Talking the Talk

To move the conversation about the future of liberal arts colleges forward, several presidents say new forums -- some open, some closed -- are needed.

April 27, 2012

For liberal arts college presidents who love to attend meetings, there’s no better time than the present.

In the past few months, a slew of conferences have hit the theme of “the future of the liberal arts.” Major association meetings all included sessions that touched on the idea. Then there was the conference at Lafayette College earlier this month attended by the presidents of top-ranked residential small colleges, and one at Wake Forest University about the connection between the liberal arts and careers. This summer will bring more, including a summit at the University of the South about liberal arts colleges’ business models.

But when it comes to dealing with some of the difficult subjects that administrators say liberal arts colleges must confront in the next few years if they hope to remain viable -- questions about tenure, governance structures, the role of technology in the curriculum, and how to measure effectiveness and productivity -- some administrators say the traditional meeting structure, in which many senior administrators gather with a handful of faculty members and a few representatives from outside organizations, has taken them as far as they can go.

The discussions held so far have been valuable, they say. They have put serious challenges on the table and opened up discussion. But now it’s time for something new.

In particular, administrators want two seemingly contradictory discussions. They want the opportunity to get together with one another, away from reporters, faculty members, students, and interest groups, to discuss half-formed ideas before bringing them to more critical audiences. At the same time, they want to broaden the conversation about looming challenges to include more faculty members, trustees and others to ensure that those groups understand what the institutions will face and why change might be necessary.

“A lot of what we’ve heard, most presidents know because they’re living it,” said R. Owen Williams, president of Transylvania University. “We don’t need for the forums to tell us what the challenges are. What we need is to find a focused forum that will help us find solutions to the issues raised in other, more general forums.

And the administrators are not alone. Faculty members agree that the typical forum doesn't represent the diversity of viewpoints that is needed to critically analyze and solve the problems liberal arts colleges face. "We have different opinions, and if we’re not working together, little positive is going to be accomplished," said Robert Weiner, a history professor at Lafayette who attended the college's conference this month.

Closing Doors

A general consensus has emerged among liberal arts college presidents -- even those at wealthy, selective, high-demand institutions -- that their institutions face a converging set of challenges that pose some threat to their model.

The cost of providing a liberal arts education -- with small faculty-to-student ratios -- is going up, driven partly by the increasing costs of highly skilled labor and the types of information technology and services that faculty and students expect. National demographics are shifting, and the future college-going population will include more students who are not willing or able to pay high tuition prices. The general public is questioning the value of a liberal arts degree with no direct tie to a career. And technology, which hasn’t always been a major component of the liberal arts education, is becoming a more fundamental part of the lives of students and the working world.

The degree to which presidents believe they will have to alter their institutions varies. While some are content to make small adjustments to the model, others say that more substantive change is required. Many colleges already confronting financial difficulties are changing what they offer and how they offer it.

Making substantive change often requires dealing with unpopular issues. Ask any president -- from a small college or large university, public or private -- and he or she will say there are some topics that presidents just don’t talk publicly about reforming without a clear proposal in mind.

When presidents talk about revisiting shared governance, faculty employment, and tenure – changes that could have broad ramifications for the daily lives, job satisfaction, and employment status of professors – faculty members tend to react strongly, often for good reason. If a president says he wants to rethink tenure, without spelling out exactly what how he would change the system, faculty might think he wants to do away with the system entirely. As a result, few administrators bring up such topics, and those who do rarely make headway toward substantive change.

Weiner, the Lafayette professor, said that faculty members tend to react strongly (and often negatively) to discussion of certain topics because they are presented in formal settings as policy changes, rather than as ideas for faculty members to consider with administrators informally. He said more informal discussions between the two groups would build up a level of trust so that when presidents do broach sensitive topics, such as changing governance and tenure, faculty members know that presidents will seek input from them and not move ahead on anything without a shared governance process.

Many presidents at the Lafayette Conference, most of who requested not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said such issues need to be broached if their institutions are going to adapt in ways that keep them viable in the long run.

These presidents have some ideas about how to reform these systems and want forums to have their ideas tested by other presidents, who might be less judgmental than are faculty or the general public. “When you get a room full of presidents, the discussion’s completely different. It’s faster, more open,” Williams said. "A president is more willing to talk about his or her vulnerabilities and have an honest investigation about how to address them.”

Williams is not alone. Several presidents at the Lafayette Conference said they would enjoy some time with other presidents at similar institutions to hash out ideas. While they said they regularly talk among themselves about such issues, it is rare for several presidents to get an extended time away from the spotlight to discuss possible solutions to the questions they are facing.

There is some concern among faculty that more meetings of presidents and administrators without a faculty presence could make administrators reluctant to consider faculty proposals down the road. "I’m not saying a presidents' conference would not be important and successful; I think every kind of conference has a place," Weiner said. "But once you reach conclusions in a separate sphere, the tendency becomes to defend those conclusions, and you’re no longer fully open to opposite conclusions."

Opening Meetings

But just as they said they’re interested in more private conversations, administrators also said traditional meetings that hit on the challenges facing colleges might be too focused on senior administrators.  Maybe it’s time to broaden the discussion, they say, to get other campus stakeholders acquainted with the problems facing such institutions.

“There’s a sense that the presidents and boards are already there. They are already thinking in strategic terms,” said Alison Byerly, provost of Middlebury College. “But that’s not the first place that faculty go. It is important to bring faculty into the discussion to drive change.”

Most administrators recognize that the issues they encounter and think about on a day-to-day basis differ greatly from those on the mind of the average faculty member.

Because confronting many challenges could require changes to the curriculum, which has traditionally been the domain of the faculty, Byerly said it is important that faculty understand the challenges confronting their institutions. Administrators also recognize that because faculty members play such a large role in implementing whatever changes would occur -- and because, thanks to tenure, faculty aren't forced to go along with changes they don't necessarily buy into -- they have to get professors on board.

At the same time, they say they don’t want to sacrifice the traditional governance structures in favor of making quick reforms.

“Rapid changes really test the structures of governance and can stretch them beyond capacity,” Byerly said. “It’s easy for [faculty members] to feel like it’s the administration’s job. But it is important for academic communities to function as communities. That’s really the strength of liberal arts colleges. We’re not delivery systems, we’re learning communities. It’s important that we not fall back on saying it’s the administration’s job to deal with these issues. Colleges are deeply committed to a system of governance.”

Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College, said she thinks faculty members will welcome the idea of getting more involved in thinking about the future of their institutions in a strategic way. “When you have focused conversations, and ask the questions that are most pressing, everyone realizes that we all have a lot at stake in this,” she said. “That pressure always creates a lot of intellectual excitement.”

Administrators said those conversations could take myriad forms. They could be large conferences of faculty members from multiple institutions or simple discussions among faculty members in the same department. Byerly said she has been holding a series of workshops with professors on her campus about curricular innovation, which is not always an easy subject to broach. Chopp said such conversations don’t necessarily have to be physical meetings, either. She said she has seen a lot of interest in the idea of convening digital conversations.

Augustana College administrators have worked to create forums where faculty and trustees can engage with one another and administrators on questions about the university's identity and future. All parties involved said this has led to them thinking critically about the institution's challenges in ways they might not have if they had not been a part of the meetings.

Weiner said he would like to see forums in the future include more formal faculty representation, because administrators can sometimes overlook significant concerns about how policies will impact the lives of faculty members. "The only way the discussion is going to be meaningful is if you have a diversity of opinions," he said.

Swarthmore is in the process of setting up an institute for the liberal arts, similar to the types of research centers found at large universities. Chopp said she hopes the institute becomes a place for Swarthmore faculty to think about ways to improve the college, for national and international scholars to explore the model, and for alumni, parents, and others associated with liberal arts colleges to explore the sector’s relevance in the wider community.

Her hope, she said, is that the institute becomes a sort of convening space for different groups across the sector to engage in the conversation required to move forward.


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