Among all the seemingly intractable crises Americans face in the world today, none is so serious as their utter unfamiliarity with that world. It makes every specific overseas problem virtually impossible for us to deal with confidently or competently.
Whether motivated by exceptionalism, isolationism, triumphalism or sheer indifference -- probably some of each over time -- the United States has somehow failed to equip a significant percentage of its citizenry with the basic information necessary to follow international events, let alone participate in formulating and executing the foreign policy that is an essential component of self-government in a healthy modern democracy.
This condition reflects the basic inadequacy of the educational system at every level, when it comes to understanding the world we live in. Americans of all ages have long scored lower than citizens of other countries on geography and current-events awareness quizzes and shown a stunning inability even to locate major countries on the map, let alone develop an appreciation for their cultures or their roles in global affairs.
As we know, Americans do not tend to appreciate the importance of learning foreign languages, and that indifference is only increasing. According to a recent report from the Modern Language Association, college students in the United States are actually studying languages 6.7 percent less now than they did five years ago. Even enrollments in Spanish, America's second language, declined 8.2 percent in that period, in Arabic 7.5 percent and in Russian 17.9 percent. Admittedly, English is in ascendance as the international language of business and trade, but needless to say, Americans will not get away with waiting for all the world to learn it.
There was a period, not all that long ago, when, at least in “peacetime,” it seemed as if international issues could be left to a small cadre of experts in government and educational institutions. As the pundits told us, such matters played virtually no role in routine political discourse or in local and national elections -- and certainly not in the daily lives of most members of Congress or much of the public they represented. Indeed, for many years slots on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were difficult to fill; congressmen did not want to have to go home and explain why they were wasting their time in Washington on such matters.
One might have expected a shift in recent decades, if only out of a national desire to avoid repeating critical mistakes. But in the years following the end of the Cold War, the foreign affairs account in the federal budget was cut drastically and some news organizations proudly announced that they were closing overseas bureaus because of a lack of interest among their subscribers or viewers, not to mention their own financial adversities.
Today, incredibly, the situation seems worse. Thirteen and a half years after the shock of Sept. 11, a complex international environment feels ever more distant, unknowable and strange. Only a third of Americans are thought to hold passports -- compared to about 50 percent in Australia, more than 60 percent in Canada and some 80 percent in the United Kingdom. Study-abroad rates at American colleges and universities are, on average, stuck in the low single digits.
It is no wonder, then, that Americans find themselves easily and frequently bewildered by phenomena that spin quickly out of control -- the various ongoing crises in the Middle East; the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, among other former Soviet republics; the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa; China’s recent public showdown with dissidents in Hong Kong and quieter ones in other regions; the catastrophic symptoms of climate change; and separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, to name a few. A basic lack of awareness and understanding among the public makes it even harder for policy makers to formulate positions that will attract widespread domestic support and perhaps influence the outcomes.
One of the recent manifestations of Americans’ confusion over world affairs was the wild fluctuation in public opinion with regard to whether the United States should intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war or become reinvolved in Iraq. The data are confusing, at best:
In May 2013, 68 percent of Americans surveyed told Gallup they felt the United States should not use force to attempt to end the conflict in Syria if diplomatic and economic efforts failed. Thirteen months later, in June 2014, 54 percent still said they opposed using military means to help the Iraqi government fend off the insurgents from the newly discovered Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL), which was threatening to take over that country, while 45 percent now favored American air strikes there.
By August of last year, after the Islamic State had received substantial media coverage and begun to replace Al Qaeda in the public mind as the principal U.S. adversary in the region, support for air strikes had risen to 54 percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. In September, after the widespread circulation of grotesque videos of the beheading of American journalists, that number reached an astonishing level of 71 percent in the same poll -- hence, President Obama’s recent willingness and political capacity to take bolder steps.
It is difficult to know how much faith to place in any of those numbers, because in some of the surveys fewer than half of the respondents said they had actually been following the situation in the Middle East closely when they were interviewed. And for a time there was speculation that perhaps government spokespeople and media sources had it wrong -- that the Nusra Front or the Khorasan Group (even less familiar names) might actually be the worst actor in the mix, from an American perspective. What if we were fighting the wrong enemy or, worse, did not really know whom we were fighting?
Should we become more frightened, more resolute -- or, as many seem to do, just tune out?
There is, alas, no quick or easy cure for this fundamental problem. No number of urgent adult-education courses, live or online, will catch the country up anytime soon. And it is not as if a wave of American tourists or students should be encouraged to drop in on Syria or Iraq for impromptu fact-finding missions.
That is not the point. It is, rather, a broader familiarity with the world that is needed. It will take decades -- a generation or two -- for the United States as a nation to develop a deeper appreciation of the complex forces at work, such that popular attitudes are no longer subject to crass manipulation.
It may not be easy to persuade Americans, legitimately worried as they are over other matters at home, that every field of endeavor and every issue of public concern will soon have an international dimension, if it does not already -- or that continued ignorance of, or indifference toward, how other people see the world is a concrete threat to our own security and safety.
This will require nothing less than a national call to action. We are not dealing here with a partisan issue, and the concern is relevant for all economic strata and all social groupings in the United States. For a start, we will have to send many more young people to study abroad -- in high school, in college and in graduate and professional school -- and make sure that a significant number of them go farther afield than the traditional destinations in Europe. When they get wherever they are going, it is crucial that they live and study not just with other Americans, but also with local people of their own generation.
Meanwhile, back at home, more students will have to learn about the wider world from every perspective -- political, economic, anthropological and scientific -- whatever their intended careers. The attainment of an international sensibility should be on any list of liberal education requirements.
And yes, we should bring back old-fashioned language requirements, but teach those languages in a practical manner that assumes we will all use them in our daily work and social lives, not necessarily become foreign-literature scholars.
Above all, we must value the experiences and listen to the insights that young Americans bring home from overseas. They, in turn, will have to push their professors, their families and everyone else they encounter to be willing to learn from the way other societies and cultures conduct their lives and govern themselves.
Sanford J. Ungar, distinguished scholar in residence at Georgetown University, recently stepped down after 13 years as president of Goucher College in Baltimore, where every undergraduate is now required to study abroad.
Against vociferous opposition from the state's own university system, a Florida Senate panel last month approved a bill allowing students, faculty and staff with appropriate permits to carry guns on public college campuses. This brings to 10 the number of states that are poised to consider so-called campus carry legislation this year. Nine currently allow it in some form or another.
This most recent wave of legislation is buoyed by arguments that guns on campus will help address the problem of sexual assault. As Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore put it memorably, “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. [Sexual] assaults... would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in the head.”
Critics retort that guns are a distinctly combustible ingredient added to college life, where young adults occasionally engage in binge drinking and wild partying. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine how guns can solve the problem of sexual assault on campus. Who is to say the ones carrying out the assaults won’t be armed, too?
As the campus carry movement picks up steam nationwide, there is, I would argue, another major concern worth considering -- one that has been wholly omitted thus far: How might guns impact the atmosphere and pedagogical goals of the classroom, and the political mission of the university? For, it seems clear to me, guns stand opposed to all that. There is something inherently contradictory about guns in college. They are a rude, unnecessary intrusion from the outside world, and threaten the intimacy and openness that academe hopes to foster.
American philosopher John Dewey argued that the classroom is the root of democracy, since it is where individuals learn to talk to people of different backgrounds and perspectives, collaborate, and negotiate differences. The classroom is where the all-important process of socialization occurs -- something that cannot take place at home, steeped in the privacy of family life. A functioning and vibrant democracy requires that citizens learn to work with one another, which in turn demands openness -- and a willingness to trust.
Guns communicate the opposite of all that — they announce, and transmit, suspicion and hostility.
In the humanities (where I teach), the seminar room is a designated space for intellectual exploration, and students must feel safe and encouraged to do just that. They are expected to take risks -- moral, political and personal. Controversial ideas are aired, deliberated and contemplated from many angles. Sometimes these ideas are offensive.
Many academics will contend that, at least ideally, classroom debate should be lively, even heated at times. Emotions may run high. As a case in point, I think of the many uncomfortable discussions following the Ferguson and Staten Island police killings last year. Differing views of what constituted racism -- and especially, whether racism lingered and was still entrenched -- elicited highly personal conversations, sharp comments and campus protest. In frank discussions, ugliness, racist undertones and deep cultural mistrust were exposed.
Honest exchange is the only way forward amid such controversies; different perspectives and experiences, even if they cause resentment in the short run, must be uncovered and understood if we hope to expand the bounds of empathy. Unpopular views must get a hearing in the classroom. Professors are obligated to foster a setting where students feel comfortable airing their most deep-seated fears and prejudices -- which may not be looked on kindly by others.
Guns in the classroom threaten this dynamic. Will students feel so safe and free when surrounded by other students who may be, secretly, arms bearers? Will they feel emboldened to take moral and political risks? Will they feel inclined to air potentially offensive views? I doubt it.
In fact, the prospect of guns in the classroom is more likely to cause professors to keep the conversation tepid and avoid certain controversies; everyone else will watch what they say, how they say it and to whom. This would be quite the opposite of the open and transformative exchange that universities have made it their mission to offer.
There is a further point. As we saw in the aftermath of the Ferguson and Staten Island police incidents, and earlier with the Occupy Wall Street movement, university campuses are places where political protest takes root. Perhaps colleges are not quite the haven for political protest that they once were -- like, say, in the 1960's. But universities have traditionally been places where students practice protest -- where they practice articulating and voicing political concern, and engaging in productive, demonstrative assembly. Sometimes the protest tactics they practice are aggressive, and push the envelope. Again, I would say, this is how it ought to be on campus -- it hearkens back to universities’ role as political incubators and testing grounds.
But guns are noxious in an atmosphere where people will experiment with risky methods of protest. To that extent, guns on campus may well kill such protest.
Guns may provide a basic kind of bodily and personal safety. This is the recurring argument put forth by campus carry proponents. This argument is dubious at best. But this much is clear: guns do nothing to help universities attain the kind of safety they desire and need -- the safety that enables intellectual and political exploration. Guns by their very nature dampen speech -- they chasten it. Colleges simply cannot tolerate them.
Firmin DeBrabander has writtenDo Guns Make Us Free?to be released by Yale University Press in May. He is also a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
While touring a factory in northern Wisconsin that makes millions of aluminum cans on a daily basis, we asked the plant manager whether he thought regional colleges and universities were meeting his company’s needs. He looked surprised by the question and answered, “You can’t teach [in a classroom] the way we make cans here.” If he had employees with basic skill sets in the field, he said, his company could train new hires to use their machinery and learn their procedures.
Similarly, the human resources director of a large plastics manufacturer told us, “As long as [employees] have the basic knowledge and certain abilities, we can typically teach them the skills that they need on the job -- that’s the bottom line.”
Such responses beg the question: What are these fundamental, even nonnegotiable skill sets that employers seek in their employees? This is a question that our research group is investigating within the biotechnology and advanced manufacturing industries in Wisconsin. As part of a three-year study, we have interviewed over 150 C.E.O.s, plant managers and human resource directors in companies large and small, as well as educators and administrators at two- and four-year colleges and universities across the state, asking them about the skills and aptitudes required to succeed.
The Dominant Narrative of the Skills Gap
Throughout Wisconsin, we have found that the answer to this question is more complicated and nuanced than the dominant narrative of the skills gap suggests.
That narrative is rather simple: employers need certain skills, usually said to be occupation-specific technical aptitudes. The nation’s high schools, colleges and universities, which should be preparing students for entry into the workforce, are failing to provide these skills. Because of the lack of technically skilled workers, the argument goes, many companies reportedly cannot take on new accounts or hire new workers.
The oft-reported notion that employers are unable to find appropriately skilled workers has become intertwined with the sentiment that the liberal education model and the broader College for All movement have produced too many students with poor career prospects and massive student debts. Stories abound of Starbucks baristas and parking lot attendants with expensive baccalaureate degrees in the humanities, while 70 percent of the new jobs created through 2020 in states like Wisconsin will require less than a four-year degree.
How big of a problem is this? Instead of being part of the normal ebb and flow of the labor market, some suggest that, when coupled with demographic shifts that include mass retirements of the baby boomer generation, a perfect storm may be brewing that spells disaster for certain sectors of the economy in Wisconsin and the nation -- even the White House is rushing to figure out how to solve the nation’s skills gap.
The Skills Gap and Public Policy
The solution to this state of affairs has been to continue pushing the educational sector to align its aims more closely with the supposed needs of employers.
In Wisconsin, the ascendancy of this viewpoint has manifested itself most directly in Governor Scott Walker’s approach to higher education policy. While the administration has recommended $300 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, a network of two- and four-year public colleges and universities across the state, it has proposed language to the system’s charter about meeting workforce needs and directed over $35 million to develop new training programs in the state’s technical college system -- all with the explicit goal of recalibrating public education to meet the skills-related needs of the state’s employers.
This emphasis on tailoring education to fit industry needs has also taken root at the national level. In the 2015 State of the Union, President Obama underlined his intention to connect “community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, nursing and robotics.”
As part of this effort, the president has also articulated a national goal of finding “faster pathways” for students to get “the best skills possible at the cheapest cost,” while in the past he famously poked fun at art history degrees.
At the state and national level, the policy response to the skills gap idea has been to focus almost exclusively on training students in the so-called hard skills, or the technical knowledge and ability to perform tasks like welding or computer-aided design programming in two-year technical colleges. This focus is also marked by an attendant de-emphasis on general education and the liberal arts across the entire postsecondary spectrum, but especially in the nation’s four-year colleges and universities.
Even if we grant the first (mostly unexamined) assumption of the skills gap narrative -- that institutions of higher education should be geared toward training students with the kinds of skills that industry leaders demand in the short term -- we are still faced with two important questions. First, do employers want new hires with solely technical skills? Second, do our current education policy choices actually reflect the desires of industry? The answer to both questions -- based on our extensive work in the field -- is no.
Employers Want More
While our research indicates that business leaders certainly need employees who have basic knowledge and technical expertise appropriate to their job type and industry, the evidence clearly indicates that they place a high premium on other qualities as well. These skill sets, often denigrated as soft skills, are not viewed as optional competencies but are indispensable complements to technical expertise.
Our data reveal that the skill that is in most demand among employers in Wisconsin is a strong work ethic. Employers spoke of work ethic not only in basic terms such as showing up to work on time but also in terms of being persistent and sticking with a problem until it is solved. Both employers and educators alike underscored the challenges that one person termed “the work ethic problem,” as it implicates not only formal education but also parenting, social norms and company-specific traditions and expectations.
Interestingly, a strong work ethic implicates another attribute that is rarely discussed in the skills gap debate -- the desire to continually learn throughout one’s working life, or what some call lifelong learning. This aptitude is particularly important given the rapidly evolving nature of technology and the subsequent changes in the workplace. “A diesel technician 10 years ago would work on the same pump every day for years and become experts in it,” one employer told us. “Now we're flowing employees to different product, so... we're really looking for people that can handle change and can adapt.”
Businesses are also searching for employees who can effectively work well in teams. For instance, the C.E.O. of a biotechnology firm spoke of the importance of collaboration in their team-based contract work. “We have an example here... a tremendous scientist, but virtually impossible to work with in a team,” he said. “That's just not conducive to the work we do.” An integral part of working in teams is also being an effective communicator, both in writing and in everyday conversation.
Employers also perceived critical thinking, or the ability to problem solve and think on one’s feet, as an important quality in new hires. An executive at a manufacturing company explained, “To be able to think analytically and problem solve... is a critical skill.”
A growing body of evidence supports these findings. A 2011 survey of manufacturing executives revealed that the most serious skills deficiencies were in the areas of problem solving, basic technical training, fundamental employability skills such as work ethic and technology skills. Along similar lines, the National Research Council, the industry-supported Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Department of Labor are beginning to conceptualize skills in ways that extend beyond the traditional focus on hard skills alone.
Thus, the issues facing our workforce are much more complicated than a shortage of technically skilled employees that can be addressed through more fast-track programming in our nation’s two-year technical colleges. Indeed, what employers are seeking is not simply a cadre of workers who are technically proficient, but engineers who can work easily with customers, chemists who can write clear, succinct prose and CNC operators who can collaborate with coworkers.
While contemporary policy and rhetoric suppose an either/or dichotomy between technical training and liberal or general education, it is evident that employers want to see skills and aptitudes that are associated with both models of education. “To meld the creative side with the practical side,” as one manufacturer told us, should be the ideal. Instead, he and others found few job applicants who represented this ideal -- which is what we argue is the true skills gap.
Integrating Education and Training
Beyond a reconceptualization of which skills and attributes are needed to fuel the 21st-century economy, what is missing in the national debate is a clear plan of action for the nation’s business and postsecondary leaders.
In Wisconsin we have found numerous examples of educators and corporate trainers who have created education and training programs that focus on the entire skills spectrum. The key ingredients in these programs can be distilled to the following three components.
1. Appreciate the role of liberal and general education in preparing students for the workforce.
The thinking on essential workplace skills needs to shift from the traditional focus on technical training to a more comprehensive view that acknowledges liberal and general education’s role in cultivating these varied skill sets. This is not necessarily an argument for more art history majors or that cultivating varied skill sets is impossible in shorter-term programs, but that the modern workplace demands adaptability, broad-mindedness and creativity -- competencies that are well developed in programs based on a liberal or general education model. This is true for all postsecondary programs, from one-year certificates to baccalaureate degrees.
2. Support educators in using active learning techniques in all postsecondary classrooms.
A striking aspect of the skills gap debate is the lack of attention paid to issues of curriculum and instruction, especially approaches specifically designed to integrate technical, content-based instruction with other skill sets such as critical thinking and collaboration. These techniques, broadly known as active learning, are grounded in research from the learning sciences and include techniques such as problem-based learning, Socratic lecturing and peer instruction. Fortuitously, active learning is being actively promoted in colleges and universities across the country, particularly in the STEM disciplines.
But one thing is clear -- asking educators to teach the skill sets that employers need requires substantial resources, since few postsecondary teachers are trained in these instructional techniques. Yet the looming budget cuts to higher education in states such as Wisconsin, Louisiana and Arizona will likely translate into fewer resources to support professional development, and will ultimately mean that one of the principal tools for providing employers with the skilled workforce they so desire -- education -- is being rapidly undermined across the nation.
Other promising approaches include internships and apprenticeships, where the blending of academic training with real world experience frequently results in students who are highly sought after by employers. And as several of our study participants from industry have reminded us, the responsibility for cultivating these valued skill sets lies not only in the hands of our nation’s educational system, but also in corporate training programs that should also strive to integrate education in basic concepts with more hands-on training.
3. Create opportunities for partnerships between educators and employers.
While it was not uncommon to hear our study participants say lines of communication between local colleges and industry “do not exist,” we found that education-industry relationships are critical for both sharing of information about job opportunities and as a platform from which collaborative initiatives that leverage the respective strengths of each partner can emerge. Whether the result is an online corporate training program designed by local technical college educators or advisory councils where local business leaders have a voice in shaping the curriculum -- promising collaborations in Wisconsin usually depend on policy mandates or visionary leadership to bridge the gap between education and industry.
What Is the Purpose of Higher Education?
Ultimately, the skills gap debate raises questions about fundamental issues facing society, many of which are overlooked when the discussion devolves to a focus on what employers need or do not need from graduates. What is the purpose of higher education? Is the current effort to frame this purpose of higher education as primarily vocational in nature beneficial to our economy, our democracy and the long-term success of our population? These questions need to play a more central role in policy making and debates about education-industry relations. As the University of Wisconsin at Madison military historian and native Wisconsinite Lieutenant Colonel John Hall recently wrote, “I understand and respect the notion that the purpose of an education is to prepare students for a ‘good job,’” but “this is not the only purpose of an education.”
Matthew T. Hora is an assistant professor of adult teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Ross J. Benbow is an associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at Madison. Amanda K. Oleson is an assistant researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
As media response and alumnae outrage grew after last week’s announcement that Sweet Briar College will soon close its doors, the focus of the debate centered around whether the college leadership was courageous in seeing a dismal future and responding promptly, or precipitous in abandoning hope before it was truly necessary. No matter the answer, it seems obvious to an outside observer that Sweet Briar could have taken greater advantage of fundamental marketing principles and more effective student recruitment strategies as administrators considered this decision.
Only independent research, both quantitative and qualitative, can provide a true road map for success. It’s hard to know what kind of research the college had about students, parents and alumnae -- and how to attract their engagement and support. I do know that as recently as 2010, Forbes put the college near the top of a list of higher ed institutions facing financial problems, based primarily on successive years of operating loss. (The college’s PR man at the time dismissed the analysis as “selective and unscientific.") The numbers weren’t lying, and a five-year window is sufficient to explore a lot of alternatives.
Sweet Briar, and colleges like it, must accept what research is telling them. And then use every tool in the toolbox to improve appeal, value, reach and yield.
A number of colleges have been and are being successful in the market conditions Sweet Briar leadership articulated as those that required its closing. The Seven Sisters colleges remain highly selective, boast exceptional alumnae support and continue to invent their way into a vital future while maintaining, for the most part, their single-sex character. Many liberal arts colleges -- Grinnell and Kenyon spring immediately to mind, as do Bowdoin, Beloit and College of the Ozarks -- don’t let their rural locations inhibit their success.
But Sweet Briar came to the conclusion that the writing on the wall said, “Enough!” What data drove this decision? What futures were imagined -- and researched -- that led to an inescapable conclusion that closing was the only option? With the level of alumnae outrage -- signaled by more than $2 million in pledges as of this writing -- greater transparency around the data that drove the decision would benefit both the college and its stakeholders.
What research indicated that going coed was unfeasible?
Given the choice, would alumnae prefer that the college go coed or go out of business?
Were new majors and/or focus areas considered that would have built on Sweet Briar’s existing engineering program in order to increase its appeal to young women who wanted more “direct to market” degrees? What was the cost of developing those programs?
Could the college have sold part of its 3,250-acre campus in order to invest the proceeds of that sale in program development, scholarship support for female valedictorians and other high-potential students, or other repositioning programs?
Would a name change -- perhaps coupled with the development of coed options or new programs -- have triggered the kind of awareness and visibility that would give the college a near-term boost and strengthen its position in the marketplace?
A name change is no panacea, but it can bring attention to the authentic character of an institution whose name is problematic. A decade ago, our agency helped Western Maryland College (quick quiz: public or private? What part of the state?) change its name to McDaniel College. While there was some consternation at the time, the college’s board was able to document the need for the change based on 20 years of market research that showed clearly that the name was creating confusion in the marketplace, and make the courageous decision to rename the college. Renaming brought it new attention and gave the new McDaniel a platform to reassert its role as a quality private liberal arts college on the outskirts of Baltimore -- an extremely helpful outcome.
In another instance, Lipman Hearne was brought in to assess the name of an institution in the American Southwest and was able to document that its name was creating problems. In this case, the board had to balance the concerns of alumni -- who were resistant to the change -- and of prospective students, who expressed real confusion about the nature and character of the institution based on its “misdirection” name. The board chose not to change, and the institution must explain itself anew to a new crop of prospects to this day. While this may have been the right decision, it’s a costly one, in that recruitment and enrollment efforts have to start by saying, “No, we’re not that” before they can commence saying what they truly are.
Would a name change, by itself, have solved Sweet Briar’s problems? Probably not. But a name change coupled with a revisioning process, the development of new programs and/or institutional profile, a rebranding of the institution, and a commitment to transparency by volunteer and administrative leadership could have provided sufficient leeway for the college to redefine itself -- profitably -- into the future. Because whether they are for-profit or not, higher ed institutions must respond to market and business realities, and adapt accordingly.
Whatever Sweet Briar does going forward, it faces one transcendent imperative: do right by your students. They are experiencing a traumatic change at a time when they thought they'd be focused on their own futures and opportunities. If there’s room in the unrestricted endowment, or in scholarship endowment, use those funds to underwrite tuition and other costs through to graduation at the schools these young women choose to attend. In that way, the authentic brand identity of Sweet Briar -- a college that cares for the women it takes into its family -- will be sustained after the college’s passing.
Robert M. Moore is president and chief executive officer of Lipman Hearne.
The closing of Sweet Briar College will, I expect, have little impact on other small, private, rural colleges with small endowments. Most will keep their heads in the sand, live on in a state of denial and continue to produce strategic plans that say little more than “Hope.”
Time after time I have heard college presidents, vice presidents for finance and trustees claim, “We’ve had tough times before and we got through those; we’ll get through these.” The first time I heard this statement was in 1997; the president at Sue Bennett College in Kentucky made that grand pronouncement the day before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools notified him that none of the appeals to maintain accreditation of the college had been approved and federal funding would not be forthcoming -- money designated to pay faculty salaries for the last two months of the semester. Talk about spending the last dollar before you close.
Discussion on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's news podcast.
Still, the closing of Sweet Briar offers a guide to closing that deserves preservation in some just-in-case files. At least Sweet Briar avoided the disaster Sue Bennett faced when the college ran out of money in the middle of a semester.
Perhaps Sweet Briar learned some lessons from one example in my book Cautionary Tales: Strategy Lessons from Struggling Colleges (Stylus). The description of the 1997 closing of Saint Mary’s College in Raleigh, N.C., is remarkably similar to the 2015 closing of Sweet Briar. For almost a decade, the president and board at Saint Mary’s sought solutions to declining numbers of students and reluctance by donors to make financial contributions at levels that would sustain operations without strong enrollments. Finally, shortly before SACS was scheduled to visit and with freshman enrollment for the coming year lower than ever, the board agreed that closing was inevitable. Closing before the college lost accreditation and had to close was determined to be the best alternative for preserving the good reputation the college had maintained for over 100 years.
Just as at Saint Mary’s, there were no rumors at Sweet Briar about a possible closing. Yet there is reason (based on comments about studies conducted internally and by external consulting teams) to believe that the trustees at Sweet Briar spent a significant amount of time looking at data and considering various options before making the decision. One interesting piece of advice the president at Saint Mary’s offered to colleges considering closing was to develop a generous severance package for the president; otherwise he or she would spend years resisting efforts to close the college to avoid becoming unemployed. Perhaps Sweet Briar found a less expensive way to provide leadership during closing: hiring an interim president.
When the announcement at Sweet Briar came, it came -- as it had come at Saint Mary’s -- to students, faculty, alumnae and the press at about the same time of year, just before spring break.
What Saint Mary’s College had that Sweet Briar does not have was a preparatory school for high school students. Saint Mary’s opened as a school in 1834 and maintained those programs when it became a college in 1927. Many of the college faculty and staff could continue working at Saint Mary’s School after the college closed, and there were no issues about what to do with the endowment or property. Today the school offers one of the most prominent preparatory programs for girls in the nation. And those I talked with who had been critical of the decision to close the college in 1997 now call that decision “honest” and “correct” and “courageous” and “bold.” Unfortunately, not many small private liberal arts colleges have a prep school that can be energized by ending the higher education offerings.
What Sweet Briar has that Saint Mary’s College did not have is property to sell and a relatively strong endowment, some of which can be used to provide severance packages and scholarships and some of which might help the college find a way to continue to honor the traditions of Sweet Briar. Just before Barat College formally closed, the president there led a campaign to establish a modest foundation with some of the endowment funds and profit from the sale of the property; she then became the president of the foundation. Today, the Web site of the Barat Education Foundation indicates a mission of “continuing and adapting the heritage and legacy of Barat College to our 21st-century world.”
There is no reason I know that would keep Sweet Briar from doing something similar once all its financial commitments are met; the alumnae can then contribute to programs designed to perpetuate the mission of their alma mater. But this is only one suggestion for honoring the long history and admirable traditions of Sweet Briar.
One of the colleges I have written about is Wilson College, which in 1979 failed to do what Saint Mary’s and Sweet Briar have done. Once word got out that the board was considering closing Wilson while there was still money available in the endowment and well-maintained property that could be sold to provide severance packages and scholarships for students to attend other colleges, students and alumni and a judge up for re-election managed to prevent the closing with a legal ruling. Today that college is still struggling -- having discussions similar to those in 1979 and facing a time in the near future when a major debt of the college will come due. Alumnae and students are complaining about the college's switch to coeducation, and faculty and staff are adding programs to attract new students.
Deciding to close a college is difficult and every college has conditions and faces circumstances which make its decision-making process different from that at others. Sweet Briar complained about not having a Starbucks nearby. One college I worked with was 30 miles from the closest motel, yet it continues strong. Many rural colleges need to continue to exist because they are so isolated; their students come primarily from surrounding counties, probably would not go to college if there was not one near their homes and can avoid a life of poverty by obtaining a four-year degree.
William Bowen (who served as president at Princeton University and at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) wrote the foreword for my book Cautionary Tales. Here are his cautions for colleges under the threats of financial instability:
“Acknowledge problems and avoid an ‘in-denial’ existence.”
Do “not be too quick to extrapolate ‘good news,’ such as evidence of enrollment growth. Circumstances can change rapidly....”
Find not just a new direction; “...find a new direction that is sustainable.”
“Avoid ‘cures’ that are worse than the disease.”
Do not “rely too much on the charismatic leadership of one person -- who may leave, retire, die.”
Do not squander or impair (by borrowing unwisely) assets.
Do “not hesitate to celebrate what their college has achieved.... But no one should worship the past unduly.” Remember naturalist John Burroughs’s comment: “New times always. Old time we cannot keep.”
Do not be “forced to close” and lose “the capacity for wise choice."
Know that “‘death with dignity’ can be a good outcome.”
There may be no best way to close a college, but it is certain that following every college closing, there will be a lot of anguish. As the president of Saint Mary’s said, “The bitterness won’t end until the last alum dies.” But I wonder if all the mergers, sales of institutions, reducing numbers of faculty and staff, new online courses and graduate degrees, and “destroying the soul of the college” have really “saved” those colleges that have taken those routes to stay open -- if turning the keys of the campus over to someone else is really better than closing -- if sacrificing the quality and traditions of the college leaves the college but a shadow of itself.
Perhaps the most relevant question of all is the one asked by the editor of Change Magazine in 1979: “Is it, in fact, in the best ecological interests of higher education to have every marginal institution stay alive at any cost?”
Alice Brown, president emerita of the Appalachian College Association, lived on the campus of a small, private college for two years, directed a consortium of 37 similar colleges for over 25 years and has written about another dozen or so.