In the ever competitive world of higher education, liberal arts colleges have plenty of burdens. They compete with top universities for the best students and faculty members, but lack the research grants or graduate students that help many a university keep things running.
In this environment, a number of liberal arts colleges are engaging in soul searching. Being places that value thoughtful (and sometimes prolonged) discussion, the process isn't speedy. Grinnell College -- a leading liberal arts institution -- ended such a process this weekend when its Board of Trustees signed off on a strategic plan  that took three years and numerous committees to develop. Last month, the faculty of the Iowa institution approved the plan.
The plan combines some ambitious plans to promote the values of liberal arts (these parts of the plan were developed by and are popular with professors) and some ambitious plans to protect the college's endowment (these parts of the plan are tolerated by professors -- or at least by most of them).
Among the features are a plan to create an annual retreat for sophomores to focus on the liberal arts, the hiring of faculty members to promote interdisciplinary work, and an effort to rely less on the endowment and merit aid -- while growing slightly in size from 1,400 to 1,500 undergraduates.
The sophomore retreat reflects the view of faculty members that Grinnell -- like most colleges -- focuses so much on orienting freshmen about everything when they arrive. As a result, they may be missing out on something that should be crucial for a liberal arts college: making sure that all students understand what the liberal arts really are.
"We talk to them about this stuff as freshmen and they are still trying to figure out where the laundry room is," said Victoria Brown, a professor of history and a member of one of the faculty committees that worked on the plan.
Wayne Moyer, chair of the faculty and a professor of political science, said that the sophomore year is one of the most important in an undergraduate education, yet is rarely thought of in the way that educators dwell on the freshman or senior years. "We need to address the question of what the liberal arts are just as students are getting ready to declare majors," he said.
The exact nature of the sophomore retreat hasn't been determined yet, but organizers expect it to be at least a weekend, ideally with only sophomores and faculty members. The weekend would include activities such as outside speakers, discussions of books or a common book, large and small meetings with fellow class members, and forums on the liberal arts.
Another topic that faculty members want to talk with sophomores about is interdisciplinary work. New interdisciplinary programs abound in higher education these days, with colleges creating institutes, degree programs, majors and minors. For smaller colleges though, that can be tough. Any self-respecting department has to offer a range of courses, and when departments don't have a lot of professors, by the time basic coverage of courses is done, there's not a lot of faculty time for interdisciplinary work.
Said Moyer: "We kept hearing from faculty members that they wanted to do more interdisciplinary work, but couldn't do so with their faculty requirements."
Grinnell is going to tackle this problem by enlarging its faculty, with as many as 12 new slots coming over the next few years on top of the 144 tenure or tenure-track already projected for next year. Some of those additions will be completely new positions -- with a mix of hires of people already doing interdisciplinary work and those who will bolster departments so that existing faculty members can do more interdisciplinary work. Other hires will be part of an effort to replace visiting professor slots (projected to be 14 in the next academic year) with more full-time positions.
Brown said that the new interdisciplinary emphasis was a key part of Grinnell's plan to recruit top faculty talent, and diverse talent. "If you look at the direction of higher education, younger faculty want to be hired to be able to do interdisciplinary work," she said, and this is particularly true among minority scholars.
"If you aren't providing that in the curriculum, you're going to have a tough time recruiting faculty," she said.
Brown said that she was particularly proud of how Grinnell wasn't just saying that it wanted more interdisciplinary work, but was dealing with the structural impediments to having more of it. By talking about faculty responsibilities and then adding slots, she said, the college was creating the possibility for a dramatic growth in interdisciplinary work.
So how is Grinnell going to pay for all these improvements? It has a solid base to start with: an endowment worth about $1.3 billion, topping the most recent list of endowment values for liberal arts colleges and up from only $40 million 25 years ago. But the endowment has grown so much that financial planners and trustees fear that the college is becoming too reliant on it.
Grinnell's annual budget is getting half of its funds from the endowment, a figure that is higher than it should be, according to Jonathan Brand, vice president for institutional and budget planning at Grinnell, who was recently named the next president of Doane College, in Nebraska. "We need greater balance to protect us in a downturn in the market," he said.
A key part of the college's ability to do that, he said, would come from attracting more students who are willing to pay their full costs. Grinnell is one of the few colleges around these days that is "need blind" -- meaning that students are admitted without regard to income and are given aid packages large enough to allow them to enroll. And Brand said that the strategic plan took it as a given that there would be no change in that philosophy.
But Grinnell also awards plenty of merit aid to students who don't necessarily need the money. About 90 percent of students at the college receive some aid, and they aren't all needy, Brand said. "We need to have more people coming here who are feeling that they are getting such a great value that they are willing to pay for it," Brand said.
And with a slight increase in enrollment -- from just over 1,400 to 1,500 over the next few years -- Brand said that the money will be there to pay for the various improvements. He also stressed that the changes will be gradual. For example, while need-based aid will see an increase in the next year, merit aid will not see an increase.
The process at Grinnell has not involved the acrimony seen at other colleges debating their futures and economic choices. But not surprisingly, it is the questions about endowment spending and financial aid that have attracted some criticism.
Brown said that she thinks administrators are too protective of the endowment and might be able to pay for the improvements without changing policies on things like merit aid. "The endowment is growing like crazy so why not use it? There's a kind of capitalist caution on the Board of Trustees that some of us are alienated from."
There's also the question of whether Grinnell will be hurt in recruiting as it minimizes merit aid. While the college's academic reputation is strong, the picture many high school students have of a liberal arts college is in New England mountains, not heartland prairie.
Aly Beery, a senior at Grinnell and editor of The Scarlet and Black, the student paper, said getting merit aid was important to her. "Merit aid said that the college valued strong academics, so I cared about that," she said. "It drew me to Grinnell."
At the same time, she said that she thought the goals in the plan for improving the college made a lot of sense. Students want to do interdisciplinary work and also to have a range of disciplinary options and small classes, she said. So she said that the idea of expanding the size of the faculty was key to preserving the close faculty-student interaction students value.
Asked if preserving those things justified some changes in financial policy, she said, "I personally feel like we'd like to have our cake and eat it too."