Conventional Wisdom Is Killing Us

Liberal arts colleges should stop listening to experts’ gloomy predictions and calls for efficiency, and focus on building relationships with students, Mark Putnam writes.


April 19, 2012

I was seated in the bleachers at an away football game when the father of a student-athlete approached me. He was eager to welcome me as the new president of Central College. It was the fall of 2010 and I was climbing a steep learning curve, trying to remember names and faces, and navigating the awkward reality that virtually everyone I encountered knew more than me about the college. It was a time of humble listening, which has proven to be an incredible gift.

This father greeted me with a smile and a handshake, describing his son who was playing on the field. I was warmed by his affection for his son and his very high regard for the college. He told me a story. Early in his son’s freshman year, a biology professor offered students enrolled in an introductory course an extra study session to review the course material before the first scheduled exam. With the encouragement of his father, the son attended the session and reported that his professor joined the study group from 7-9 p.m. For most students, this was likely their first college-level test. At 9 p.m., the professor, a very experienced tenured member of the faculty, stood to leave. As he walked away he said to the students, “I’m going now. Here is my home phone number. If you have any more questions, give me a call any time before 11 p.m."

The father looked me in the eye and said, “I think you should know that this is the kind of college you are leading.” As our conversation ended, I began a journey – one that has enabled me to embrace my role as an educator, to challenge a lot of current assumptions, and to reject much of the conventional wisdom floating around in higher education today.

Welcome to the Party
Less-elite liberal arts colleges,
which have struggled with change
for years, may have some lessons
to teach the elites. Read more.

In 2013, I will celebrate 30 years as an administrator in the college and university setting.  During this rewarding career I have listened with interest to analysts, authors, conference presenters, policy wonks, legislators and colleagues I deeply respect. The prevailing view of liberal arts colleges has been consistent for most of my career. It goes something like this, “Only the very well-endowed, elite institutions will survive. The rest should make other plans.”

I understand the challenges and vulnerabilities facing liberal arts colleges, but we seem to be projecting the demographic and economic challenges of a few institutions – those that have suffered fatal wounds from rapidly falling enrollments, continuous leadership transitions, and fiscal mismanagement – on the entire universe of small, independent, residential, academic communities.We hear constantly about threats of reduction in federal and state funding and a crisis of confidence in the quality of education -- and we hear an amazing number of references to climbing walls.

I must admit to being puzzled. My conversation in the bleachers with Football Dad has been repeated time after time with Transformed Student, Grateful Parent, Committed Alum, Generous Donor and Enthusiastic Business Leader. My constituents are not parroting the pundits. They are contradicting them. So I decided to stop listening to the experts and deepen my conversations with those interested and invested in the learning community I am privileged to lead. The results have placed me on a path to reform I didn’t expect.

James A. Garfield was president of the United States for a brief time in 1881. Though his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, historians note his many contributions to our nation. During his years as an undergraduate at Williams College, Garfield was the beneficiary of both the teaching and leadership of Mark Hopkins, who served as president of the college for 36 years during an even longer career as a member of the faculty. Garfield’s admiration for Hopkins is remembered through his still famous quote:

The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.

For educators, the image is poetic. It stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric we hear today. Many voices are calling for an educational approach designed for efficiency – less time to degree completion, fully online programs of study and customer convenience. It’s a very transactional model resting on the individual accumulation of credits, courses and credentials. By checking boxes to fulfill requirements we assume we can efficiently declare an individual educated. It’s all nice and neat.

An education at “the other end of the log,” however, is not transactional – it’s relational. The opportunity for faculty to spend time with students is not at all efficient, but our experience tells us it’s incredibly effective.

The stories I hear from alumni tell of the unexpected twists and turns that naturally accompany learning about ourselves, others and the world. Some describe a sure decision for a major as a high school senior, later set aside when the inspiration of learning set them on a new path. Others recount tales of international study that opened new global perspectives and broader cultural awareness. Interns sometimes discover a reality different than anticipated, leading to a change in direction. It’s all very inefficient, but highly effective if personal transformation is our educational imperative.

A great undergraduate education is by its nature very messy. Our students become explorers of old patterns and creators of new ideas. They journey through tough questions without easy answers. They learn in teams rather than in isolation and are eager to share knowledge and experience. They seek flexibility and customization in shaping their unique experience of learning. They encounter failure and learn how to be resourceful and resilient. An education of this kind is not about job training; it’s about setting the course for a lifelong journey.

My conversations with parents these days are the most interesting. They have really been shaken by the Great Recession. They feel the stakes are very high in making the right choices and they wonder if they are enabling their sons and daughters to make the best decisions – for a lifetime.

That’s a lot of pressure. As I describe the messy version of education and the inevitable wandering path of students they seem to relax a bit. It’s amazing what happens when you tell parents that the ideas first-year college students have about their future lives and careers are wrong most of the time. After the initial shock, I ask them to think about their own life journeys and the extent to which they had it right at the age of 18. The smiles betray the realization that conventional wisdom is not very helpful after all. The gifts we bring as educators are time and space necessary for enabling students to develop many possible futures through varied courses of study, diverse experiential education settings, challenging international opportunities and a customized set of co-curricular activities. 

So here is my current thinking after a two-year journey of listening to my constituents, who have enabled the success of this college for nearly 160 years and have reinforced with me the commitment they have to sustaining this mission for the future.

I have great admiration and respect for institutions in all sectors of postsecondary education. The task of educating our society is enormous, and one size will never fit all. The diversity of higher education has always been its strength.

However, those of us in small institutions need to stop emulating larger ones. When our professional staff members attend conferences, they are often hearing from presenters from larger campuses. The problem is we are failing to contextualize what we are hearing. If our overriding mandate is to be relational, not transactional, then we must carefully filter what we are told is a best practice and embrace only that which will reinforce our educational purpose. 

The range of programs and services, events and activities, and policies and procedures we are told we need to have in place is overwhelming. It’s simply too much for the scale of our institutions. The compartmentalization of our administrative organizations may meet expectations for professional practice, but it’s incoherent to students who survive the periodic trip through the bureaucratic maze. 

The calendar is packed with departmental lectures scheduled against intercultural opportunities, as we seek audiences for concerts and fans for the next game. Individually these opportunities are all very worthwhile, but as a collection they result in low attendance, disappointment from sponsors and fatigue among students. 

Our academic programs are too isolated from one another as specialization has created intellectual distance, departmental focus and divisional separation.I find faculty amazingly tolerant of the organization, but incredibly eager to cross the lines of academic disciplines. For all the time, energy and money we devote to the care and feeding of the organization at all levels, you would think that our efficiency and productivity would result in high levels of satisfaction and rewarding experience for students and faculty.

The reality is quite the opposite. What I hear consistently from graduating seniors, alumni and faculty is that it was the people who mattered most in creating an amazing experience –not the organization. We need to get out of our own way and facilitate the formation of meaningful educational relationships.

For example, Central College is implementing a new education model we are referring to as an approach for Integrated Learning. It’s a back-to-the-future idea about student learning. We have appointed four class deans who will stay with their respective classes of enrolled students for all four years of the educational experience. The first person our admitted students met on campus visits this spring was their dean. Paired with these class deans are four class directors. The class directors are student affairs professionals who are experts in one particular year of the four-year experience. They don’t follow the class, but partner with each dean as the class rotates and the four-year process unfolds.  Applied to this organization is a developmental model that will integrate learning outcomes for students through reasonably predictable stages of development. It’s a cross-functional team approach – each class dean partnered with a class director, the class deans working together as a group, the class directors working in partnership, and altogether we call them “The Great Eight.”

We added no new full-time positions to our faculty and staff ranks to develop this approach. The positions for class deans are being implemented through reduced teaching loads for faculty, enabling them to build this fundamental relationship with students as educators and advisers. The roles of class directors have been crafted through a comprehensive reorganization of a traditional student life office into a program of student development.  The experiences of students in the life of the organization will be different. It’s a relational model. Instead of expecting them to adapt to our organization, we will make the organization meaningful for them in the right place at the right time. For me this is a scaled-up, modern day version of “the other end of the log.”

We need to get back to thinking like educators. In a recent article in Change magazine I offered the following reflection:

It feels nearly impossible to rethink the educational enterprise. It’s tempting to accept so much as given and completely impervious to change. Yet if we believe we are educators, then we want to model for students the integration of knowledge, disciplines and experience to solve complex problems. This kind of problem-solving is very, very messy. But if we want students to learn it, we need to become less concerned about running students through gates for our convenience and more about creating environments that foster such learning – or as some are bold enough to say, personal transformation. 

It’s never been a better time to be a liberal arts college. If we listen to the voices of our core constituents and hear what they truly want; remind ourselves we are educators committed to creating great learning environments; and set aside well-intended, but misguided conventional wisdom, we will find the path forward. 


Mark Putnam is president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. He authors a blog, Mark: my words, and can be reached here.


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