Heading for a Crash?

Liberal arts tech enthusiasts brainstorm about solutions to liberal education's "broken" business model -- and decide technology may not be the key issue.
April 8, 2011

ARLINGTON, Va. — Maybe what the liberal arts needed was a full-blown depression.

“A couple of years ago I had great hope, because of the externality of the economic situation,” Martin Ringle, the chief technology officer at Reed College, told a room full of fellow audience members at a summit of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) on Thursday.

“I was really hoping, contrary to all of my better judgment, that things would really go into the toilet,” Ringle continued. “Because if we didn’t stop at recession -- if we went all the way down to depression -- maybe that would be enough for the economic forces to require us to change.”

That is how bad it had gotten in the liberal arts, an area of higher education whose business model has outgrown its viability, according to many conference attendees.

“Our business model is built on all kinds of assumptions that don’t hold anymore,” said Richard Holmgren, associate dean and CIO at Allegheny College. “Over the last 40 years of the last century, we built a model based on the assumption that net revenues per student would go up every year.…We have a culture built on that assumption,” Holmgren said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve been struggling because net revenues have been flat.”

None of the participants in the daylong business-model workshop that followed seemed to dispute the basic premise that liberal arts programs are plagued by twin threats of inertia and economic unsustainability. To make matters even more grim, one self-described envoy of “the corporate world” -- Kit Stinson, a vice president at the telecommunication giant Avaya -- spoke up early on in the conference to testify against the truism that liberal arts graduates make for more creative and critical-thinking workers, setting off a parallel discussion about whether today’s incarnation of liberal education, sacrosanct to many, actually increases students’ employability outside academe.

The business model workshop, one of four breakout sessions at the conference, sought to explore how liberal arts institutions might change their infrastructure to adapt to economic realities without sacrificing the ideals that infrastructure was originally erected to support.

The participants -- most of whom were from small, private residential colleges -- seemed to agree that a major impediment to change was the attitude of faculty, who form a powerful bloc at such institutions.

Liberal arts colleges have erred in insulating professors from the business side of running the college, said Ringle. In order for shared governance to work, administrators and faculty need to have a “shared understanding” of a college’s yearly struggle to sustain its lofty mission in the face of unsympathetic economic realities, he said.

Eugene Tobin, a program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Hamilton College, agreed that faculty members tend to hold relatively unsophisticated views of the business of higher education until their children begin applying to college. (If there were any current faculty present at the workshop, they did not speak up to defend themselves.) Tobin, who was a longtime professor at Hamilton before crossing over into administration, suggested that colleges -- possibly with foundation support -- develop primers or seminars designed to help faculty more fully appreciate the balancing act inherent in managing the college’s finances.

Whether by seminars or some other means, liberal arts colleges need to convince faculty members that they need help to figure out how to bring down the costs of delivering small-scale, high-touch liberal education, said Holmgren, the Allegheny CIO. That means getting together and discussing, “in real, concrete terms,” what constitutes the value of liberal arts education for the students who pay top dollar for it.

“We all say we deliver the best education,” Holmgren said. “But sit down with three faculty in a room and have them define ‘best.’ They teach writing and argument; the first thing you have to do when writing an evaluative argument is define your criteria … for what makes the ‘best education.’ And you can’t get three of them to agree on what those criteria are.”

Once colleges and their faculties can successfully lay down a set of criteria for what makes a great liberal arts education, they can start figuring out what parts of the institutional infrastructure are load-bearing and which ones are not and begin remodeling from there, Holmgren said.

And although some of the workshop participants bristled at the idea of students as “customers,” the Allegheny CIO noted that colleges would be wise to find out the criteria students and their parents are using as well. “We can’t assume that we somehow have this vision of the world and we can just tell people it’s true and they’ll believe us,” Holmgren said. “You have to be willing to give up a little bit to have that conversation.”

Even if administrators and faculty get that far, any change is bound to be gradual, said Ringle. For example, if the bean-counters manage to persuade professors that the tenure system currently costs more than it is worth, it is still unlikely that tenured faculty would relinquish their privileges in the name of some “grand experiment,” he said. However, they might assent to a long-term plan that would eliminate certain tenure privileges for later generations. “The problem is, maybe the world isn’t going to wait a century for this to happen,” Ringle said.

Professors do not bear all the blame for inertia in the liberal arts business model, the NITLE discussants agreed. Administrators who fear that radical changes might harm their U.S. News and World Report rank, and hamper their institutions' ability to lure students who can pay full tuition, are just as culpable, they said.

It does not help, several of them noted, that those colleges that have bucked the norm on curriculum, such as Goddard College and Hampshire College, or tenure policy, such as Warren Wilson College, are considered too lightweight to disrupt the “arms race.”

For an event sponsored by a technology group, the business model workshop included minimal discussion of technology. Perhaps that is because, in the context of liberal arts colleges, technology is rarely deployed as a tool to cut costs, Ringle said. “I have yet to see one institution in this sector bring in a technology that has made a dramatic difference in their budget,” said the Reed CIO, who moonlights as a consultant for other liberal arts colleges.

Or maybe it is because the key to solving the problems with the liberal arts business model has less to do with servers and networks and more to do with hearts and minds, said Tracy Mitrano, director of I.T. policy at Cornell University. “Technology,” Mitrano said, “will never be the thing that is going to bring about the change we’re talking about.”

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