone of our manufacturing sector would ultimately be harmful to our country.

It may be time for a similar dialogue on the shape of the U.S. higher education system and the place of liberal arts colleges within that system. For generations, small liberal arts colleges have demonstrated their educational value. As Thomas Cech noted in his article “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education,” they produce scientists and scholars at a higher per capita rate than other types of postsecondary institutions. Furthermore, many leaders in business, politics, education, and other fields received their education at liberal arts colleges, as noted in the Annapolis Group’s report, “The Nation’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges.” In addition, liberal arts colleges have served as a valuable “test kitchen” for other more complex but less nimble higher education institutions.

According to the education historian Frederick Rudolph, numerous educational innovations, such as freshman seminars, single-course intensive study terms, honors programs, and senior theses emerged from liberal arts colleges before they spread to other types of colleges and universities. Likewise, many second and third-tier liberal arts colleges have demonstrated a special talent for serving first-generation college students. Essentially, these small colleges with nurturing environments have served as a portal to liberal education for many students whose families have never before participated in higher education.

In a 2005 report on the impact of liberal arts colleges, Ernest Pascarella and his co-authors observe that the liberal arts college is unique in its total dedication to undergraduate education. Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini in their comprehensive study of college outcomes concluded that the liberal arts college in its traditional form provides a supportive psychological environment that promotes institutional impact on students. Pascarella and his 2005 co-authors concluded the attributes that have made the liberal arts college a powerful learning environment include “a strong emphasis on teaching and student development, a common valuing of the life of the mind, small size, a shared intellectual experience, high academic expectations, and frequent interactions inside and outside the classroom between students and faculty.”

Alexander Astin, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles, drawing upon extensive national research on higher education, reported that liberal arts college students expressed higher satisfaction with teaching and general education programs than students from other types of postsecondary institutions. Similarly, Indiana University researchers Shouping Hu and George Kuh found that students in liberal arts colleges, in general, are more engaged in their college experience than their counterparts in research universities and comprehensive colleges.

Many liberal arts colleges today are working to update their academic programs and better connect them with the outside world and career opportunities. Writing in a 2009 Liberal Education article, Richard Freeland notes that these changes are driven by recognition that “a traditional liberal education may not, by itself, be a sufficient preparation for the adult world.” Freeland further reports that colleges such as Bates and Wellesley have established programs to enhance civic engagement and develop skills needed for constructive citizenship.

Many liberal arts colleges are trying to make liberal education more relevant and practical by making internships, study abroad, service learning, and other forms of problem-based and experiential learning opportunities available to their students. The challenge for all liberal arts colleges is to adapt their educational programs in a turbulent environment without losing their educational souls and distinctive identity. Can they preserve their core values and mission that have made them particularly effective educational institutions throughout the history of American higher education while adapting to the challenging demands they confront in the early 21st century?

Given their powerful educational environments and important contributions to society, it would be unfortunate to see liberal arts colleges disappear or become so few in number that they lose their ability to influence and inspire other types of colleges and universities. Yet national data on liberal arts colleges suggest that their numbers are decreasing as many evolve into “professional colleges” or other types of higher education institutions.

Fundamentally, the future of the liberal arts college is uncertain. The traditional residential liberal arts college offering a coherent educational program based firmly in arts and science fields and offering a shared intellectual experience to all of its students may be dying out. Or the liberal arts college may gradually be evolving into a new, more up-to-date form. Are we witnessing a process of extinction of the traditional liberal arts college or a healthy process of adaptation and evolution? Whichever process is underway, it seems to be largely unplanned and incremental rather than strategic.

What to Do?

In a dynamic society, change is inevitable and, in most cases, desirable. However, how change occurs is important as well. Do we let change unfold without direction or do we guide change through a careful process of assessment, dialogue, and strategic initiative?

The American liberal arts college has reached an important crossroad. We believe that assertive and coordinated action is necessary to stem the gradual demise of the liberal arts college sector. For this reason, we urge private philanthropic foundations with a tradition of supporting liberal arts colleges (for example the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Teagle Foundation) to take the lead with two important steps:

1. Convene a series of meetings to discuss the future of the liberal arts college with the goal of recommending specific actions to update and strengthen these institutions. These meetings should include a diverse mix of liberal arts colleges, voluntary college consortia, other major education interest groups, and representatives of the public at large.

2. Establish a competitive funding program encouraging liberal arts colleges to design innovative and entrepreneurial educational programs that preserve the best aspects of the liberal arts college model while adapting the model to the demands of a rapidly changing world. This initiative should encourage creative proposals within the liberal arts college framework rather than the addition of new programs on the margins that dilute the mission and intellectual coherence of these colleges.

The future of a core component of the U.S. higher education system is at stake. It is time for bold action before the liberal arts college sector becomes too small to be relevant and influential. It would be shameful if we allow the liberal arts college model to dwindle to the scale of an educational boutique accessible only to the academic and socioeconomic elite. We do not advocate a GM-style bailout for liberal arts colleges. However, we hope that one or more private foundations that recognize the important contributions of liberal arts colleges will step up to the plate and assume the vital leadership role that is needed before many more of these esteemed colleges disappears.

Roger G. Baldwin and Vicki L. Baker
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Roger G. Baldwin is professor of educational administration and coordinator of the graduate program in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University's College of Education. Vicki L. Baker is an assistant professor of economics and management at Albion College.

The Resilient Liberal Arts College

There has been much discussion recently over the plight of liberal arts colleges in the new global century. The closure of some institutions, the deep financial challenges faced by others that are tuition-driven, and the fiscal constraints at liberal arts colleges with traditionally large but now battered endowments, all raise questions regarding the future of this sector of higher education. Perhaps more controversially, some observers have identified the addition of professional and vocational programs to the curriculum at liberal arts colleges as a long-term threat to the focused mission and intellectual well-being of these institutions.

But while economic challenges may pose a threat to the viability of some small to medium-sized liberal arts colleges, there is really nothing new about this phenomenon. As historians of higher education have pointed out, the mortality rate for small baccalaureate colleges has been high throughout the nation’s history. From tiny sectarian colleges on the frontier, to campuses where the curriculum was too small, to underfunded institutions that perished with their founders, the story is as varied as it is persistent.

The more troubling claim about the fate of liberal arts colleges, it seems to me, involves the argument that the addition of professional and applied fields including business, engineering, communications, or health and wellness, somehow dilutes the core values of a liberal arts education. This argument appears to center on the notion that the liberal arts experience is largely defined by academic majors, and that only by remaining pure to an arbitrary constellation of allied fields can the uniqueness of the liberal arts college experience be preserved.

I would like to suggest that a different paradigm may be in order, one that acknowledges the simple fact that residential liberal arts colleges have always been attuned to the imperatives of professional and vocational life. Europe’s earliest medieval universities were all about the practical, dare we say “vocational” needs of the universal Roman Catholic Church. When students at Bologna began the study of law in the late 12th century, one suspects they had a modicum of interest in getting on with their careers.

The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke graduated Christ Church College, Oxford in 1656. But he also took a medical degree and employed his training to save the life of his future patron, the political operative Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury. And it was under the employ of Shaftesbury that Locke wrote what would later be published as Two Treatises of Government, a text that proved to be of some value to leaders of the American Revolution like Thomas Jefferson. Locke found no incongruity between his liberal education and his more practical studies. Why do we?

The future of the liberal arts college, in my view, is secure so long as administrators, faculty leaders, and innovative boards continue to reject the antithesis between liberal arts and professional studies. One emerging sector in higher education is doing just that. The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) is a consortium of 26 state-supported institutions committed to a high quality, largely residential liberal arts education. One way these colleges are different from some more traditional private liberal arts colleges is that the publics, without reservation, offer majors in business and communications and other fields, while also taking pride in their majors in biology and classics and English.

Admittedly, most of us do not associate liberal arts education with public universities. Much more familiar is the former state teachers’ college, the large land-grants, the comprehensives, and the sprawling Research I campuses. COPLAC colleges and universities have chosen another path. For COPLAC, a quality liberal arts education is about small class size, close faculty-student interaction, an innovative and interdisciplinary common core in the arts and sciences, undergraduate research experiences, senior capstone projects, service learning and community engagement, and a rich and diverse co-curricular life. Moreover, faculty members from professional programs at COPLAC institutions fully support and engage in this unified experience.

Some years ago, I was teaching in an interdisciplinary core humanities program at a COPLAC member institution. At their weekly meeting, the 12-person faculty team was discussing the upcoming common reading. The topic was the Industrial Revolution and the common reading was Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

As a historian, I went into the session thinking that I should lead the discussion. But as things turned out, the most perceptive insights into the text, and how to teach the text, came from a wonderful colleague in management and accountancy. In describing the shock horror that thinkers like Marx must have represented to the self-confident industrialist of the mid-19th century, it was a professor of management who brought the liberal arts experience into sharper focus, both for his colleagues and, more importantly, for his students.

The resiliency of the liberal arts college has been demonstrated across many generations, and with the addition of a growing public liberal arts sector to reaffirm the value of broad-based learning in a small campus setting, the future offers great promise. We should applaud, not criticize, liberal arts colleges that respond to the growing demand for skilled professionals in a variety of applied fields. These graduates will bring to their work the habits of critical inquiry and the integration of knowledge -- both liberal arts outcomes -- that serve to temper the narrow instrumentalism often found at the center of our professional lives.

Bill Spellman
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Bill Spellman is director of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.

Alive and Well

The liberal arts are higher education’s answer to Broadway, that "fabulous invalid" whose demise is predicted with both certainty and regularity. Claims that the liberal arts are in jeopardy have taken on increased urgency in the current economic climate. As students swell the ranks of community colleges, the presumption is that readily identifiable and employable skills rather than broad and deep learning are the primary focus of their educational ambitions.

But in the case of the liberal arts, conventional wisdom is at odds with what experience and current data suggest. For example, the benchmark freshmen surveys conducted each year by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute show an increasing appetite for the kind of educational experience typically associated with the liberal arts. In 2008, for the first time since 1982, more than 50 percent of first year students identified “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as an important or very important goal of their college experience.

Similarly, the venerable pollster John Zogby has found that a growing segment -- including but not limited to the traditional college age population -- of United States citizens believes living a "meaningful life" is central to the realization of the American dream. And despite dire predictions, enrollment at most liberal arts colleges, including my own, has risen during this difficult economic year.

There are likely two reasons for this gap between conventional wisdom and student decision making. The first is that the separation of liberal arts education from employment is simply unfounded. Employers consistently say that they want to hire graduates who can write and speak clearly, who are innovative and critical thinkers, and who are sophisticated and comfortable with diversity. While not exclusively the domain of liberal education, these traits are certainly cultivated in a liberal arts environment.

The second probable reason for the persistence of the liberal arts is the focus of students themselves. Today’s traditional college age population is more globally-minded, less interested in work as a means only to material success, more willing to find middle ground on issues that typically lead to bi-modal responses (such as abortion), and entirely comfortable with differences in race, gender, and sexual orientation.

In short, today’s young people are balm to the liberal educator’s soul. Ideally, liberal education should literally do just that – it should be education that liberates, that frees the mind from the vagaries and prejudices of received opinion and limited life experiences.

Of course, a reinvigorated focus on liberal education in this light suggests that some of the country club amenities of recent college life may not be particularly essential. Yet material gain is not eschewed in recent findings; it is simply not sufficient. Student expectations for material comfort and the search for meaning are not incompatible, but they may not be attainable in institutions whose resources are strained.

When in doubt, we should follow the example of Bobby Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis: ignore unreasonable demands and respond to the best of their aspirations. In this case, the liberal arts should provide a model of education that offers both a path to employment and faith in learning for its own sake; a set of useful skills along with the ability to reflect and find value in something beyond oneself. And a campus with older residence halls housing two and three students to a room is not only defensible, it is quite probably a sign of an institution focused on -- well, on education.

To add to the economic anxiety, there is also frequent hand wringing over the fate of the liberal arts due to the growth and proliferation of technology. It was not so long ago that technology was seen as a threat to educational engagement, whether it was through online learning or in society at large as we all “bowled alone.” Yet much of this anxiety evolved from a false dichotomy -- the notion that high tech and high touch are incompatible.

Students see no contradiction between technological sophistication and a personally connected learning community, and they expect both to be a part of their education. The reflection and personal engagement implied by the search for a meaningful life is fully compatible with the Internet age. Students are increasingly sophisticated in online work, while simultaneously they thrive, as much as ever, from strong relationships with faculty. Students expect fully contemporary technological resources, even as they seek the depth and meaning promised by a liberal arts education. The practical and financial challenge is to secure the necessary technological resources and fully integrate them into a sophisticated liberal arts education.

The threat to the liberal arts, if there is one, is not from the recession -- although our resources in higher education are limited. And it is not from a failure to offer marketable skills, for liberal education prepares students for both life and employment. The threat is the enduring challenge of education: to engage eternal truths even as we respond to contemporary issues. It is to ensure that liberal education evolves, that meaningful reflection can employ contemporary technological tools, that cultural exchange should extend beyond the boundaries of western democracies, that understanding identity does not inevitably lead to a chasm of difference. It is to create a liberal education that is both contemporary and enduring, evolving and profound. This is, simply and as always, the promise and the challenge of liberal education.

Mary B. Marcy
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Mary B. Marcy is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

College Seats for 75,000

Warning: The following column contains neither satire nor humor. Any such interpretations could be denial of the senseless, egregious inequities in U.S. higher education today.

Eureka. I need thousands of seats at four-year colleges for community college students. And the seats are right under my nose – all the undergraduate spots at the Ivies and all the seats, period, at the four-year Self Described Most Highly Selective Elites (”elites” hereafter). How? Easy, and everybody wins.

Next month, at graduation and all graduations thereafter, the top high schools – Riverdale, Brearley, Exeter, Andover, Scarsdale High School in the East, and Lafayette High School and Thacher School in California -- award bachelor’s degrees. These are the students finishing high school with wheelbarrows full of Advanced Placement college credits and equivalent courses.

Why? I need these seats for the students lined up outside my door this winter at Bunker Hill Community College, most of whom have ample ability but little hope of an elite spot worthy of their dreams. Why are the odds so against the students at my door? Because the AP-laden students already have the elite seats, to redo an education they already have.

U.S. higher education needs what the MBAs call a discontinuity, an iPod-style move by someone to flush out at least a few of the inequities. Hit the “Refresh” button. The elites brought this situation on themselves, by cramming down admissions standards requiring that incoming students already have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in the first place. In one move, all the students preparing for the Ivies and the elites don’t have to apply to college at all, and students who today don’t dare to dream of attending a great college can go.

Lord knows, I’ve tried to remedy all this. In my (as yet) unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Williams College, for example, I proposed that Williams offer a master’s degree for the regular students and a Ph.D. for students who complete an honors thesis. Nothing doing on that from Williams. So far.

Last winter, the formidable and impressive Independent Curriculum Group, a consortium of public and private secondary schools trying to build a better mousetrap, invited me to join a conversation about how these schools can reclaim their curriculums from the demands of elite admissions. That’s when I realized that trying to persuade the elites to change is futile. As long as the Common Application brings these colleges terabytes full of overqualified students willing to beg, borrow and scrounge $50,000 a year in tuition and fees, what’s the incentive to change? Nothing. High schools have to take back the curriculum on their own. “Go for it. Award a B.A. yourselves. Who’s to stop you?” I exhorted the audience.

The sic probo, as the academics say, is a snap. What self-respecting accreditor would deny a bachelor’s degree to these AP-laden students? Take samples of student work at these secondary schools, even from the bottom of the class, AP or not -- papers, essays in foreign languages, lab write-ups and math exams. Match this work with a random sample of student work from college seniors around the nation, even at the elites. If even I have seen high school work that stacks up, the faculty of these secondary schools certainly know that what they have taught their students by senior year beats what, sadly, too many bachelor’s-degree-receiving graduates have learned.

The outrage is the total feasibility, not the outlandishness, of my bachelor’s proposal. Everyone reading here knows that for these AP high schools a bachelor’s degree reflects the academic achievement of the graduates far more than the high school diploma these students are about to receive. Is this situation just? No way. For the sake of a few thousand students in community colleges, could we at least admit the folly in sending the most fortunate cohort of students to college twice, while millions of others, just as able, may never finish college at all?

I explained all this at the ICG conference. These fine secondary-school teachers offered a few laughs. No takers on my proposal. Nothing new there.

Three successive principals of Exeter, my school, have refused to consider my bachelor’s-degree idea, no matter how polite my presentation. On the drive home, I realized I’d failed at even the basics of the persuasive skills I try to teach in my own expository writing classes at Bunker Hill Community College. What does a principal care? Principals have good salaries, secretaries, great parking and often a house. The current system works for principals. Serves me right. The principals, like the elites, are the wrong audience, too.

I had forgotten to follow the money. So, who wins under my proposal? First, the teachers at these public and private secondary schools. Delivering a bachelor’s degree by 12th grade is worth a big raise. To pay for the raises? Private schools can charge more. School districts with these high schools can raise taxes. As noted, based on work quality alone, these public and private secondary schools will have no trouble receiving accreditation to award bachelor’s degrees.

Then, parents will jump for joy at a bachelor’s degree at the end of 12th grade – saving $100,000 to $200,000 in college tuition. As long as no one is greedy, teachers can have this raise and still save families a bundle. Your students won’t need to go to college, and that opens up all those seats for a few of the community college students with few choices ahead.

Anticipate objection, I tell my students. OK, who could object?

Certainly not anyone in higher education. In a tough economy, my proposal means more dues-paying members for the powerful higher education trade groups, such as the American Council on Education. Heck, even the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which seems to oppose everything, would have a hard time turning away this many new members.

Do I mean to send these 18-year-old bachelor’s-degree-wielding men and women out into the world to work at places like banks? Well, aren’t most of the top malefactors of Wall Street, the graduates of these same elites? What’s to lose? The Ivies, the public flagships, and the rest of the self-described most-highly selection colleges account for -- depending on where you draw the line -- maybe 75,000 undergraduate seats. All of these AP-laden students -- set them free now.

For most of history, physical adulthood has begun expected adulthood. Civilization has allotted “youth,” and bright college years, to only a very few. What have we done with our gift of youth? On our watch, so far, we are responsible for global warming, two wars, the economy and letting most of the U.S. public education system fall to ruin.

Still, someone reading this will object. Fair enough. Explaining your objections to your colleagues at the elites is too easy. I invite you to make your case to the students at my door at Bunker Hill and the other 1,177 community colleges.

Who else is the audience for your objections? Students waiting in line here and at the other community colleges. That’s one student, jailed, beaten and tortured in Africa. A single mother, beaten and cigarette-burned, who asked me the other day, “What do you know about Plato’s Apology?” Or the construction mason, who has read every book I know. An authentic Jude the Obscure, but botched surgeries from work injuries keep intruding, and he can’t work and finish school. A wounded Iraq veteran. A woman who apologized for missing class – “My boyfriend was murdered, and the memorial service was that day.”

Do these students have the intellect to succeed at the Ivies and the elites? Judge for yourself. Sometimes I wonder what Walt Whitman would make of the voices at community colleges. From time to time, I ask students to write their own version of Whitman’s "I Hear America Singing." We don’t spend time on Whitman first. I just say that they can choose another verb. I hand out a copy of Whitman’s poem. That’s it.

If you object to my proposal, what case would you make to these two students?

I Hear America Texting
Zelideth Rivera

I hear America Texting, the different finger speeds at work.
The bankers texting about the market system.
The politician texting for his donations as he smiles@people.
The father texting, who has the game on their big-screen T.V.
The mother texting her friends for the ingredients for a
quick dinner for five.
The kid texting his buddy, so he can copy his homework.
The girl texting her BFF, telling her about the cute boy
in class.
I even hear the toddler texting as he pretends to
text like mommy.
Quick, fast, smooth, easy finger strokes, all to get the
Message through. All day and night even on your 15-minute break
America is texting and getting its message through.


I Hear America Crying
Tatiana Baez

I HEAR America crying, the varied carols I hear;
Those of single mothers -- each one crying to sleep at night as they try
and brainstorm new ways to make ends meet;
The little boy crying out for a father figure, someone who he can look
upto, and teach him how to become a man;
The addict in every family crying as he or she struggles to stay clean
just so that he or she can win back custody of their child;
The young teenage mother crying hoping she will be able to graduate
high school and not become another teen statistic;
The father behind bars crying as he tries to explain to his only daughter
how come daddy isn’t home;
The insecure girl within all of women crying as we struggle daily to learn
how to love ourselves unconditionally
The awful cry of the single mother – or the little boy – or the addict –
Each crying about what eats up at them;
The day what belongs to the day at night, the party of young fellows,
upset, disappointed,
Singing with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

Thus, I prove?

Wick Sloane
Author's email:

'Rebundling' Liberal Education

In 2009 a group of 42 researchers, educators, and entrepreneurs met together at the invitation of Union Square Ventures, a venture capital firm, to discuss how the Web could transform education. A major theme of the daylong discussion, which took place under the theme "Hacking Education," was "unbundling," the process through which online distribution of digital media and information breaks apart and erodes existing industries. At the center of "unbundling" are new technologically-enabled relationships that democratize access to the means of production and collectively create plenty where scarcity once existed.

An often-cited example of "unbundling" is newspapers: with blogs and other online tools, one no longer needs a printing press or fleet of delivery vehicles to be heard. The newspaper editorial room competes with an army of bloggers and other online media outlets. Craigslist emerges as the marketplace for used household items, local job listings, and community announcements, replacing the advertising function of the traditional print newspaper. The combination is a perfect storm leading to a steady, nationwide stream of newspaper closures.

Is liberal education as vulnerable to "unbundling" as newspapers are? Two characteristics suggest it is. First, it too functions under the economics of scarcity: gather some of the best teacher-scholars in various disciplines and seclude them with students in close learning environments on a residential campus. But where scarcity once existed, early signs of plenty are emerging: you can access engaging faculty lectures (with course materials) on Yale's OpenCourseWare site or browse the "how-to" video catalog of new upstarts like Khan Academy or dozens of similar online nonprofit and for-profit alternatives. (See Hassan Masum's recent interview with Salman Khan.) These and similar resources will grow in sophistication and offer alternatives to much general education coursework.

Second, education in general – and especially liberal education – is also primarily an information product. What you get for your money is not a set of real-world, physical goods, but intangible skills and information. So there is every reason to believe that whatever "liberal education" is, "it" can travel over a network. While the resources cited above focus on introductory curriculums, remember that we are in the early days of a digital transformation of academics: 20 years ago, most colleges did not even have reliable networks.

While the foundations for "unbundling" seem present, I would suggest that liberal education should see in new technology developments tremendous opportunity to preserve its mission of producing "liberally educated" graduates, all the while expanding its diversity and adding curricular breadth and depth. As the participants in the Union Square Ventures "Hacking Education" event realized, the education economy differs significantly from other information economies: accreditation and the importance of institutional reputation are important reasons why learning at home with online course lectures differs from matriculating at a university. (Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy's study in Remaking the American University, published by Rutgers University Press in 2005, suggests that the value of institutional reputation remains strong). Liberal education adds another important differentiator: close faculty-student and student-student contact, both designed to foster engaged dialogue and both core to this model of education.

Our coming ability to conduct engaged and very personal academic discussion across great distances – or in cyberspace – should be of keen interest to institutions of liberal education. Rather than unbundle liberal education, these new technologies and networks will allow liberal education institutions to "rebundle" themselves: to recombine academic assets into new arrangements across distance and institutional boundaries. In a world where space has been collapsed to allow for intimate engaged dialogue over distance, the physical campus will become less the locus of learning than a point within a web of learning environments.

Campus Space and Cyberspace

The processes that drive liberal education rely strongly on configurations of physical space, and some of the most profound changes this model of education is approaching involve rethinking how physical and virtual spaces interact. These campuses are constructed to foster academic interactions of a very personal, intimate kind. The small seminar class is perhaps the primary example: it is a tool to encourage close, engaged participation by all students and to develop intense faculty-student dialogue. At a larger level, campus space planning itself – especially at residential, liberal arts institutions – considers how to promote both formal and informal learning opportunities. The locations of residences, labs, cafes, the library, and other spaces are carefully considered as ways to further create opportunities for dialogue. As the Annapolis Group, a consortium of top liberal arts colleges, describes on its Web site, this style of education seeks "to develop intimate learning environments where extensive interaction between faculty and students and among students themselves fosters a community of serious discourse."

One principal effect of new technologies and advanced networks is to make physical space matter less, simply because online venues can serve those same functions. Technologies and networks are creating alternative virtual spaces at such a high rate and with such increasing sophistication (whether in terms of visual or sensory fidelity or social and interactive sophistication) that established practices with managing social and professional relationships are quickly changing. Three principal technology areas are covered briefly here.

Telepresence and High-Definition Videoconferencing

High-definition videoconferencing and "telepresence" may be the best-poised to enter rapidly into liberal education for one reason: we are seeing the development of virtualized environments that combine high-definition video and other technologies to gather multiple remote participants into realistic, though virtual, meeting environments. These environments challenge the notion that the "intimate" part of liberal education means "face-to-face" and "sitting at the same table" NITLE's research partnerships with the commercial sector have enabled consideration of new videoconference products and services by companies such as Polycom, LifeSize, Tandberg, or Cisco, and have made clear that the industry seeks, among other goals, to replicate and replace the face-to-face business meeting with a virtualized one. The similarities between the business meeting and the seminar classroom make this development compelling for liberal education: small room, limited numbers of participants, careful time delimitations, support by media assets, and the goal of soliciting active involvement of all participants.

The time may be right for broad adoption of these virtual environments by liberal education institutions. First, hardware and infrastructure costs have become surprisingly affordable. Introductory hardware capable of equipping a single space with basic high-definition video capabilities has fallen under $5,000, and bandwidth requirements are dropping steadily. Second, these environments are removing barriers of technical and operational knowledge that challenge us in other virtual environments, such as immersive video games or social networks. Questions such as "What do I click to make my avatar walk?" or "If I friend you, can your friends see our online discussion?" are answered intuitively through one's own experience in the space.

Finally, over time fewer necessary adaptations to course curriculums will be required. We can expect a basic class session featuring seminar-style group discussion and a whiteboard (perhaps a real one made easily readable by high-quality video) to function in ways that may be nearly identical to those of a traditional, face-to-face seminar.

Social Software and Web 2.0

Users of Twitter, Facebook, texting, and blogs are familiar with the sense of social interconnectness and constant banter with one's "buddies," "friends," or "followers." These tools enable new modes of interaction, and while some criticize social networks for being saturated with mundane daily details (and thus of questionable applicability to education), users engaged in academic activities can be expected to “post,” “tweet” or “text” details of that academic work. We are steadily seeing more robust academic exchanges on Twitter quite different than chatter about what you or I just ate for lunch. (Skeptics might consider the Library of Congress's recent decision to archive every tweet ever made, or read Clay Shirky's account of how "low-brow" exchanges in new media develop over time into new literacies and new social value.) These tools offer a platform for rich, always-on "discourse," a key strategy for liberal education. They open new channels for dialogue and seem to reflect learning as process and engagement and not as memorization and rote knowledge acquisition.

Virtual Worlds and Gaming

Driven in part by the development of impressive, affordable computer graphics capabilities and increasingly realistic, multi-user virtual worlds, interest in virtual worlds, gaming and education has grown significantly. In higher education, the virtual world Second Life saw a large "land rush" in 2008–9, with hundreds of campuses establishing a Second Life presence in that year. While this movement may not have lived up to its early hype, a steady stream of experiments in teaching in virtual worlds are nevertheless producing interesting results.

In terms of user experience, these worlds attempt to provide immersion experiences that overlap interestingly with the close, residential pedagogical model of liberal education. Games pursue aggressively encompassing sensory and mental engagement to establish a sense of "place" online. In platforms like Second Life, a primary pedagogical tool is the simulation, the ability to create environments that model, or even extend and modify, real-world environments. These simulations differ from ones we might explore in the lab or via software applications running on our laptop: they are social (i.e., others can be present with us in these spaces) and networked (others can connect remotely, removing the need for participants to be geographically co-located). These tools offer compelling alternative spaces with continually improving sophistication and realism, which may one day offer attractive alternatives to physical classroom or campus space.

Sharing Academics and Curriculums

These technologies open new possibilities for intimate, discourse-centered education, but they cannot scale access to expertise: they cannot take one expert or one seminar classroom and turn it into many. Instead, they remove the need for academic experience to take place within a particular geographical location, and are therefore less likely to affect the value of academic expertise and access to faculty through small seminar-style classrooms and other learning environments. (There are only so many who can engage at once in a small, focused dialogue.) They are likely to enable sharing of expertise over distances.

In other words, access to experts should remain a valuable, scarce commodity in the "liberal education" information economy. Rather than replace faculty expertise (the traditional, but fading, hobgoblin of technology and teaching discussions) these networks and tools should allow specific expertise to be exercised at great distances. Star faculty should see their value rise as networks and tools allow them, and their institutions, access to new institutions and environments for sharing their expertise.

This creates at least two opportunities of considerable value, which help answer the question: "Why we should invest in these networks to share academic expertise?" First, these networks will give us the ability to combine smaller classes and departments across distances to create richer academic experiences. There are a number of permutations we can imagine. A biology faculty member who wants to team-teach an interdisciplinary course on computational biology, but who has no willing, local computer science collaborator can now search more broadly among a consortium for a collaborator. Likewise, an institution may combine class sessions with partner institutions abroad.

Second, these networks allow us to import disciplinary expertise that cannot efficiently be budgeted locally, thereby growing the course catalog. A college not able to hire an Italian language and culture instructor to support a few students in art history for whom Italian is a key need can now look more broadly. For some, this idea is controversial (i.e., it is "distance learning") and is often attacked on grounds that distance education deprives students access to expertise. However, in this instance, there is no deprivation, just a different form of mediation.

Organizationally, the challenges will be significant. The current model of grouping costs and revenue under the umbrella of a single organization allows for accountability and pairing pricing and costs. Breaking these costs and benefits out inter-institutionally will raise questions about equity. Bringing in remote expertise and sharing local expertise remotely will likely require new administrative apparatuses and inter-organizational systems for managing these activities; some existing organizations will step into these roles, and new organizations will form to meet needs in other places. Last, there will be fear of these new models from many places, and skepticism from parents and students about the quality and characteristics of academic experiences in virtual environments. But while the challenges are great, so are the rewards.

As we look to the future of liberal education, we seem unlikely to change the fundamentals of what has made that model successful. We will enhance the curriculum with interactive smart classrooms, course and lecture capture, ubiquitous wireless connecting smaller and more capable digital devices, and other technologies not yet invented, but close faculty-student and student-student interaction will remain the core. What seems more likely to change – and to offer transformative possibilities – is the medium. Those looking for fundamental shifts in this pedagogical model will be disappointed. Those looking for creative options to organizing, planning, and packaging – or "rebundling" – this style of education are likely to be rewarded.

Eric Jansson
Author's email:

Eric Jansson is labs director at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.


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