Staying Small and Getting Large

Liberal-arts colleges need to embrace partnerships with other entities in a big way

Dirk Mathesius / Creative Commons

October 29, 2014

Colleges talk a lot about the ideal of a diverse community, but they tend to be narrow-minded about creating that community with other institutions. Like meets only with like, and even then the competitive juices flow.

I’ve been writing about the challenges facing liberal-arts colleges and urging them to be audacious, not risk-averse, from my new semi-remove of semi-retirement. In my first two columns, I’ve argued against downsizing at liberal-arts colleges, and offered a curricular proposal aimed at attracting new students. Liberal-arts colleges, I’ve contended, provide a set of academic practices and social outcomes so positive and so vital that we should be obsessed not with cutting but with sensibly growing their size and influence.

But there’s another kind of smallness that we need to take arms against: the entrenched practice of colleges standing small, separate, and solitary. Eugene Tobin has a contrastingly large perspective as a senior program officer at the Andrew Mellon Foundation. In his key essay, "The Future of Liberal Arts Colleges Begins with Collaboration" (published in the 2013 edited volume, Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal-Arts College), he quotes another big-perspective educator, Stanford University’s Ray Bacchetti, on the effects of colleges’ pride in their (supposedly) distinctive cultures: They imagine, Tobin writes, "all institutional problems are local and all the resources needed to solve them are, by definition, close at hand." He further summarizes, "Little energy or thought is given to the experience of others ...; rarely do colleges and universities build on the work of their peers, and seldom do they engage in comparative study, except when they are benchmarking their progress against one another."

We educators have gotten set in some bad ways. What we require is an era of unprecedented collaboration, not only among small colleges themselves but also between those colleges and research universities, K-12 schools, community organizations, hospitals, businesses—in short. every possible connection. We need to both stay small and become large.

Of course there is an important value to the model of college campus as self-contained village, a place that encourages reflection and discovery. It is the analog to the notion of the thinker whose solitude and separateness is essential to insight. The ringing of the bells from the clock tower of a campus is a blessed sound of thought-filled silence. It’s damned near holy. It really is. I miss it.

But does every such campus require its own gymnasium and research-science building and instruction in every abstruse but necessary discipline and language? Aside from the enormous and perhaps unsustainable costs as our campuses become gated communities, is it spiritually and educationally healthy for our students and their faculty members to insulate themselves quite so fully?

Probably the most heartening development in our understanding of the liberal arts at present is the recognition that they are not entirely limited to reflection or self-understanding but have real power to move back and forth between the pastoral campus and the city of urgencies—that our learning can contribute to the world and not just critique it.

That is a most fragile and incomplete awakening to a more experiential education. We still find defense after defense of the humanities based on an idea of opposition between deep learning and worldliness, as if one can either contemplate the self or interact with one’s surroundings but not both. Similarly we are coming to realize that it is vastly insufficient for us to make the claim, true as it is, that a liberal education prepares its graduate for everything. It should not be beneath us, it is in fact our responsibility, to provide some guidance on how an intellectual interest can issue in a career, for, as Dewey instructs, "to find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness."

We have allowed the half-truth of an opposition between learning and the world of practical affairs to be mirrored in our ideal of the stand-alone campus. Now we must complement that with the other half of the truth—the ways in which experience and learning depend upon each other—to reconceive our campuses as participants in a larger community.

Herewith, four possible kinds of new networks that will allow small colleges to stay small and become large simultaneously.

1. Among liberal-arts colleges. Small institutions need to move from small-minded competition to collaboration. An obvious model: The Five College Consortium of Amherst, Hampshire, UMass, Mount Holyoke, and Smith allows for cross-registration of students, shared curricula, greatly enhanced library resources, shared faculty appointments, and joint purchasing of materials and health insurance. As Carol Christ, president of Smith, notes in her essay about partnerships, "The College Without Walls," the sharing makes each institution small and large at once, greatly expanding elective possibilities without in any way threatening the very different identities of the campuses.

But what if colleges tied to each other by various regional associations or athletic conferences are not in such geographic proximity?

Sure, that makes collaboration more challenging, but the growing practice of cooperation among libraries provides a model for other areas, even for curriculum. Imagine a blended Internet set of offerings where the instructor would meet students on a regular schedule in a virtual classroom and then travel among the colleges to make three in-person appearances at each in a semester.

Should we oppose such efforts because it will make those scarce full-time faculty positions still more endangered? But they will become fewer still if we allow the present models of ignorant autonomy to persist. We have been watching it happen for decades now. Expanding the student populations and reach of these colleges is our best hope for reversing that terrible trend. The real question is this: Once small colleges work to help each other, where else might they look for partners?

2. With research universities. This potential form of collaboration goes wanting today, for the most part. Tobin notes "even less formal interaction between liberal arts colleges and research universities, and this deeply engrained mutual disregard, bordering on denial, speaks volumes about the organizational limitations of our highly compartmentalized higher-education system."

While the number of five-year M.A. programs on the books is impressive, the weakness of such programs is depressing. They would be a prime place to start strengthening college-university partnerships.

It is simple to imagine the benefits to small colleges of more access to the research labs and expanded curricula of a university. Some may find it harder to imagine the benefits for the research university side of partnering with a small college. But note that one of the members of the Five Colleges Consortium is the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

There is also the example of Kalamazoo and Oberlin Colleges’ sending faculty to the University of Michigan in exchange for those colleges’ training graduate students and employing its Ph.D.’s for a year or two as undergraduate instructors. The weakest two aspects of most doctoral programs are their pedagogical training and their failure to offer Ph.D.’s a true diversity of career possibilities. Small colleges can offer exactly that valuable teaching experience and provide an example of faculty life at a teaching-oriented campus.

Further, the glut of Ph.D.’s in some disciplines makes a postdoc experience at a small college tremendously valuable. Offered a place in two comparable doctoral programs, what top candidate wouldn’t choose the one that featured a valuable internship at a small college in partnership with the university?

3. Between academe and the outside world. Speaking of internships, a third kind of collaboration we need more of is with government, nonprofits, business, and public schools. Carol Christ emphasizes the possibility of connecting internships and classroom work more closely, "linking the academic, the practical, and the professional." Here, much more conversation is vital between faculty members and the people in both the development office and alumni relations. Alums enjoy nothing so much as mentoring current students and proffering a helping hand. Take it!

The connections don’t have to just be curricular. There are also ties to the community and the region that can be developed, whereby a college helps in confronting a local or regional problem facing a nonacademic entity. Rick Cherwitz’s brilliant intellectual entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas can be adapted to small institutions as well. In addition, organizations like Imagining America provide examples of how disciplines in the humanities and arts can be just as efficacious in their own forms of tech transfer as the social and bench sciences. And speaking of the sciences, if we need to build that most expensive of all facilities, might a hospital or a health research company wish to join with our campus and help to finance construction costs?

4. With community colleges and high schools. To return closer to home, small colleges can easily create stronger links with two-year colleges, the fastest growing kind of institution, and high schools. Who knows better than a great high-school teacher how to teach first-year composition to students who were his or hers four months earlier? And why not renew the intellectual excitement of a high-school teacher with a work/study semester or summer spent at a liberal-arts college? As for facilities, sharing lab and gym resources would seem a no-brainer.

A small college can ensure a pipeline of students by partnering with a community college. Furthermore, community-college facilities can be amazing. When I was at Drew University, we talked a lot about doing more with media studies, but the expense of creating facilities was daunting. Yet at nearby Morris County Community College, those facilities already existed and were impressive. Collaborating with two-year colleges is an enactment of the new liberal-arts dictum that merges the reflective and the actual.

These four types of partnerships constitute a huge challenge but are eminently doable. They will require a set of people at a college who devote themselves to imagining and then seeking out those connections; they won’t get done in anyone’s spare time. I invite readers to nominate other forms of partnership or provide different examples of each of these in the comments below.

More often than not, because true and lasting collaboration depends on mutual advantage, negotiations will prove fruitless. But that one time in 10 that a new connection is made could eventually become five in 50, or 10 in 100, and by then everything could become vastly different and better—for institutions and students alike.

Robert Weisbuch is professor emeritus of English literature at the University of Michigan and a project adviser to the American Historical Association. He is former president of Drew University and a former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.