For Small-College Presidents, Advice on Budgets and Bully Pulpits

January 05, 2012

As they gathered here this week to swap lessons and worries about keeping their institutions affordable and meeting their budgets, the 345 college presidents at the Council of Independent Colleges' annual Presidents Institute were greeted with some heartening advice from two longtime higher-education leaders.

One—Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a finance guru—noted that the many financial and political challenges now converging on higher education can also open up opportunities for small colleges.

Larger numbers of freshmen are now starting out in community colleges, and public institutions face growing demands to produce more graduates with the use of lower-cost adjunct instructors, said Mr. Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University. With more-flexible governance structures, "you have a unique advantage" to capitalize on those trends, he told the presidents.

Colleges with higher numbers of full-time faculty members have higher rates of student persistence, he said, adding: "If I were a CIC president, I would repeatedly emphasize that." And "perceptive leaders" of small private colleges should also see enrollment opportunities in forging ties with community colleges to attract transfer students.

Mr. Ehrenberg also urged the attendees to focus on cost cutting, and suggested that they could save money by collaborating more with other colleges on joint academic programs. That was a theme echoed by more than a few of the presidents and the 400 others in attendance in private discussions—although Jonathan Brand, the president of Cornell College in Iowa, noted that most "haven't gotten to the point of desperation" that would create a climate for more collaborations or even mergers.

Mr. Ehrenberg also urged the presidents to make greater use of technology and other innovations in instruction. "How we teach our students must change," he said—and the message was more than theoretical. Hampered by a knee injury, Mr. Ehrenberg was unable to travel to Florida, so he delivered his talk from the studio classroom in Ithaca, N.Y., that he uses for some of his classes.

He wasn't the only speaker to lead by example. Nannerl O. Keohane, the former president of both Wellesley College and Duke University, kicked off the Presidents Institute with an impassioned address on the value of a liberal-arts education and the ways presidents could champion it. Among her suggestions: Use groundbreakings, Rotary Club speeches, and other bully-pulpit events to speak about the utilitarian, societal, and personal values of a broad education; use awards and other recognitions to honor faculty members who embody liberal-arts traditions; and put resources behind good intentions by "raising money for exciting programs in the liberal arts."

Ms. Keohane also urged presidents to model the values of a liberal-arts education by citing examples from literature, history, and the arts as illustrations in speeches or in explaining decisions. Offering one of her own favorite images—that of the scholar Michel de Montaigne's hideaway library in a tower on his estate—Ms. Keohane urged the audience to think of the liberal arts "as a way of furnishing that back room of the mind."