All too often, especially in lean economic times, students and families disregard private institutions out of hand because of the perceived cost. But in the battle for talented students, private liberal arts colleges will win the day by showing students and families considering higher education that “private” doesn’t mean “expensive.”
A few weeks ago, my institution, Juniata College, released a new policy, guaranteeing our students the ability to graduate in four years, or the fifth year is on us.
Well, from the reactions of some of the public universities in Pennsylvania, you might have thought I had suggested eliminating college sports. The fact is, private liberal arts colleges excel at giving students the tools to maintain momentum toward graduation within four years.
National statistics bear this out. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities says nearly 80 percent of students at private colleges who finish graduate in four years, compared to about 50 percent at public institutions.
Juniata did not decide to guarantee that almost all our students will graduate in four years as a cheap marketing ploy designed to take shots at state universities. Rather, it’s a call to arms for all colleges and universities to start their own affordability comparisons.
Our numbers have been splashed across newspapers and read over the airwaves. You can Google them at will. They are: Juniata’s tuition of $28,920 per year goes down to $13,786 per year once our financial aid package kicks in. That makes the four-year bill, after we add in yearly education-related fees, $60,536.
Compare that with what U.S. News & World Report noted in the November 5 issue: “Since it is now taking the average public university student more than six years to graduate, the cost of a public college degree is now more than $90,000, about 25 percent more than it was for the freshmen of five years ago.”
When we compared our figures to the publics, we also added a cost not many people talk about: the earnings a person would have made if he or she had graduated on time. Based on a very conservative annual earnings estimate of $21,000, two extra years in school will “cost” an extra $42,000 above tuition.
So, if you consider lost earnings, that “state school” education isn’t looking so affordable, is it?
Instead of traditional majors, we use programs of emphasis, in which students can design their own educational plan. If they change their minds about a career path once (or even twice), they won’t lose momentum by taking new prerequisites. Our study abroad programs -- 40 percent of our students study abroad -- focus on programs that offer courses and credit applicable to our students’ programs. Finally, we use internships within our curriculum to offer students academic credit and experiential learning without sacrificing extracurricular time or activities -- 85 percent of our students have at least one real-world internship.
And before anyone sniffs at our flexibility as somehow a lack of “standards,” that favored panacea of bureaucrats everywhere, our results speak for themselves: 96 percent of graduates over the last five years either secured employment or went to graduate school within six months of graduation.
In 2006, 96 percent of those Juniatians who graduated, did so in four years or less. Over the past few years, 92 percent of our graduating students have done so in four years or less. In our system, in which two faculty members advise students throughout their college career, there is very little retracing of steps and no wrong turns -- mainly because our curriculum is highly adaptable. In reality, our guarantee isn’t much of a gamble because we are already succeeding beyond many of our private college peers and well beyond the state universities. Instead, it makes policy the good work that has long been practice at Juniata.
To those forward-looking institutions willing to take the challenge with us, to do everything we can to ensure the affordability of a great education, let us put our numbers on the table and let our constituents decide.
Thomas Kepple is president of Juniata College, an undergraduate liberal arts college in Huntingdon, Pa.
The 2004 Carnegie Classifications identified only 95 liberal arts colleges with no graduate school where 80 percent or more of all graduates are liberal arts and sciences, not career-based, majors. They accounted for a mere 0.8 percent of the total higher education enrollment in the U.S. In a 1990 Yankelovich survey, two-thirds of respondents believed the main reason to go to college was to get the skills necessary for a good job. A 2004 University of California at Los Angles survey reported that three-quarters of all students gave as their reasons for going to college "to get training for a specific career," "to be able to get a better job," and/or "to be able to make more money."
This year, a Special Commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings “to consider how best to improve our system of higher education” completed a year long study. Its 55-page report of analysis and recommendations does not even mention liberal education or the liberal arts.
The 95 "true" liberal arts colleges, the pure practitioners of liberal education, are in trouble. The number of persons who view themselves as liberally educated is declining. The number who wish they were liberally educated is declining even faster and the number who think they know what a liberal education is, or even that they would like to know, is shrinking fastest of all. In recent years, liberal education’s slide has been masked to some extent by demographics, the upsurge in applicants for all higher education resulting from the flood of college age children produced by the baby boomers. The flood is coming to an end.
A career-directed education has become the goal of many, if not most, young people eager to get ahead. A purely materialistic motivation for getting an education is now the norm, not the exception. There is economic pressure on liberal arts colleges to add career-directed courses and programs to attract students. The most prestigious colleges are to some extent relieved from this pressure by their wealth and the fact that so many of their graduates know they will go on to graduate and professional schools and therefore feel less need to collect a commercial credential at the undergraduate level; to learn what Elia Kazan’s immigrant father called something “use-eh-full.”
Even the richest colleges, however, are not immune from pressure to expand their curricula in vocational directions in order to attract students who are more interested in getting a good job and making money than in Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau, and to make sure top students are not lured away by so-called honors colleges at state universities.
Can liberal arts colleges be saved or are they, to take Paul Neely’s apt analogy, becoming like high end passenger trains that went out of business because no matter how well they performed, consumers had come to prefer traveling by plane and automobile? Unless the case liberal arts colleges make for liberal education and for themselves is reformed, their curricula restored, and the across the board teaching excellence of their faculties secured, the answer in all probability is that those that survive will evolve into purveyors of career-directed, not liberal, education.
The Case as It Is Made Now
Much of the Case currently made for liberal education is internally inconsistent, cynically cobbled together to pander to the preconceptions of high school students and their parents, unsupported and/or simply not credible. As the steady decline in the demand for liberal education shows, the Case is not persuasive to those who are not pre-sold, i.e. those who need to be persuaded. Consider the following Case elements:
(1) Even though it won’t get you a job, a liberal education really is useful because it teaches students how to think critically.
The "critical thinking" mantra is an especially good example of embracing a bad argument solely because it is not laughable on its face. Never mind that no one knows what “critical,” as opposed to plain good, thinking is, or that there is no reason to suppose that one is more likely to become a critical thinker studying English literature than business management, or that there is certainly no reason to suspect that English literature professors are themselves more critical thinkers, or more capable of teaching critical thinking than business management professors. Yet no single assertion is more central to the Case made for liberal arts educations than the claim it will make you a more critical thinker, whatever that is.
(2) A liberal education best provides oral and written communication skills.
It is certainly true that a liberal education can provide these skills, but is it more true than for career-based education (or for that matter for the education that comes from being in the workplace)? There is no convincing evidence that the liberally educated are more effective communicators and the fact that the assertion is totally unsupported undercuts the Case as a whole.
(3) Liberal arts colleges provide an international education.
We live in a global world and it behooves liberal arts colleges to internationalize their curricula to the maximum extent possible. This does not mean, however, that the following common liberal arts promotion makes sense: "The globe is shrinking, we live in an international world, and our college recognizes these important facts by encouraging all students to spend a semester abroad."
Let’s restate this promotion from the point of view of a potential student or parent: "You have told me that spending 26 months at your college over the next four years at a cost of $150,000-$200,000 is a sound investment, but now you say I should spend more than 10 percent of that time somewhere else. Are you trying to cut your costs by giving me less or do you simply believe 26 months is more than I need?"
Everyone knows that study abroad is a useful and often meaningful, even life-changing, experience. But it makes no sense to say that it should be done at the expense of, rather than in addition to, the 26 months.
(4) You can study the subjects you like best and are most interested in.
In an effort to attract students, liberal arts colleges have reduced, and some have even eliminated, course requirements. To the extent they do so they turn over liberal education curriculum design to students who by definition are not yet liberally educated and virtually insure that their education will be less broad, less liberal. Maria Montessori’s maxim “follow the child” may make sense in first grade, but not at a liberal arts college unless, of course, the college’s education philosophy is that students will find liberal education on their own without the college’s guidance, in which case why should they spend $200,000 for 26 months?
(5) You will get good grades and this will help you get into the graduate or professional school of your choice.
Colleges don’t explicitly include grade inflation in their pitches to students, but everybody knows it is going on. In fact, grade inflation serves only to cheapen the value of a liberal arts degree and signals to students that a liberal education is simply a part of playing the credential-seeking game, of getting ahead. Further, since everyone is doing it, it doesn’t work very well.
The Case That Needs to Be Made
In contrast to these frivolous, disingenuous or wrong claims, the distinctively desirable features of a liberal arts education are de-emphasized or omitted entirely from the Case because it is assumed by admissions staff that they won’t be believed or understood.
(1) The quality of a liberal education that makes it so effective is that the subject matter studied is not “use-eh-full.”
It is the very "uselessness" of what liberal arts students study that opens the door to their appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing, that drives home the point that learning is of value in and of itself whether or not it leads directly to a marketable skill. It is possible to realize these things while studying banking or engineering, but it is much more difficult because the student is constantly distracted from the utility of acquiring knowledge by the utility of the knowledge being acquired. The genius of the American system of liberal education is that it eliminates this distraction. Its uselessness separates knowing from need to know, learning from need to learn, desire to understand from need to understand.
(2) The best teaching is at liberal arts colleges.
If liberal arts colleges pay attention in hiring, training, supporting and tenuring faculty, there is really no way universities, no matter now highly ranked, can match them in teaching excellence. The mission of universities is diverse and complex, the mission of liberal arts colleges is singular, to provide a liberal education to undergraduates. For the most part, the most famous names in higher education are associated with major universities, not liberal arts colleges, but the severe limits on their worth to university undergraduates are well known: limited exposure to students, huge lecture courses, smaller classes taught by graduate students, and so on. Universities, by their very nature, inescapably focus on specialization, not breadth.
Universities are aware of their inherent disadvantages in providing undergraduate liberal arts education and in recent years some have made efforts to shore up their performance by creating so-called honors colleges and requiring full professors to teach an undergraduate course now and then. By and large, however, these are Band-Aid efforts. A Nobel laureate once complained to me about being required to teach an undergraduate seminar. "I’m a professor, not a teacher," he growled.
(3) Your life will be fuller and richer if you read Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau.
There is no doubt that this is a tough sell for college bound, wealth-seeking, "what’s in it for me" philistines and their nervous parents, but enrichment is inescapably central to the value of the liberal arts. Before I came to the academy, I was a lawyer. I know to a certainty that one does not learn how to practice law until one starts doing it. It is not learned in law school. Therefore, a career-directed, pre-law program at the undergraduate level makes no sense, i.e., even though vocational, it is neither useful nor enriching. By far the best, and often the only, way to learn any career skill is by practicing it. Career-directed courses are always of limited value; a liberal education is always enriching. The wise person, therefore, seeks both a liberal education and an on-the-job career education.
In the early 19th century, subject matter that made up the liberal arts curriculum was fixed: the ancient classics, rhetoric, logic, Greek and Latin. It was what a gentleman, a liberally educated person, had to know. Today, while the curriculum is flexible, taking advantage of the special skills and interests of the faculty, it still defines liberal education at each liberal arts college. It is the responsibility of the faculty -- not the students, not the administration -- to create a curriculum and the goal in doing so must be to make the best possible use of the faculty to insure that the college’s graduates are securely launched on a lifetime of liberal education.
Distribution, as opposed to course, requirements represent a partial abrogation of this responsibility. Perhaps after the first two or three years a distribution requirement makes sense, but course requirements come first. Elimination of requirements is a marketing, not educational, strategy. Since the objective of liberal arts colleges is to provide a liberal education the old Brown University no requirements strategy is disingenuous as well as wrong.
A liberal education is broad, not narrow. The more major requirements imposed, the narrower the resulting education. If all departments reduced their major requirements, liberal education would be facilitated. Experiencing some depth of inquiry is a part of a liberal education, but not at the expense of breadth. Graduate and professional schools, not to mention getting a job, will give students all the depth they need.
Which courses offered by a department receive the greatest departmental attention -- survey and entry-level courses or specialized advanced courses for major? Too often, it is the latter. I well remember a talk given by a creative writing professor who told us that the single most important and enriching course in his undergraduate career was Astronomy 101. At liberal arts colleges, his experience should be commonplace, not exceptional. 101 courses are the foundation of a liberal education.
Interdisciplinary courses are inherently pro-liberal arts. There are problems with them, however, including that creating a truly interdisciplinary syllabus is difficult and more work to teach, and that there is not the kind of recognition for success in interdisciplinary teaching that exists within departments. The steps colleges can take to ameliorate or eliminate these problems are obvious and should be taken.
A liberal education is best pursued when students share the learning experience. Common courses are a sound device for maximizing sharing. Similar problems inhere in teaching common courses as in interdisciplinary courses and require the same steps to remove them.
A much-used cost containment strategy is to combine departments, e.g. anthropology and sociology, art and art history, philosophy and religion. Reduction in, or failure to increase, the number of teachers in the departments is a common byproduct (or cause) of such combinations. While there is nothing inherently wrong with combined departments and, indeed, to some extent they may partake of the positive liberal arts qualities of interdisciplinary courses, combining departments can have unintended adverse consequences on the quality of instruction and should only be entered into after careful analysis. On the other side of the coin, too many departments can mark the way towards career-based education, especially in the social and physical sciences. Many universities, for example, offer dozens of economics majors, each directed to a specific career path and each leading away from breadth. Liberal arts colleges are to some extent insulated from this practice by the relatively small size of their faculties, but they are not immune.
There is nothing wrong with career-based courses and there is nothing wrong with encouraging students to pursue them, but not in lieu or instead of liberal arts courses. “Take them in the evening, in the summer, or before or after you graduate, but for the 26 months you are with us you will pursue a liberal education full time” is the correct rule for liberal arts colleges.
No course credit should be given for non-academic initiatives. If students have excellent summer work experiences or organize successful public service programs, they should put them on their resumes, not in their transcripts. The quality of the liberal education a college delivers is measured by what happens at the college, not in a congressman’s office or at a European university. If students can get a better liberal education somewhere other than at the college, why should they attend the college at all? Off-campus experience can supplement and enhance the liberal education a college offers, but not replace it.
Sadly, it is easier for liberal arts colleges to raise money for buildings, sports, or almost anything other than faculty salaries and support. If, however, liberal arts colleges do not offer the very best teaching, their prospects for the future are at best problematic. Faculties are the heart and soul of liberal education.
It makes no sense to staff a liberal arts college with teachers who are not themselves liberally educated. (Indeed, if college presidents, vice presidents, deans and other administrators are to play a meaningful role in directing the course of a liberal arts college, they also need to be liberally educated.) Hiring procedures used by liberal arts colleges – posting ads that ask candidates to furnish information about their qualifications to teach a particular specialty; 20 minute interviews in hospitality suites at professional society meetings where narrow specialists gather; observing candidates teach a 50-minute class to students chosen because they are majoring in the candidates area of specialization – are not well-calculated to reveal the extent and quality of candidates’ liberal education.
Certainly little that happened to candidates at the graduate schools where they earned their Ph.D.s provides assurance that the candidates are liberally educated. Graduate schools are antithetical to liberal education. They put a premium on and reward narrowness, not breadth. Indeed, most graduate schools have precious little to do with preparing their students to be effective teachers. The graduate school game is research and publication, no matter how frivolous or insignificant.
Worse, graduate schools dissemble about their graduates. A letter of recommendation from a graduate school dean or professor saying a graduate will be a good liberal arts college teacher frequently really means the graduate school believes the graduate will not be a successful researcher. Graduate school deans and professors often have little or no knowledge about the potential teaching capability of their students, and care less.
The one sure way to find liberally educated, potentially excellent teachers is to actively look for them, not wait for them to drop in at hospitality suite or respond to an advertisement. Networking is the key, talking to friends and friends of friends. Business understands this and there is no reason colleges can’t, too.
The number of new Ph.D.'s has increased faster than the number of college teaching positions. This can put colleges in the enviable position of having a surfeit of candidates to choose from. Too often, however, this advantage is lost because a first cut is made on the basis of the ranking of the universities from which candidates’ degrees were received. There is little reason to believe a social historian from Harvard is more liberally educated or more likely to become an excellent teacher than one from a lower ranked institution. The efforts and aptitudes required to gain admission to and earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (or any other first rate graduate school) are not closely correlated, if at all, with good teaching. Indeed, a respectable argument can be made that they are counter indicators. In fact, it is far from self-evident that liberal educatedness and teaching excellence are positively correlated with possession of a Ph.D. When a college has an opportunity to hire a potentially excellent teacher who lacks the Ph.D. credential, a retired judge or legislator perhaps, or a linguist or artist (even if an M.F.A. is also missing), the opportunity should be seized.
Hiring to fill a particular slot, the most common practice, itself risks losing teaching excellence. Obviously, a chemist cannot be hired to replace a retiring historian, but if a medievalist is the strongest candidate to replace a retiring professor of modern European history, changing course offerings should at least be seriously considered.
Flexibility in hiring is an especially important consideration in hiring minority faculty. The likelihood that a minority group member highly qualified and desiring to teach organic chemistry at a liberal arts college will happen to be available the very year old Charlie decides to retire from the chemistry department is not high. But such a candidate might have been available at an earlier time and, even though it did not fit perfectly into the then perceived staffing requirements of the chemistry department, grabbing the candidate before he or she went somewhere else could have made good sense.
If diversity in the student body is desirable, indeed essential, for a liberal education, as almost all liberal arts colleges acknowledge, then faculty diversity is essential, too. If there is no minority organic chemist available, there may be an outstanding astronomer or sociologist who will advance the liberal arts excellence of the college as well as the diversity of its faculty. When Branch Rickey set out to hire major league baseball’s first black player, he did not search for a third baseman, but rather for the best player he could find, and then played him where he fit in; at third base. Incidentally, in hiring Jackie Robinson, Mr. Rickey gave full consideration to Mr. Robinson’s personal, as well as athletic, qualifications. The parallel to giving full consideration to liberal educatedness as well as academic qualifications in hiring teachers is apt.
Once hired, most new teachers need to be taught how to teach. This did not happen to most of them at graduate school. Throwing them into the classroom and letting them sink or swim, a traditional approach, makes no sense. Instruction of new teachers by faculty members who are skilled teachers should be intensive and continuing, not hit or miss. The progress of new teachers needs to be systematically monitored. Too often what is known about a young faculty member’s teaching skills is as best anecdotal, largely based on passing comments by students. Reliable evaluation is essential to effective training and, of course, to making sound tenure decisions.
In the popular press, tenure is controversial, seen by many outside the academy as an undeserved life-long sinecure. The claimed centrality of tenure to preserving academic freedom, heavily relied on by tenure supporters, is not persuasive. The freedom to assert controversial positions is not an issue for the overwhelming majority of faculty members. Instances where it can reasonably be said that, but for tenure, a faculty member would be fired are rare. In addition, academic freedom can be contractually guaranteed without tenure, e.g. “No professor can be disciplined, demoted or terminated for expressing a controversial or unpopular view.”
Tenure is a ruthless, up or out system. A faculty member denied tenure at one college is less likely to get it somewhere else. Tenure denial is a wrenching experience not only for the teacher denied but also for the persons making the denial decision. The human response at most teaching-oriented institutions is to try to avoid making it. Doubts are resolved in favor or granting tenure. Weaknesses are under-weighted and strengths are over-weighted to reach the “grant” decision. Non-teaching contributions by the candidate are given significant weight to justify granting tenure to a candidate whose teaching is not first class. The result is “acceptable” or “pretty good,” but not excellent, teachers are rewarded with tenure and take possession of the college’s limited number of teaching positions for the next 25-30 years.
In making tenure decisions substantial weight is frequently assigned to a candidate’s publications. Indeed, at some of the finest liberal arts colleges a published book is a tenure requirement. This may make sense at graduate schools where the objective is to promote scholarship and research, not teaching. It makes no sense at liberal arts colleges. It is commonly observed that scholarship informs and enhances teaching. If this is so, as I strongly believe it to be, publications need not be considered separately as a part of the tenure review process because their enhancing effect will be reflected in the teaching performance of the candidate. On the other side of the coin, poor teachers can produce outstanding scholarship. They should be encouraged to devote their live to graduate school research, not liberal arts college teaching.
The first place most businesses look to save money is workers’ salaries. Such cost cutting efforts, however, are frequently frustrated by the pressures of competition and unions. At liberal arts colleges these pressures are more easily resisted. The result is that faculty salary increases tend to lag behind other employment venues and sometimes even languish below the rise in cost of living. Since far and away the most valuable resource of a college is its faculty, this is foolish.
The reluctance to grant salary increases to faculty is far less apparent in the case of college administrators. Perhaps in making salary decisions, business executive members of college boards of trustees identify faculty with their factory workers, and administrators with themselves. It has been observed that when the salary of a college or university president reaches three times that of senior faculty, a potentially destructive disequilibrium is created. This disequilibrium is becoming more common.
Salaries reflect perceived value. The fact that many liberal arts colleges pay their teachers poorly reflects how the institutions value teachers’ services, and inevitably how teachers value themselves. I am aware of no established benchmark for what faculty salaries ought to be, or of accepted comparables. There are, however, some useful guidelines. First, faculty salaries should increase no less rapidly than those of administrators. Second, salaries of senior faculty should increase no less rapidly than starting salaries for assistant professors. Third, teaching excellence should be rewarded by salary increases, not bonuses or prizes which are always sporadic, capricious and often devices designed to portray the institution as more generous than it in fact is. Fourth, special effort should be given to encouraging donors to earmark gifts for faculty salaries.
A not insignificant portion of the challenges now faced by liberal arts colleges are of their own making, resulting from competition between them. Costs have been increased by the addition of programs and resources for the specific purpose of attracting students away from competing colleges. Competition has caused dollars to be diverted from important uses, e.g. for faculty salaries and support, to flashy facilities and programs. Grade inflation and the elimination of requirements are examples of competition between liberal arts colleges that degrades the offerings of all of them.
A few liberal arts colleges are wealthy, but most struggle financially. They all, however, are threatened by declining demand for liberal education. If they have any long-run chance of resisting the vocationalizing of their curricula, they need to make common cause, to work together, not at odds with each other.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr. was president of Beloit College from 1991 to 2000. Before then, he practiced law in Washington. He is currently writing a book on liberal arts colleges.
In June 2007 my partner Paula Treichler and I attended a series of events at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Paula was on stage as a college alumna and member of the Antioch University Board of Trustees; I was in the audience as an alumnus and national president of the American Association of University Professors. The board had just announced that the college would close within a year. The message delivered by the chair of the board that day was clear: The college is hemorrhaging money; if we don't stop the flow, the whole university will die.
One may disagree with the financial analysis, taking issue, for example, with the impact of depreciation calculations on the college budget. One may wish the board had chosen a less drastic action, perhaps by issuing a challenge (with a deadline) to alumni and other donors. One may certainly insist that the faculty should have had an opportunity to offer alternative solutions. But the fact that the college was suffering financially was not in doubt.
In the months since, alumni have rallied dramatically, raising $18 million as a way to keep the college open while further solutions are sought. But many potential donors balked at supporting the six-campus university. They wanted the college freed from the university structure. To break the deadlock, and on the board's recommendation, a group of nine distinguished alumni formed the Antioch College Continuation Corporation (ACCC) and offered to buy the college from the university.
Certainly one might say, as numerous alumni did, that the "purchase price" should be $1. After all, the potential buyer is neither Dow Chemical nor Dubai Petroleum. The ACCC is a group of alumni acting out of love for the college and willing to use their expertise and resources on its behalf. But others argue that the university has an obligation to guarantee its own robust future by extracting the maximum price possible from the transaction. Yet that position vitiates the argument the board put forward last June, where the stated motivation was to avoid disaster, not maximize corporate profit. What has happened to the rationale publicly put forward in June?
The ACCC has taken a middle course, offering the university about $10 million dollars, motivated in part by the desire to assure the university's stability. Raising more money from other alumni is not an option: They are interested in donating to the college, not the university. So the members of the ACCC have come up with the $10 million themselves. They have also submitted a provisional though detailed financial and operational plan for the future; only one of us knows its details, and they are confidential, but the bare fact of its existence is not.
The offer from the ACCC presents an extraordinary opportunity to the university Board. The careers of current faculty, staff, and students are at stake. The Antioch legacy thousands of us carry in our hearts hangs in the balance. Now the board, paradoxically, has the chance to join the heroes of the Antioch revival. The pain so many have internalized for months can be alleviated. The board may fairly claim its tough love challenged alumni to save the college. It can preserve tenure, rather than abolishing it. It can make the issue of financial exigency moot. All it has to do is accept the ACCC offer.
Only days ago Antioch University put its free speech heritage at risk by threatening legal action against "The Antioch Papers," a web site run by Yellow Springs community members as a place for faculty, staff, and their friends to share college history and respond to the current crisis. That is merely the most striking instance of a preoccupation with confidentiality. After publicly pledging "complete transparency" in June, the board chair immediately imposed an obsessive and hostile form of secrecy on all negotiations. There is the uneasy feeling the university has severed its connections with Antioch's values.
Accepting the ACCC offer can reverse that trend. Indeed, an amicable divorce may make it possible to share the children. The college and the university could write contracts to operate some programs jointly. Antioch Education Abroad is one obvious choice. Does this guarantee the college will be thriving a decade from now? No one can. Alumni and their friends will have to give as never before. But the ACCC has extensive fund-raising experience. The current board has neither given generously nor raised significant sums. The ACCC has already done both. Indeed its members have been traveling the country obtaining conditional donations -- conditional upon reestablishing Antioch as an independent residential liberal arts college with a tenured faculty. Long-term success will also require many hundreds of students to choose Antioch College as their undergraduate school. Plans are now being developed to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile, the board has a stark choice: close the college immediately, or hand it over to alumni capable of keeping it open. Sufficient funds are in hand to keep the college operating next year and the year after. Extraordinarily accomplished people are working hard 24/7 to guarantee its long-term survival. It is a choice between certain death and hope. Both Paula and I trust the board will choose hope.
Cary Nelson teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He graduated from Antioch College in 1967 and is president of the American Association of University Professors.
I’ve spent most of my career other than where I should be. I’m a business professor teaching at a liberal arts college. When I walk outside my office door, I’m more likely to bump into a colleague discussing Buddhism or chaos theory than one who’s talking about the latest Academy of Management conference.
But having an unconventional career can engender an uncommon freedom -- the chance to think about things most others regard as settled. Bringing business education and the liberal arts into close proximity, as happens at many small liberal arts colleges today, can unsettle the assumptions of each. But if done well -- and it takes a serious commitment to do it well -- there are tremendous benefits, certainly to business education and, surprisingly to many, also to the liberal arts.
The key to a business program flourishing at a liberal arts college is threefold: blending, bridging, and building. Blending entails teaching traditional business subjects from a liberal arts perspective. Bridging involves connecting the content of business classes to other disciplines. Building entails using the innovative study of business to develop and enrich the broader liberal arts curriculum itself. This occurs when the distinctive nature of business programs prompts larger questions about the nature of liberal education. (I have adopted the terms “blending” and “bridging” here from my fellow scholars, E. Byron Chew and Cecilia McInnis-Bowers.)
Teaching traditional business subjects from a liberal arts perspective involves recognizing the hidden biases that can inhere in the instruction of core business functions, from marketing to accounting to management, when such subjects are taught in a purely technical manner. Such biases can take many forms. They can involve an uncritical acceptance of a particular goal, such as occurs when finance theory stipulates the maximization of shareholder wealth as the sole end of companies, notwithstanding several real-world examples to the contrary.
Biases can also happen when business courses explore central domains of commerce from a single vantage point rather than from multiple perspectives. Conventional business majors, for instance, are much more likely to include courses in marketing than in consumer protection, even though the introduction of goods and services into society can hardly be fully understood if viewed only from the perspective of producers. Further, business courses can subtly convey biases by failing to contextualize adequately for students their basic inquiries. Traditional courses in organizational behavior, for example, draw heavily from psychology, yet often leave the assumptions of psychological theory unexplored. The danger here is that students uncritically adopt understandings of the human psyche while believing they are merely learning the practical organizational dynamics of business firms.
Teaching business subjects from a liberal arts perspective thus requires professors to be cognizant of such traditional biases and to teach in ways that expose them as part of a larger dialogue. This means approaching business topics from a critical vantage point, engaging multiple perspectives, and richly contextualizing basic inquiries. This is what we are attempting in the introductory course to the major at my home institution, Franklin & Marshall College. Entitled “Organizing in the 21st Century: Theories of Organization,” the course focuses on traditional topics of strategic management, but does so critically, exploring alternative theories of work and organization. It engages the perspectives of the multiple stakeholders in our commercial world, from employees to managers to consumers to members of the larger community. It highlights the way many disciplines -- psychology, sociology, and anthropology, to cite only a few – provide frameworks that can illuminate our commercial lives.
There are a number of opportunities for connecting the content of business classes to classes offered in more traditional liberal arts disciplines. Such opportunities need not involve creating new courses. The necessary courses are frequently already established and successful. Some students are even making the connections on their own, as when a biology student with an interest in working for a pharmaceutical company seeks out some relevant business courses. But we owe it to students not to leave them without support in discovering and pursuing these rich connections.
As with the biology student, these connections may be ones that help a student develop his larger career aspirations. Even in the most traditional business programs, there is a need to make practical connections with courses in such areas as legal studies, environmental studies, and international studies. Such areas of study are intrinsically valuable to a straightforward business career, as business operates in an increasingly litigious society, becomes more environmentally conscious, and further internationalizes its operations.
But at least of equal value are the connective opportunities that can satisfy a student’s deeper intellectual curiosities that have arisen in the study of business – an interest in psychology prompted by the study of management, an interest in economic theory stimulated in a finance class, an interest in ethics engendered by seeing the conflicts of interests accountants face. The goal here should be to highlight and promote for students structured learning paths that encourage these sorts of avenues of inquiry. This can occur, informally, through simply enriching our advising of business students or, more formally, through the creation of curricular structures such as innovative minors.
Using the innovative study of business to develop and enrich the broader liberal arts curriculum is potentially the most far-reaching contribution a business program can make to a liberal arts college. For it involves raising larger questions about the nature of liberal education.
First, teaching business innovatively unsettles the way we have often thought of liberal education as arising only from the study of certain prescribed disciplines. Discipline-based notions of liberal education are prevalent today, even though the history of liberal education readily reveals its changing disciplinary nature. The natural sciences, for example, were not always an accepted part of the canon. Teaching business innovatively thus brings to the fore a basic, reoccurring issue for liberal education: Is the core of liberal arts instruction based on what we teach or how we teach?
Second, teaching business innovatively highlights the way in which we conventionally think about the distinction between basic and applied knowledge. We often conceive of applied knowledge in purely vocational terms, reserving for liberal study the pursuit of basic knowledge unfettered by constraining purposes. The innovative study of business unsettles this conventional dichotomy. For at the core of business study is the interplay between basic and applied knowledge. Thus, teaching business innovatively prompts a provocative question for liberal education: Does the application of knowledge diminish or deepen liberal education?
Third, teaching business innovatively spotlights the role of cross-disciplinary inquiry in liberal education. Those outside of business often forget business study involves the integration of a number of distinct academic disciplines. Accounting, marketing, finance, and management have their own distinctive set of knowledge bases, models, and assumptions – at least some of which are in tension with one another. One is likely to get a very different sense, for instance, of human motivation in a finance class than in a class on organizational behavior. With its successful integration of multiple academic disciplines, the study of business is a highly developed form of area studies. It thus poses in an especially cogent way the larger issue area studies raise for liberal education. Does the core of liberal education reside within disciplines or among them?
Liberal arts colleges that welcome the innovative teaching of business thus stand a better chance of addressing successfully such larger questions of liberal education. Of course, welcoming the study of our commercial lives into the world of liberal education is hardly the prevailing norm. It is rather, as this business professor read as an English major many years ago, taking the road “less traveled by.” But in my unconventional career, I can see how, it “has made all the difference.”
Jeffrey Nesteruk is chair of the Department of Business, Organizations, and Society at Franklin & Marshall College.
Antioch University was given an advance copy of the following op-ed, with the permission of the author, and offered the chance to respond with its own statement that would have appeared simultaneously with the publication of this piece, so that the university could offer its views and analysis of the issues discussed. After initially indicating that it would do so, and confirming as late as Wednesday afternoon that it would do so, the university stopped returning calls or responding to e-mails about the op-ed piece and indicated through an outside public relations official that it would not respond at this time. At the same time, the university's lawyers sent a letter objecting to any use of the phrase "NonStop Antioch," the former name of an effort mentioned in this op-ed.
Hundreds of Antioch College alumni returned to Yellow Springs, Ohio for a reunion in June, and they packed Kelly Hall for the Alumni Board’s update on talks to save the college. Even as the Antioch University administration was proceeding with its plan to close the college at the end of the month, Antioch faculty took the stage to tell the audience about what was then being called "NonStop Antioch," an ambitious and indeed inspiring enterprise that will keep the Antioch spirit alive and in the village of Yellow Springs for the next two years: Without campus classrooms, dorms, or services, faculty will nevertheless design and teach courses in which students as well as community members will enroll while fund-raising staff work intensively with alumni to raise the money needed to reopen the college and begin its restoration to health. Several professors from surrounding colleges will teach NonStop courses and seminars gratis and individuals and organizations in Yellow Springs will provide teaching and study locations -- which they aren’t calling “classroom space” but “sanctuary.”
Longtime Antioch faculty member Hassan Rachmanian captured the spirit of the effort when he told the Kelly Hall audience that the university administration “may have taken the college’s body but we have its soul.” Ironically, the creators of this initiative cannot utter the words “NonStop Antioch” because the university has threatened legal action against any unauthorized use of the name “Antioch.” So old-fashioned call-and-response filled Kelly Hall: those on the stage shouted “NonStop!” and the audience, not subject to the university’s legal threats, roared back “Antioch!”
Some professors will offer their favorite courses. Others will create new courses designed to capitalize on Antioch’s co-op tradition as well as the town/gown relationship. In one such course, combining political science with investigative journalism, students will track the presidential election by conducting videotaped interviews in traditionally liberal Yellow Springs as well as in nearby Clark County, long considered a bellwether district in nationwide voting.
Inspiring as this weekend was, and brave as NonStop is, we have to ask: How did it come to this? How could the university’s Board of Trustees have decided to turn down three reasonable deals with great potential to save the college -- and at considerably less cost and effort than will now be required? As a board member from October 2001 until last month, I can offer my perspective on events since June 2007 and on what’s happening now.
The chancellor’s presentation also included a sweetener -- a plan to re-open the college in 2012. The plan had a couple of hitches: the chancellor would have to find corporate funding, and she and her “team” would direct the design of this “new Antioch College.” A lot of alums were skeptical the minute they heard “corporate funding” and “Antioch College” in the same sentence. And college faculty saw at once that the plan’s target date of 2012 would enable the university to terminate tenured appointments without violating AAUP requirements that faculty be rehired if the institution reopens within three years. (An earlier draft suggests that the plan’s original target date was 2011. If Murdock made the strategic change to evade AAUP censure, it would make sense. In her prior position as president of Antioch-Seattle, which like all of Antioch’s regional campuses operates without tenure, she had advocated eliminating tenure at the college and tried to ignore AAUP concerns about the dismissal of several Seattle faculty members.)
Last year’s reunion took place just two weeks after the board’s closure bombshell and elicited from alumni on behalf of their alma mater an outpouring of love and commitment that university administrators and board members had claimed did not exist. With 250 alums scheduled to attend, more than 600 showed up and turned the reunion into an old fashioned revival meeting that raised hearts, hopes, and more than $8 million dollars. Over the following year, alumni submitted a series of proposals to the trustees that sought to keep the college open, establish its autonomy from the university, and create an independent board. The critical argument was that alumni and other significant donors would support the college under conditions of independence but not when it remained within the university structure. Then on May 8 of 2008, the board rejected the last of these proposals, a move that most trustees must have hoped would finally bring this fraught and exhausting year to an end. But this wasn’t to be. When the board convened on June 5 in Keene, New Hampshire, trustees found campus advocates awaiting them with statements, arguments, petitions, and media packets, and promises of more to come. Unexpectedly, at the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to direct the Antioch Alumni Association to develop a plan to save the college that would include taking over its operations for good.
Thus this year’s reunion, too, came hard on the heels of a startling announcement from the Board of Trustees, and no one knew exactly what to think. While the June 2007 decision was the frustrated outcome of decades of heartache and hand-wringing by a series of boards about the college’s financial problems, this board’s vote in May 2008 to reject the last of the proposals not only acknowledged its own failure to solve those problems but also its stubborn determination to “stay the course” despite the massive re-engagement of alumni, the commitment of significant funds, and ongoing publicity critical of the university and the board. Though the board leadership spent incalculable hours and travel dollars in negotiations and acknowledged the college’s materially changed outlook, they treated the June 30, 2008 closure deadline like a holy grail. I joined the board in October of 2001. I resigned on May 7 this year, the day before that final negative vote, because I had violated the board’s cult-like oath of confidentiality that by then we were each required to renew at the beginning of every meeting and conference call. A number of trustees during the past year objected to the board’s secrecy, but largely in vain, and this helped doom all three plans to save the college. "Secrecy is for losers," said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but secrecy was a winner in the decision to close Antioch.
Of course, just about every board that hasn’t adopted radical sunshine laws conducts some of its business in confidence, notably personnel matters and especially the hiring or firing of chief executive officers. But our board, as the year proceeded, enlarged the cone of silence to encompass just about everything we did short of picking turkey or veggies for lunch.
Was this destructive? Yes. It helped isolate board members at a time when we badly needed outside voices and independent expertise. Information technology, for example, was a fairly large line item in the university’s reckoning of college expenditures, but many campus community members said IT was a joke: Faculty, students, and even administrative staff told me that they often had to leave campus to find a functioning computer and Internet connection, and there seemed to be only one working copy machine available to the whole campus. A more serious discrepancy involved the role of the college’s assets in providing security for the university’s capital expenditures. Professors charged that the assets -- including the endowment -- were used as loan and bond collateral for buildings on the adult campuses, including Antioch-McGregor’s controversial building in Yellow Springs. The university administration and the board categorically denied this charge.
Ironically, the board’s commitment to “transparency” served to obscure such discrepancies. True transparency, if such a thing can be achieved, is fine: It aims to illuminate what is not readily visible, acknowledge and articulate competing interests, identify the historical and cultural contexts that have shaped divergent positions, and vigorously articulate counter-arguments and interpretations. True transparency means less control, more contradiction, more openness.
The board and administrative leadership and the university’s legal counsel repeatedly espoused and asserted transparency, with Exhibit A being the chancellor’s PowerPoint forecast of financial doom in June 2007. But as negotiations continued and pressures mounted, presentations became dogmatically non-transparent. They had their version of the truth and selected facts, arguments, and documentation to support it. Sometimes the efforts were laughable: With hundreds of alumni and others loudly protesting Antioch’s closure each week in letters, e-mails, and national media, and with Google Alert making updates immediately accessible, board members would be forwarded only expressions of support for their decision: An e-mail complaining about the college from an embittered 1980 alum, a letter from the pissed-off mom of a recent college drop-out, a George Will column. More disturbing were the memoranda prepared for us by the university’s lawyers with their relentlessly narrow and corporate interpretations of our fiduciary responsibility and duty of care, the nature of trusteeship, and our risk of personal liability. The chancellor at one point characterized the college’s alumni as “chaotic” because they do not speak with a uniform or unified voice. These cautionary directives from the university’s legal counsel, in contrast, were designed to promote a unified voice on the board.
In part as a result of this controlled information flow, most board members have known little of the chancellor’s behind-the-scenes aggressions against the college this past year. She would no doubt say she was just doing the job we told her to do: closing down the campus. At first it just seemed like coincidence that when events took a pro-college turn, the chancellor would scorch some campus earth. But after awhile these actions began to look deliberately and unnecessarily hostile. Or, at least with regard to the first example, just callous. Just after the June 2007 announcement of closure and the negative outcry in the local and national press, a homeland security simulation had been scheduled by one of the chancellor’s minions. To be held in beloved Olive Kettering Library on the Antioch campus, the scenario called for several Antioch students to simulate being dead; even the Yellow Springs cops thought that under the circumstances this was a tad insensitive and offered alternative space. No, said the minion, the SWAT team wanted to practice in the library stacks, so -- as documented in the film “Antioch Confidential” -- the simulation went forward.
At the end of August, the board, together with the university administration, scheduled two days in Cincinnati to hear testimony from most of the college’s constituencies. By the end of the meeting the board, quite moved by the presentations, voted all but unanimously to step onto the slippery slope and support the Alumni Association’s efforts to keep the college open. So that the alumni could assemble a proper proposal with fund-raising targets and a business plan, the chancellor was directed to share all necessary financial data and to help. I left that meeting optimistic and full of respect for my fellow board members who, it seemed to me, genuinely wanted this initiative to succeed. And Steve Lawry, president of the college, said he was satisfied with this turn of events and would now be able wholeheartedly to resume his visits to potential donors.
The minions then created a management-sanctioned alumni newsletter, as though the professional alumni development staff were irresponsible cranks: In place of the familiar graphic of the Antioch towers, alumni opened their e-mails to the inaugural issue of “Good News!” with its upbeat account of the “positive” and “collaborative” meeting in Cincinnati. Alumni, also receiving the “real” alumni newsletter from the college development staff as well as the Yellow Springs News and the Antioch Record online -- all with reports of what had already been dubbed the Labor Day Massacre -- were understandably astonished and outraged. Yet when they, and I myself as a board member, asked Art Zucker, the board chair, to account for these actions, he denied their significance and impact. He characterized Steve Lawry’s dismissal as the decision any responsible CEO might make, changing the locks as “standard operating procedure,” and campus reactions as “over-reactions.” A member of the board’s executive committee chided me privately for questioning the chancellor’s actions; she was “following our mandated process” and was quite in order to take control over an unruly college staff. Whenever you shut down a division, he added, “you gotta expect anxiety and fallout.” In this instance, and thereafter, “fallout” was rarely discussed formally by the board, but the leadership did start issuing regular statements of praise for the chancellor, while “the board’s mandated process” became a familiar mantra.
Then in November, following a regular board meeting in Yellow Springs that seemed to last forever, the board voted to lift the suspension of operations. Students rang bells in the campus towers, but the vote turned out to have changed nothing: With financial exigency still in place, the chancellor argued, there could be no student recruitment, no renegotiation with the Ohio Board of Regents of the college’s degree-granting and accreditation status, no extension of faculty positions or student graduation dates. The chancellor had her marching orders and it was her legal and fiduciary duty to honor the timeline, no matter how many bells were ringing. Legal counsel chimed in.
In a 2006 essay on communication at Antioch University (posted on the Antioch Papers Web site), the chancellor clearly expressed her preference for top-down, fully controlled communication, with everything authorized or supervised by the chancellor. So when the alumni leaders scheduled an open meeting to talk with the campus community, the chancellor wanted to close the campus to them, and to outsiders in general -- anyone who might foster the free flow of information and specifically deliver misleadingly hopeful messages about the college’s future. As one of the minions said, “Hope is creating the problem.” Trying to close the campus to the alumni leaders also reflected the university’s position that they were not a group of alumni but a rival corporation seeking to engineer a hostile takeover of the college. In the same spirit, the university even forced the Alumni Association to rent back its own campus buildings for this June’s reunion and, with dorms already shut down, alumni had to sleep in tents or off campus; there was no cafeteria service because the university is suing the village over its chiller unit.
Such ways of thinking are common in corporate culture and most of the board seemed familiar and comfortable with them, but they’re at odds with academic principles and practices. While the university is, indeed, a corporation and the chancellor is its CEO and the members of the board are its directors, an academic institution is distinct in many ways from other corporate bodies. Not only Antioch but most American colleges and universities subscribe to principles advocated by the American Association of University Professors, widely regarded as a leading authority on sound academic practices. Most famous is the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which the Antioch College faculty references in their lawsuit against the university. Like other academics who’ve served on the board (sadly, a shrinking constituency), I’m an AAUP member who’s raised issues about academic practices, including “shared governance,” the association’s principle that the administration, board, and faculty of an academic institution should work together to shape its life and future. But the board and chancellor appear to have rejected shared governance, declaring financial exigency without prior or subsequent faculty consultation and even stating at one point that “shared governance may apply to the Antioch campus but does not apply to the relationship between the campus, the university administration, and the board.” I believe the AAUP would consider this interpretation incorrect.
As the scorched earth campaign continued, the chancellor found new ways to disrupt fund raising and alumni relations, and board deadlines came and went. College support staff would find their corporate credit cards canceled, so they couldn’t schedule fund-raising trips or meet with alumni chapters (in June 2007, eight alumni chapters existed; today there are nearly 50). Or they would be told that as college employees they couldn’t raise money for an outside corporation, or their reservations for meeting rooms would be canceled without notification, or they’d be prohibited from contacting certain donors or accessing certain records, or a minion would be installed as their supervisor, or they’d be threatened with being audited or fired. Alumni leaders were regularly summoned to mediate conflicts, further delaying progress. And the campus grew dimmer and grimmer. Housekeeping and security services on campus were sharply curtailed, buildings were closed, long-time faculty and staff members were fired. The Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom, opened in March 2007, was closed, and a funding proposal from its director was rejected. When the chancellor learned that many of the confidential documents posted on the Antioch Papers Web site had not been leaked by insiders but legitimately acquired by members of the public from Antiochiana, the institution’s archive, where board materials were routinely sent for storage, she changed the archives’ locks and restricted its hours and access to the public, including the alumni who have donated many of its holdings.
Some actions were taken without full board notification, consultation, or approval. Although many of them will radically increase the financial and administrative burden of re-opening the college and its campus, the full board never directed her to explore putting off the deadline for closure. They just let her run out the clock.
So now it’s July 2008. Students, faculty, and staff have left, retired, taken other jobs, or moved to the NonStop campaign, while the physical plant is on a forced march to oblivion. Historic G. Stanley Hall Hall has been razed along with the huge trees that surrounded it. Heat and air conditioning have been turned off. Furniture, equipment, curtains, and carpeting will be discarded. The buildings will accumulate moisture all summer and be subjected to a hard freeze when cold weather comes. The minions found algae in the campus pool and drained it, depriving the Yellow Springs community of a long-shared facility. Next year zero-occupancy rules apply. If, or when, the Alumni Association’s plans for the college come to fruition, the buildings may not be permitted to reopen unless they meet current construction codes.
Of course we’re joyful that we still might get our college back. But are we like Charlie Brown, eternally wooed by Lucy’s promise that this time will be different -- this time she won’t pull the football out from under him, this time she’s on his/our side? Or is the chancellor determined to wreck the college by any means necessary? As one of my Antioch friends channels her, in a screech, from the Wizard of Oz: “I’ll have your college -- and your little dog too!”
Some alumni believe that if they can raise enough money, the board will now cooperate.
I agree about the money. And I agree that the board has moved in a significantly different direction. But the reign of terror against the campus and its ongoing human cost, which I have sketched briefly here, are significant realities as well.
Scholars of conflict, like anthropologist Victor Turner, tell us that during prolonged conflicts, especially under conditions of structural inequity or ambiguity, the less powerful are likely to paint the more powerful in apocalyptic terms. In writing here about Antioch, I have likened the chancellor to the wicked witch, hinted that the board and university leadership share qualities with the George W. Bush administration, and even used “ground zero” in my title. But when I look coldly at the outcomes of this past year, I see something more mundane: a failure of imagination, an aversion to risk, a regime fixated on management instead of governance, and ultimately an overall pattern of incompetence.
“The chancellor calls the alumni chaotic,” said one community member recently: “This is a woman who can’t even change a lock without throwing the whole campus into chaos.”
Whether apocalyptic or mundane, the college struggle has not unfolded on the flat playing field trumpeted by Toni Murdock’s idol Thomas Friedman. The chancellor is still the CEO of this corporation. The board is still the decider. The university is still the entity its legal counsel prioritizes and protects. Against such odds, alumni and Antioch’s other friends must continue financially and politically to support the activities and organizations that can still provide direction and leverage: Direct action, legal services, NonStop, the Alumni Association and the College Revival Fund, the Antioch Papers, and the many creative projects that help document the Antioch story. Even as we hope for a happy ending, we have to stay vigilant. In the largest sense, this means we all have to be involved, NonStop.
Paula Treichler, who graduated as a philosophy major from Antioch College in 1965, grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio; her parents served on the Antioch faculty for 34 years. With a Ph.D. in linguistics and psycholinguistics, she has held faculty and administrative positions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1972. She has published numerous essays on higher education.
As we approach the second decade of the century, it is fair to ask what young medical doctors should know and where and when they should learn it. But amid calls for revisions to the undergraduate premedical curriculum, undergraduate colleges must guard against being co-opted as “farm clubs” for “big league” schools of medicine.
In the American system of higher education, to paraphrase the opening of a popular television series, the task of educating and training tomorrow’s doctors is shared by two separate yet equally important institutions: baccalaureate colleges of arts and sciences and professional schools of medicine. And, as the ubiquitous use of the term “pre-med” implies, undergraduate educators have long accepted their responsibility to equip students who aspire to become physicians with the knowledge and skills essential for admission to medical school. It follows from this premise that changes in the scope and focus of medical school curricula will raise legitimate questions about the courses most appropriate for premed students.
This argument furnishes the starting point for a recent contribution by Jules L. Dienstag to the New England Journal of Medicine (“Relevance and Rigor in Premedical Education”). In his essay, Dienstag notes the demands placed on medical school faculties by an ever expanding range of “new scientific material” and deplores the “widely varied levels of science preparation” among first-year medical students. As a remedy, he proposes a radical reshaping of the pre-medical science curriculum and a corresponding revision of both the Medical College Admissions Test (or MCAT) and the criteria used by medical school admissions committees. By “refocusing” and “increasing [the] relevance” of the science courses pre-med students take, Dienstag argues, undergraduate institutions could better prepare graduates for professional school while simultaneously opening up additional space in the curriculum for “an expansive liberal arts education encompassing literature, languages, the arts, humanities, and social sciences.”
Dienstag’s prescription deserves serious consideration by faculty and administrators at baccalaureate and professional institutions alike. He offers valuable suggestions on a range of issues. But Dienstag naturally approaches this topic from his own perspective -- that of the dean for medical education at Harvard Medical School. In advocating for changes that would address the challenges facing his own colleagues, he ignores (or at least passes too quickly over) complications and contradictions that those changes would create at undergraduate colleges.
Each entering class at any undergraduate institution contains many more students who express their firm intention to become medical doctors than will ever apply to a medical school, let alone gain admission. Some will learn in Chemistry 101 that their intellectual gifts are not those of a scientist. Others will be seduced by the excitement of laboratory research and pursue Ph.D. rather than M.D. degrees. Still others will surprise themselves (not to mention their parents) by discovering a passion for literature or archaeology, economics or music that overwhelms their earlier conviction about their destined career paths.
Such defections are scarcely surprising, given the limited knowledge and experience that high school students rely on as the basis for forming their views about possible life goals. But it is also important to recognize that many undergraduate institutions – liberal arts colleges in particular – actively encourage their students to remain intellectually curious and open to the full range of disciplines that they sponsor. “Pursue your passion,” we advise incoming first-year students at the College of the Holy Cross. “Find what excites and fulfills you and see where it may lead.” Tracking pre-med students into what Dienstag describes as a science curriculum with “a tighter focus on science that ‘matters’ to medicine” runs counter to this liberal arts ethos. While it might better prepare the minority of those students who will one day matriculate at a school of medicine, it could handicap those whose scientific interests point them toward industry or teaching and research. It could also restrict the breadth of the scientific education that non-science majors would take with them if later decisions led them towards majors in the humanities, arts or social sciences. And even for the small number of students who would in fact emerge from such a streamlined curriculum and enter medical school, one has to question the wisdom of targeting “biologically relevant” material at the expense of courses in topics as critical to the future of our planet as ecology and population genetics.
Another way of explaining the unease that some faculty members at liberal arts colleges may feel over Dienstag’s proposal is that it implies that the study of biology, chemistry, physics and statistics is undertaken as a means -- and to one very particular end. The attitude we seek to foster in our students at liberal arts institutions, by contrast, is that one studies a discipline for what it reveals about the universe we inhabit and about what the mission statement at the College of the Holy Cross calls “basic human questions.” The knowledge and skills that one acquires in the process will be equally useful in one’s career and in one’s life outside the workplace and certainly do not limit who one may become, either professionally or personally.
There is no question that the combined eight-year premedical and medical school curriculum that has served us well for decades is coming under increasing pressure. With each year that passes, society expects more of its physicians; as Dienstag notes, we now demand that they be trained not only in medical science but also in “ethics, … listening skills, and skills relevant to health policy and economics.” Unless we are to extend the already long training period by another year, changes in what we teach and how we teach it are inevitable.
Dienstag urges those of us who teach undergraduates not to “shy away from the challenge” posed by this shifting environment. I suggest that the challenge we confront can not be addressed effectively without all parties being open to possible changes in the way they contribute to the process. More importantly, our colleagues in the professional schools must understand that the term “pre-med” designates a provisional career aspiration far more often than it does a firm commitment. Undergraduate students are by definition still learning about their world and seeking out their place in it, so our institutions serve their needs when we balance the importance of effective pre-professional preparation with the equally compelling need for curricular flexibility and disciplinary breadth.
Timothy R. Austin
Timothy R. Austin is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at the College of the Holy Cross, which sent 43 members of the Class of 2008 to medical schools -- 29 of them at top research universities.
Bill Bowen, who was a longtime president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, describes getting colleges to collaborate as "a very difficult, much unappreciated" task. From my experience in trying for 25 years to get 37 college presidents to collaborate, I'd go further. I have concluded that real collaboration across institutions is virtually impossible.
Collaboration as a concept is great, but as a reality it rarely exists. Centralization (providing benefits that each college can access) and even cooperation (helping when it doesn't hurt) are far easier practices to implement than true collaboration (working for the benefit of the whole even when some of the individual parts have to sacrifice).
Working first as director of a program at a major research university funded (by Mellon) to provide fellowships for faculty at small colleges in the mountains of central Appalachia, and then as president of the consortium that grew from that program, I feel qualified to make a few observations about why collaboration is so difficult:
Presidents of independent colleges are independent; as the primary representative of the institution they have a strong need for autonomy and to claim distinctiveness for their institutions -- even when the institution is very similar to others within the same classification of higher education institutions. While they do not want to disagree with their peers in public and will often appear to be in agreement, promises made in a public setting often do not get fulfilled in a private setting. Similarly, commitments made privately are often changed when a public vote with their peers is taken. As one college president said in a presentation at a meeting of the Association for Consortium Leadership, "We will promise anything to appear agreeable in a meeting of the consortium members."
Rosalynn Carter once said that a leader is someone who takes people where they want to go; a great leader is someone who takes people where they need to go.
Getting 37 presidents to agree on where they wanted to go was impossible for me; finding out where they needed to go -- by asking presidents, foundation officers, program directors in federal agencies and others from outside the Association -- was easier. Some consortium directors talk about the importance of building consensus, but I found the adage that "consensus is what everyone is willing to agree on in public but no one believes in private" was far too true.
I quickly learned that the way to get the presidents of our 37 colleges to make a commitment to a project was to present the project as the idea of another of the presidents or of a foundation representative and ask for volunteers for the pilot stages. I was fortunate to have 37 presidents with which to work because even though there were usually those who had no intention of fulfilling a commitment to the project, there were always enough who did fulfill their commitments to make the project successful. Directors of consortia with only a few members have a harder job. They have to know they have the sincere commitment of all their presidents to assure success; they do have to worry about building consensus.
Presidents do not accept ownership of what they do not control; academic deans, on the other hand, seem to be quite comfortable claiming ownership in situations where they feel they at least have some authority to make decisions. As a program at the University of Kentucky, the Appalachian College Program was guided by the academic deans of the participating colleges; they accepted those rare occasions when some idea they had proposed was vetoed by the university's officials (usually because there were other projects within the university that would be competing for the funding).
Once the presidents met to discuss expanding the program to include more than faculty development (joint purchasing, training for staff, etc.), it was clear immediately that they would not accept with grace a veto of their ideas by authorities at the university. As a result, the Appalachian College Program became the Appalachian College Association, an independent 501(c) 3 organization directed by a board made up of the presidents of member colleges.
Given the need of the presidents for autonomy, there is generally little reason to expect them to be concerned about the impact the program might have on education within the region generally; each president in my consortium was primarily concerned about the benefits his or her institution would derive individually. The question for each of the presidents was almost inevitability, "How will this project impact my institution?" While the mission of the Appalachian College Association was broadly defined as "strengthening private higher education in the region," the primary goal on which the presidents could agree was that the Association should raise money that all the colleges could share -- but only if raising that money did not jeopardize the fund raising of any individual member college.
The only aspect of their operations that the presidents seemed completely comfortable allowing the Association to address was faculty development and, later, centralized library services. At a roundtable session with Bob Zemsky (founding director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Research on Higher Education) to set priorities for the next president of the Association, they quickly concluded that the focus of the Association should remain on faculty, that they did not need another organization that provided a social setting where the presidents could meet, or joint purchasing contracts that would probably overlap with contracts already in place through their state associations. What they most appreciated about the work of the Association was the fellowships and travel grants made available to faculty for individual research and study—a central service not requiring much collaboration.
At that same roundtable session, the question was asked, "If there were a disaster in your region that destroyed one of the member campuses, would the other campuses come together to help rebuild that campus?" After a long pause, a response came: "If the association called us together, we would. " The wise observation made by Zemsky was that the loyalty among the presidents was to the association and not to each other -- more evidence that centralization, not collaboration was the primary benefit they saw for the association.
When college presidents (across multiple institutions including some from my association) at a Council of Independent Colleges meeting were asked, "What is your favorite consortium among those to which you belong?," the answer was always one in which that president's college was the lead institution. A president will usually name a small local collaborative with the county high school over a regional or national one where their voice is much weaker.
Consortia directors or presidents work hard to "fulfill the vision of their members," but many do not seem to know what that vision is -- beyond working together for the benefit of the whole. And, unfortunately, it seems to be the financially weak institutions that are most interested in being active in a consortium because they have the greatest need for help, though they are least able to provide funding for the organization's staff and operations. As a result, many consortia can provide only what the weakest members among them can sustain.
Despite my frustration that as a collaborative our colleges never soared beyond 10,000 feet when 30,000 was my goal, our consortium of private Appalachian colleges (most with small endowments and small enrollments) was touted as one of the most successful in the nation. Calls came monthly from colleges outside our region wanting to become members; my advice was usually, "Start your own."
Keeping more than 30 colleges across five states working together on any level was more than a full-time job for our core staff of about five. Several of those calls actually resulted in meetings of groups of colleges anxious to replicate our model -- a regional consortium supported by nominal membership dues and lots of funding from foundations and federal agencies that managed to build an endowment for programs of roughly $25 million and reserve funds totaling over $500,000. None of those who called ever called back for advice, but if any had, here is what I would have told them:
1. Have a specific mission before you meet to organize. Forming a consortium for collaboration without knowing what you will collaborate to do is like having a meeting without knowing what the purpose of the meeting is: not much is likely to be accomplished. Recognize that providing central services or getting cooperation across the campuses is as worthy a goal as true collaboration.
2. Hold the initial organizational meeting with those who will be the primary beneficiaries to be sure they are receptive to the new opportunities provided. With our Association, the primary beneficiaries of the program that started the Association were faculty of the participating colleges. Faculty from the colleges met multiple times in groups on their own campuses and across the various campuses for five years before the academic deans of the colleges actually held their first meeting. The deans and faculty continued to meet for another five years before the presidents got involved, formed the Appalachian College Association and moved the organization away from the university.
3. Find a funding source -- the member colleges or an outside foundation, individual, or federal agency -- to support the first effort adequately. If the first venture fails, the consortium is likely to fail as well. Be sure that the project has appeal that will generate sustained funding -- either by the members or other agencies. Take advantage of the natural appeal consortia have for funders: program officers have to meet with only one consortium director, not with multiple college presidents.
4. Find a strong leader, someone who is able to listen to faculty and students or whoever the beneficiaries are and not be intimidated by those serving on the board of the consortium who may think they best know what the beneficiaries need. Choose someone who is bold enough to be able to solicit honest responses to ideas from the board members but is flexible enough to shape the ideas of those board members into fundable projects that will serve the major constituencies as they want to be served. Find someone who is able to present a good case to funders but wise enough to know that it is the funder who ultimately decides if the project is worthy of funding. Recognize that it makes little sense to argue a case that is not a good match for the funding agency. Someone said as I was leaving the Appalachian College Association that the new president should not allow himself to be controlled by the presidents but he will need to allow the presidents to believe they control him if they feel the need to control him. Ideally the college presidents will have enough confidence in the president of their consortium to trust that he or she will take the colleges both where they want to go and where they need to go. A consortium director or president has to listen to everyone and then do what he or she deems is in the best interest of most. Trying to make everyone happy with every decision is a sure way to slow the productivity of the organization, if not kill it.
5. Develop an organizational voice that is independentof the member institutions and the beneficiaries. For our Association, an Advisory Council was established as a result of the first strategic plan. That council was made up of representatives retired from the foundations and federal agencies that had supported our multiple projects and of other individuals in higher education with a special interest in the region and/or the member colleges, but no ties to any one particular college.
Such a council can help the consortium director consider what the colleges want to do in relation to broad views of higher education. Appeals to funders can be more convincing if there is evidence of a potential impact on multiple institutions outside the one group of colleges served by the consortium. Advisory Council members can provide positive reinforcement for good ideas and add suggestions for further refinements. They can also challenge ideas that may lead to problems for the colleges or consortium. In short, they can serve as a sounding-board for discussion of ideas before presentation to the college presidents and also present issues at meetings of college presidents to draw out their views before the ideas of the consortium leader are discussed. The same process can be useful when developing a strategic plan. If the planning is not directed by someone completely independent of the association, there needs to be provision for multiple voices from outside the group to be heard.
Working together -- either centrally, cooperatively or collaborative -- is becoming increasingly important, given current economic trends. Perhaps true collaboration in higher education will become more evident as new financing models call upon some institutions to pay a little more than they currently do so the many can pay less.
I hope that the consortium I led (with lots of help from lots of people ) will continue to thrive. I also hope that other consortium leaders may gain from my reflections on what I learned over more than 25 years so they can develop new models of collaboration to strengthen the education of students via working together for the common good.
Alice Brown retired in July as the first president of the Appalachian College Association.
It is high time for the federal government to adjust the antitrust laws to allow American undergraduate colleges and universities to “disarm” unilaterally from wasteful expenditures. Current law does not permit us to disarm because we cannot talk to each other about how to control costs without running the risk of being accused of what can only be considered anti-competitive trade collusion.
It is time for all of us in higher education to think about what it would be like to compete only on the quality of our academic programs and not on the excesses of our amenities. Why can’t we be bold and courageous enough to come to the common sense conclusion that not competing on amenities would in the long run be good for students and for those who have to pay tuition? Why can’t we temper our “capitalistic compulsion” to compete with each other in ways that only serve to drive up tuition costs? Wouldn’t we be in a position to render better service to the American public if we arrived at some common conclusions about how to reduce costs?
Colleges and universities are feverishly rushing to cut expenses because of the current and very real economic crisis. Witness all the presidents announcing hiring freezes, postponements of construction projects, furloughs, lay-offs, salary freezes and modest tuition increases. While none of my colleagues want these cuts to affect the quality of the academic program, it may, in fact, be an unavoidable result.
Yet with all this trimming and restraint, the public is not likely to see the price of an undergraduate education decrease any time soon. The traditional higher education business model does not permit it. At many, if not most, institutions the cost is significantly higher than the sticker price. At Dickinson, for example, it costs us $13,000 above the sticker price of $47,800 to educate a single student. What rational “business” begins with costs always being significantly higher than price and then tries to sustain that model by further increasing costs? The constraints higher education imposes upon itself now might well soften somewhat the threat of the current economic crisis by reducing marginally the gap between cost and price, but will do nothing to alter a business model that does not work because you cannot have your cake and eat it too.
The only way to control cost and moderate price is to perform radical surgery. Since the historic mission for many colleges and universities is to offer a liberal education that prepares students for informed participation in a democracy, the activities that undergraduate education has added over the centuries to this essentially academic intent are the most vulnerable to “the knife” -- residential life, student life, athletics. A combination of classroom and out-of-classroom experiences is now defining a distinctively American undergraduate education that is distinguished from classroom-only university programs in other countries. It is this very surgery that for-profit universities have already performed to keep tuition across their sector more affordable. Academic degrees are offered online (excepting short-term residencies on a host college campus or coursework in a modest office building); there are no residence halls; there is no athletic program; and, of course, there is no student life except conversation about coursework online. For-profit universities are already growing rapidly in enrollment and if tuition keeps rising among non-profits, this opportunity may become increasingly attractive to the American public.
I suggest that nonprofit education will be reluctant to go so far as the for-profits in altering what has evolved over the centuries as the American “model” of undergraduate education. That said, a viable first step to control costs without sacrificing the academic experience is for colleges and universities to pull back as a “sector” from the extravagances that have developed in the out-of-classroom amenities over the last few decades because of a compulsion to outspend the competition in what is most visible to the paying public -- sports palaces, fancy hotel-like accommodations, spa-like student unions, gourmet-style dining facilities, etc.
On behalf of the public and our own desire to remain a key contributor to the national ambition, we ought to disarm in at least one aspect of our activity. We should have a positive deflation of our ambitions and our competitive fever (regardless of the numerical ranking gimmicks) in those areas that are not historically related to our role in advancing knowledge.
What would happen, for example, if all of us came to the conclusion that it would make sense only to build residence halls that conform in design and purpose to the academic program of our respective college or university and to the pricing and construction standards of eco-friendly “low-income housing” that offer inhabitants perfectly livable, attractive space without extravagance? The initial cost may still be high (although not higher than luxury-hotel accommodations), but the long-term energy savings would be significant. What if we all agreed that students could, indeed, survive and even thrive in double rooms? What if we all scaled back our competition for student athletes? What if we pledged to reduce conference and meeting costs by relying more heavily on virtual technology? What stands in the way is not only antitrust laws but also our own attitudes and egos.
It is quite obvious that none of this radical change could be accomplished systemically by a single president or a small group of institutions; it would take a sea change across higher education. But even if we have the best of intentions and can overcome our reluctance to change, the antitrust laws stand squarely in our way. Right now, any discussion with the intent of disarmament cannot prudently be attempted.
The federal antitrust laws were applied in the 1990s to challenge financial aid meetings among colleges that had an “overlap” in the students they recruit. The aftermath of that litigation has had the unfortunate consequence of severely limiting discussion among colleges and universities about cost and competition, at great detriment to the public. I assert that if we, as a nation, are serious about reducing the cost while improving the quality of higher education, we in higher education need a “safe” space in which to talk candidly. Congress should revisit the law and permit such conversations for the benefit of the public. We can’t disarm if we can’t talk. That is Diplomacy 101!
Let me be clear. I am not talking about encouraging discussion among institutions about faculty salaries, annual tuition charges and the like. I do, however, believe we need the will and determination to try to achieve change in those current practices that have escalated our costs. As a first step we need change from the federal government that would give us the legal means to help the public with the cost of higher education. Not to entertain disarmament leaves us with an intolerable alternative -- escalating tuition without foreseeable limit.
Leadership is also required and that probably best comes from established associations. It is time for an organization like the American Council on Education to issue that call for us and to work productively with the federal and state governments to revisit the antitrust laws to allow us to work towards affordability.
There will, of course, be those who decry any form of cooperation among those who meet to discuss cost. They distrust us. This caution is understandable were it not for the intractable crisis in higher education. If we do not find ways to reduce the cost of our colleges and universities, students will potentially seek alternatives such as for-profit universities or study at foreign universities, or be shut out of higher education. And many of those who attend our colleges and universities will be saddled with increasing debt that will burden them and/or their families for years – all at the wrong time in our economic cycle. If “self-interest” is not a consoling safeguard for the skeptics, let us request a temporary exemption of two years to allow colleges to address the exorbitant tuition issue to demonstrate that there are benefits to the public in this approach. If there are such benefits, let the exemption be extended. If not, shame on us!
William G. Durden
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College and a member of the Board of Directors of Walden University.
As a college president, I see the world through the lens of education, and I can’t help thinking there’s a lesson or two to be learned from our current financial woes. A quick review: For a number of years we all watched housing prices rise seemingly without end only to be surprised when revelation of the extent and toxicity of sub-prime mortgage lending caused the credit markets to seize up, bursting the bubble with a bang and bringing some very large financial institutions to their knees. Just like someone surveying the morning-after remains of one helluva party, we are now asking our collective hung-over selves: What were we thinking? Why didn’t we see this coming, and why didn’t the very smart and well-educated folks who head these institutions take steps to prevent this?
I’m not thinking about specific courses economics majors and future M.B.A.'s and bankers should have taken but didn’t. I’m thinking of deeper patterns of rewards and expectations taken for granted for so long that we don’t reckon with their impact at all. Much of what lies behind our current economic train-wreck stems from short-sightedness -- focus on short-term goals and gains -- and near-sightedness -- seeking to maximize one vector without regard for context in which that vector has value to begin with. So we have had big players making millions, nay billions, in ways that ultimately blew up the very system that made such gain and growth possible. I think there’s a proverb about a goose and golden eggs that applies.
Most of the players had earned at least a bachelor’s degree along the way, many of them at pretty selective colleges and universities. Virtually all had learned to compete and succeed in a grading system that rewards students for mastering — and in the worst cases just regurgitating — discrete packages of information. How much is retained after each exam and each course varies by student, and of course many do integrate what they have learned into larger ensembles. But not every course of study insists on integrative learning, and colleges and universities may inadvertently set themselves up to promote a certain type of achievement by measuring their own worth as many rating systems do: by the SAT scores and rank in class of their incoming students.
This system of values is not lost on prospective college students and their parents, who, if they can afford it, have their kids coached to excel at standardized tests and tutored to a fare-thee-well. Students experience terrible levels of performance anxiety and stress, all the more if they come to believe that education is a steeplechase that one “wins” by jumping hurdles, one at a time, ever higher, ever faster. In rewarding the most successful grade and score hounds, aren’t we, even if inadvertently, promoting the pursuit of short-term gains?
It’s not likely students forget this lesson upon leaving school and entering a world only too happy to prize short-term gain. Get the best result now and don’t worry about the day after tomorrow. Maximize stock value at the end of the quarter. That way you’ll get the biggest bonus package this year. Is there a way to take advantage of market movements and make a killing tomorrow, in the next hour, in the next 10 minutes?
It goes on. Get as many folks signed up for mortgages at the low introductory interest rate and don’t worry about what happens when the rate resets. Home buyers: Get that introductory rate. Don’t worry about resets or the possibility the economy may sour. Back to brokers and local banks: Take the commissions and sell the mortgages now. Bigger banks: Bundle those mortgages and take the profits by selling them. Get the risk off your books. Put it elsewhere. Don’t worry what happens once you resell the mortgage. Just jump that next hurdle.
The system we use to grade students doesn’t just mirror this scale of values. It blesses and promotes it. Even as the admissions officers of our most prestigious colleges and universities claim to seek “well-rounded students,” they are choosing among students who have already learned to play the high-score-and-grades game in high school. Most colleges and universities do not question what students and their parents want of them: Enough seats in the “right” majors so they can get their passport to a professional school. How? By wracking up the same string of A’s during their undergraduate years as they did before. Little time for experimentation, for taking risks -- where the only “loss” might be a less than perfect transcript. If they don’t get into the right graduate or professional program they might not get the credential that is the ticket to a job where they can reap larger profits more quickly than those who went before them, in the same fields. Because, the assumption is, those fields will always be profitable.
Is there an alternative to the short-term, shortsighted thinking the pursuit of grades has encouraged our students to internalize? A handful of colleges, Hampshire among them, have long been tweaked for maintaining narrative evaluations in place of letter grades. Hampshire, the example I know best, confronts its students with detailed and nuanced performance evaluations. Some might equate escape from the tyranny of A, B, C, D, F to an invitation to slack off; the few students who enter Hampshire with that very fantasy soon discover its hollowness. Success at Hampshire and comparable colleges — and for the best students, in my view, everywhere — involves each student owning his or her learning and understanding the context and significance of that learning. Just the other day I overheard a proud Hampshire student (who didn’t know I was within earshot) tell a group of visiting high school seniors: “I knew how to get A’s on quizzes and examinations and for courses in high school. As soon as the course was over, I forgot most of the stuff that got me the A. I like Hampshire because I hold on to what I learn, because I know why I’m learning it and make it my own.”
This philosophy undergirds Hampshire’s whole system of education. Instead of choosing among pre-set majors -- predetermined fields with established questions -- each student crafts a unique educational plan of work that must be approved by two professors. Each student submits a portfolio to show that she or he has achieved the agreed-upon goals, and faculty evaluate the totality of each student’s accomplishments. Our students come to know that the first step in learning is defining the question and setting it in context. Even more: To take responsibility for deciding which questions to ask, quite often of a status quo that seems unassailable, and then by means of study, research, interrogation, and creative reflection, to reframe the question in light of changing circumstances.
While I know first-hand how Hampshire fosters a distinctive brand of self-reliance and critique among our students, I believe that there are ways comparable qualities can be promoted in more traditional systems. You cannot imagine doing away with grades? Faculty can still ask students to assess their own achievement and meet with them to share perceptions. There are distribution requirements and specific courses patterns in each major? Students could write a narrative that explains how the courses they chose to fulfill their distribution requirement contributed to their intellectual formation. The point would be to have students see how what they learned fits into a larger pattern, and could lead them toward a sense of personal ownership of their education. They would write another narrative on the eve of graduation in which they would evaluate the disciplinary mastery the courses with which they fulfilled their major led them to. And where the gaps in their mastery of the discipline remained, and what the limits of the discipline were. This would not only deepen their own ownership of the learning they had acquired but bring them face-to-face with the defining limitations of every field, of every perspective.
Wouldn’t it have been helpful if we had more corporate executives and board members who’d had such training in their college years and were primed to question the fundamental assumptions of the industries in which they were engaged? Who didn’t assume that if they got a big bonus at year’s end, they must be doing everything right?
Instead, we are left with an economy in near-ruin by the collective action of individuals who, I’m quite sure, got good grades, who knew how to ace the examinations on which they’d been coached, and whose long-term vision stretched no further than the end of the term. That view is great while it lasts, but, like that shiny “A” one crams for on the quiz, the substance is gone before the ink is dry.
Ralph Hexter is president of Hampshire College. This essay is also being published on his new blog.
At first glance, Peter Drucker might seem an unlikely candidate to have published an academic novel. Famous for writing books such as Concept of the Corporation and The Effective Executive, Drucker was dubbed “The Man Who Invented Management” in his 2005 Business Week obituary. Drucker’s audience was to be found among the Harvard Business Review crowd, not the Modern Language Association coterie, and, not surprisingly, his two novels are no longer in print.
But the university he presented in his 1984 novel, The Temptation to Do Good, confronted some key questions that face higher education institutions in today’s unprecedented financial downturn: Are current practices sustainable? Have we strayed from our core mission? Will the liberal arts survive increasing budget pressures?
As these questions -- hardly the usual literary fare -- demonstrate, Drucker’s work is a rarity among academic novels. These texts typically provide a send-up of academic life, by making fun of intellectual trends through characters such as Jack Gladney, who chairs the department of Hitler studies in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, or by parodying the pettiness of department politics, as in Richard Russo’s Straight Man, in which one English professor’s nose is mangled during a personnel committee meeting, courtesy of a spiral notebook thrown at him by one of his peers. By contrast, The Temptation to Do Good is almost painstakingly earnest in its portrayal of Father Heinz Zimmerman, president of the fictional St. Jerome University.
Like other contemporary academic novels, The Temptation to Do Good depicts the problems of political correctness, the tensions between faculty and administration, and the scandal of inter-office romance. But St. Jerome’s problems are no laughing matter. Lacking the improbable events of other academic novels -- in James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale, the adjunct-protagonist even gains super-human powers -- the plot of The Temptation to Do Good is completely plausible, and the problems above destroy a good man.
St. Jerome’s chemistry department decides not to hire Martin Holloway, a job candidate with a less-than-stellar research record. Feeling sorry for the soon-to-be-unemployed Ph.D., Zimmerman decides to recommend Holloway to the dean of a nearby small college. Zimmerman knows he shouldn’t interfere, but he feels he must do the Christian thing, and so, succumbing to “the temptation to do good,” he makes the call. Meanwhile, Holloway’s angry wife spreads unfounded rumors about a dalliance between the president-priest and his female assistant. The faculty overreact to both events, and although most of them come to regret it, Zimmerman’s presidency is brought down, and he is eased out by the church into a sinecure government position.
Often reading like an intricate case study of one university’s internal politics, The Temptation to Do Good aims to do more than that, too, raising questions about the purpose of higher education institutions writ large. Representing the contemporary university as a large, bureaucratic institution -- much like the companies that Drucker’s theories would shape -- The Temptation to Do Good portrays Zimmerman as a successful executive, one who “converted a cow college in the sticks” into a national university with a reputation unrelated to its religious roots. He even makes the cover of Time magazine for increasing his endowment by a larger percentage than any other university over the past five years.
Although some faculty recognize, as one physics professor admits, that they wouldn’t be able to do their research without the money he has brought in, many of them are also disenchanted with Father Zimmerman, CEO. The chemistry chair chose to come to St. Jerome because he expected it to be “less corrupted by commercialism and less compromised by the embrace of industry” than other institutions, which he realizes isn’t the case.
“We have a right,” says the chair of modern languages, upset over the abolition of the language requirement, “to expect the President of a Catholic university to stand up for a true liberal education.” In both cases, we see the ideals of a Catholic university being linked to the ideals of a liberal arts education, both focused on a pure devotion to the pursuit of knowledge seen as incompatible with Zimmerman’s expanded professional schools and intimate sense of students’ consumer needs. Can St. Jerome be true to both the liberal arts and the practical, professionalized realm at the same time?
This question is never resolved in the novel, but outside of his fiction writing, Drucker was deeply interested in the practicality of the liberal arts. In his autobiography, he discusses his deep appreciation of Bennington College, a school designed to combine progressive methods -- connecting learning to practical experience -- with the ideas of Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president and famed proponent of classical liberal ideals. William Whyte’s sociological classic Organization Man cites Drucker as saying that “the most vocational course a future businessman can take is one in the writing of poetry or short stories.”
Although Drucker was unusual in actually writing novels himself, he was not alone among business thinkers in expressing the values of the liberal arts. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies describes an investment banker who suggests closing business schools and providing students with a “liberal arts literacy,” that includes “a broader vision, a sense of history, perspectives from literature and art.”
More recently, Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat includes a section focusing on the importance of a liberal arts education in the new integrated, global economy. “Encouraging young people early to think horizontally and to connect disparate dots has to be a priority,” writes Friedman, “because this is where and how so much innovation happens. And first you need dots to connect. And to me that means a liberal arts education.”
Books like Rolf Jensen’s The Dream Society: How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination will Transform Your Business, Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore’s The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage, Daniel H. Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, and Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Information Age make these points more specifically, often showing how certain “literary” skills, such as storytelling and empathy, are crucial to success in the current time.
Out of the authors mentioned above, only Lanham is a humanities professor, and in a field (rhetoric) largely out of scholarly vogue today. “Let’s go back to the subject of English a moment. Of all subjects none is potentially more useful,” Whyte writes. “That English is being slighted by business and students alike does not speak well of business. But neither does it speak well for English departments.”
What’s significant about Whyte’s account -- along with that of Drucker, Friedman, and others -- is that none of them claim that colleges and universities should merely churn out students of technical writing or focus on the practicality of the composition course; instead they want students to think about narrative complexity and story-telling through the liberal arts. Whyte himself focuses on the study of Shakespeare and Charles Lamb.
However, instead of embracing these potential real-world allies, liberal arts disciplines have seemed to withdraw, letting others become the experts in -- and proponents of -- the relevance of their subjects. Consider, for example, that in January 2008, one of the most famous English professors in the world proclaimed on his New York Times blog that the study of literature is useless. Asserting that the humanities don’t do anything but give us pleasure, Stanley Fish wrote that, “To the question of ‘what use are the humanities?’ the only honest answer is none whatsoever.” The arts and humanities, Fish contended, won’t get you a job, make you a well-rounded citizen, or ennoble you in any way.
Not surprisingly, readers were appalled. Within the next 48 hours, 484 comments were posted online, most of them critical of Fish. The majority of these comments, from a mix of scientists, humanists, business people, and artists, could be divided into two categories: first, the humanities are useful because they provide critical thinking skills that are useful for doing your job, whether you’re a doctor or CEO; and second, the humanities are useful for more than just your job, whether that means being a more informed citizen or simply a more interesting conversationalist.
However, perhaps the most fascinating comments came from those who recognized Fish’s stance as a professional one: in other words, one that relates to attitudes toward the humanities held by practitioners inside the academy (professors), as distinct from those held by general educated readers outside it (the Times audience). “Let’s not conflate some academics -- those who have professionalized their relationship with the humanities to the point of careerist cynicism -- with those [...] still capable of a genuine relationship to the humanities,” said one reader. Another added that the “humanities have been taken over by careerists, who speak and write only for each other.”
In other words, while readers defend the liberal arts’ relevance, scholars, who are busy writing specialized scholarship for one another, simply aren’t making the case. This was an interesting debate when Fish wrote his column over a year ago; now in 2009, we should consider it an urgent one.
Traditionally, economic downturns are accompanied by declines in the liberal arts, and with today’s unparalleled budget pressures, higher education institutions will need to scrutinize the purpose of everything they do as never before. Drucker’s academic novel provides an illustrative example of the liberal arts at work: as Fish’s readers would point out, literature can raise theoretical questions that help us understand very practical issues.
To be sure, the liberal arts are at least partly valuable because they are removed from practical utility as conceived in business; the return on investment from a novel can’t be directly tied to whether it improves the reader’s bottom line.
But justifiable concerns among scholars that the liberal arts will become only about utility has driven the academy too far in the opposite direction. Within higher education, we acknowledge that the writing skills gained in an English seminar might help alumni craft corporate memos, but it is outside higher education where the liveliest conversations about the liberal arts’ richer benefits -- empathic skills and narrative analysis, for example -- to the practical world seem to occur.
Drucker and his antecedents may be raising the right questions, but these discussions should be equally led by those professionally trained in the disciplines at hand. In today’s economic climate, it may become more important than ever for the liberal arts to mount a strong defense -- let’s not leave it entirely in the hands of others.
Melanie Ho is a higher education consultant in Washington. She has taught literature, writing and leadership development courses at the University of California at Los Angeles.