Reformatting college: presidents put campus standards up for negotiation

Can we redesign colleges and universities in radical ways?  A group of private college presidents are thinking of ways to reformat traditional elements of these institutions, and the results are dramatic.

liberal arts_caroline joanAt a meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), the group which organized an innovate series of online humanities seminars (previously), campus presidents participated in a fascinating exercise (I might borrow this model for workshops):

[T]he CIC held an open forum on the project and released a draft list of characteristics that a panel of presidents identified as “essential” for their institutions, and another list they identified as “negotiable.”

So what ended up in the negotiable column?

Among the items declared negotiable were tenure, “the composition of the faculty, including the proportion of the full-time faculty members,” and “the definition and centrality of ‘liberal arts.'” …[and] “the extent and depth of commitment to intercollegiate athletics.”

Reread that paragraph. This is very, very bold stuff. I was not at this meeting, but am familiar with these debates and topics. Let me explain.

Putting college sports on the spot is risky, given the passionate investment in them held by certain elements of alumni, some current students, some marketing/development professionals, and some donors.  We know from experience and research that sports fans supporters often organize effectively to resist what they see as threats.  For presidents to openly consider “the extent and depth of commitment” is clearly a threat to funding, campus presence, and long-term support.  At one extreme a president planning such a move would invite open war with an energetic and organized part of their institution’s community.

Reconsidering “the definition … of ‘liberal arts'” might sound like a mission statement exercise or scholarly thinkpiece, but in strategic terms this suggests changing or adding to existing curriculum.  In my reading this could be a call for more professional programs, both on the undergraduate and graduate levels; many view these as antithetical to a classic liberal arts program.  Renegotiating the “centrality of ‘liberal arts'” deepens that approach. This is very bold stuff for campuses that see themselves as participating in the American liberal arts tradition.

And putting tenure on the table… that’s not a new idea, of course.  Many institutional leaders have expressed similar sentiments before.  What’s new is the combination of being willing to say this out loud, and doing so in an era when tenure lines have shrunken in the face of rampant adjunctification.    As Scott Jaschik notes, “many colleges have been gradually moving away from tenure-track faculty slots for years…”

Listen carefully to the way these presidents imagine a post-tenure world.  First, they unbundle academic freedom from tenure:

But [Chris Kimball, chair of CIC’s board] and others rejected the idea — long held by the American Association of University Professors and others — that faculty rights are built around tenure.

Elizabeth A. Fleming, president of Converse College… said it was important to state that colleges can have “deeply committed faculty” without a tenure track. She said academic leaders need to move beyond the idea that “the only options” are tenure and course-by-course adjunct contracts.

Liberal Arts College Dubăsari_Clay Gilliland

Second, they move away from adjuncts towards full-time, contracted, tenure-free instructors:

Edwin H. Welch, a task force member who is president of the University of Charleston, which does not have tenure, said that colleges without tenure can and do hire professors in ways that respect the faculty role.

“If we’re serious about student engagement we need faculty members who are experienced in providing that kind of engagement,” he said. “You don’t get that by putting out an ad and signing someone to teach just one course.”

Experience, student engagement, not being a one-shot prof: that’s the outlines of multi-year, full time faculty.

Note that some see getting today’s faculty creating that new model:

Several people in the audience expressed concern about whether faculty members might block the kinds of changes that many colleges leaders feel their institutions need to consider.

One president took issue with those comments.

“I don’t think we’ve looked carefully enough at how the role and power of our faculty can be more of a part of solving this problem than to be characterized as recalcitrant”… Most faculty “care deeply” about their institutions, he said.

I don’t know how realistic it is, but remember that it was today’s and yesterday’s faculty who helped build adjunctification.  They did this by becoming administrators who shaped and implemented such policies; by overproducing PhDs at research-I universities; by not resisting as their peers mutated into casualized labor.

How did these CIC presidents come to this position?  The answer is obvious to my readers: economics and demographics.  Many of these small- and medium-sized institutions now face enrollment shortfalls they haven’t experienced for generations; most are heavily tuition-dependent.  Sunk costs of tenure-track faculty and attractive physical plants (cafeterias, residence halls, athletic facilities, greens, etc.) have helped keep costs high, powering tuition ever upwards.  Students and families are anxious about debt and employment prospects.  The American economy might be in some form of recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, but higher ed is still struggling.  In this milieu, campus leaders must strategize boldly.

Compare those negotiable items with what the presidents places, in contrast, on the must-have list:

Essential qualities for private colleges should be that “they add value to their students and graduates,” that they “make decisions on the basis of shared governance without interference from state or federal governments,” that they “foster high levels of student engagement,” that they have “a student-centered culture,” that they are “oriented toward their communities” and that they are “committed to cost containment and affordability.”

A combination of independence from regulation and, above all, creating value for students: naturally those can’t be bargained away.  To maintain these, well, consult the negotiable item.  Imagine bringing down tuition by slashing sports, or by keeping faculty expenses low through a largely tenure-free professoriate, or by bringing in more students (and tuition dollars) through new programs in allied health fields.

I hesitate to argue from absence, but notice what didn’t appear on those columns.  Technology.  Diversity.  Social justice.  Internationalization.  Gender.

These are revolutionary thoughts for CIC campuses, friends, and mark just how turbulent are times in American higher education.

Are you seeing signs of such strategic rethinking in your work?

(Liberal Arts building image by caroline joan; Liberal Arts College Dubăsari, by Clay Gilliland)

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2 Responses to Reformatting college: presidents put campus standards up for negotiation

  1. Pingback: More Must Reading from Bryan: Redesigning College « liberal ed crisis

  2. Pingback: The future of education in 2016, from the sharing economy to BYOD: my Future Trends Forum recording and materials | Bryan Alexander

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