Back to the Private Realm

Brian Taylor

June 27, 2011

For a faculty member, an ACE Fellowship pushes you to look beyond your classroom, your discipline, and your institution. Then it pushes you right back in to all of those things again.

I'm trying to get used to the idea of going back to my small, private, liberal-arts college. For the past year, I've focused on following the triumphs and setbacks of a multicampus state-university system's office. I've immersed myself in statewide, national, and international higher-education issues.

Every year the American Council on Education offers a group of faculty members and administrators who have been nominated by their home institutions the chance to spend an academic year learning how leadership works on some other campus. Each fellow is placed in the office of a president or provost of a different institution. In my placement, I've followed the money, tracing national support via student aid, state appropriations, and bonds through a system office and onto individual campuses, to deans and departments and salaries and capital projects and much more.

At a national and international level, I've watched big debates take shape—about issues like the value of a college education, the role of for-profit institutions, and the impact of fee increases in the British higher-education system.

Unlike some of the other members of my ACE fellows class this year, I did not choose a placement at a college like my own. In deciding to spend the year in the president's office of a five-campus state-university system, I wanted to learn about the public system, about the ways that states do and don't see their obligations to higher education.

What difference, I set out to learn, does it make when your civic obligations are clear? State universities are expected to be engines of economic development, work-force training, and research that can go into patents and revenue. That's very different from the small liberal-arts college's obligations, which run to the individual rather than the civic.

But now, after my year of immersion in so many different aspects of academe, it's time for some reframing. I'm returning to my home institution with notebooks crammed full of information and stacks and stacks of other people's business cards. What useful stuff can I take back to my college from a year out in the larger world of higher education?

Good leadership is good anywhere. I visited a lot of campuses this year, and I had contact with a wide variety of campus leaders. I saw, and heard about, some amazingly thoughtful decision-making. I had no stake in the decisions, so I could watch what went into them, then watch the effect they had. I saw leaders make decisions they knew would anger some constituents, and I noted carefully how they dealt with the consequences. Some leaders were honest in refreshing ways, taking the time to explain to me some bad decisions they had made and what they had learned from them. A lesson to take back home: Good leaders make mistakes; then they learn from them.

Bad leadership is bad anywhere. I saw what looked to me like bad leadership on campuses small and large. The less-effective leaders seemed to have a lot in common. Most of it was arrogance and a tendency to avoid taking responsibility when things went wrong (they didn't seem to have much trouble taking credit when things went right). Note to self: An apology goes a long way toward building good relationships, even if you know that what went wrong is not your fault.

Politics looms large. This was a big one for me, coming from a private liberal-arts campus, where the board is made up largely of alums who have a big stake in the institution. Watching how things work at a university system whose board members have been appointed by the governor (some by a Republican, some by a Democrat) was the biggest eye-opener for me.

In a contest of wills, I wondered, with whom would board members side—the university or the governor who had appointed them? What if the governor who appointed them was out of office by then? Alumni of a state university stay largely in the state and make up a good chunk of the work force. That makes a big difference to the state government's expectations of the university. Private-college alums are not particularly tied to the state where they attended school, and private colleges don't have to justify anything in terms of obligations to the state. Not to mention, of course, the huge difference represented by state appropriations to higher education.

Politics looms little. Nevertheless, I learned that politics will also be important in my job when I return to my private college. We have legislators just like the public colleges do, and while we don't rack up the economic-development numbers that the state university does, we are, nonetheless, an important economic force in our region. We are a large employer, a trainer of teachers, a supplier of volunteer labor.

I learned from my host institution many new ways that my home college could build more ties to its immediate community, to the benefit of both sides.

And I learned about more than local politics. I learned how to make a "Hill visit," how to monitor legislation that would affect my college, how to make a case to a lawmaker. Small private colleges don't get the big federal dollars that state universities can pull in, but they are subject to federal regulations just as the big institutions are. I learned about the political scene, and I liked it. I'm bringing that knowledge back home.

The ACE Fellowship has pushed me to look outward—for mentors (I picked up some good ones, formal and informal); for ideas about strategic planning, governance, and innovation: for things to push me beyond where I'm comfortable.

I'm coming back a different citizen of my small campus. I'll never be able to see it again as self-contained. I'll always be looking outside for new ideas, investigating what other folks have tried, calling other fellows to find out what has worked at their places.

And, because I've been in a public system, I'll never again be able to see my own college separately from its location, whether that be town, state, or region. I'm coming back with a new interest in the ways we interact with and give to our community and a new desire to build on that.

I've realized that although public universities have clear obligations to their states, we are all, public and private, part of a higher-education system that has clear obligations to the nation and the world. We operate under a social compact according to which colleges and universities provide education for the good of the nation's citizenry, and the nation (not just government but business and individuals), in turn, supports the success of those colleges and universities, understanding the value of what we provide.

I like the idea of that compact, and I know it's on shaky ground these days. I'd like the next academic year to be the beginning of the rest of a career that will make some kind of difference in supporting that sense of mutual obligation.

Paula M. Krebs is a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. She is finishing a year as an ACE fellow at the University of Massachusetts president's office and at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She will return to Wheaton as special assistant to the president for external relations.