Saturday, November 5, 2011

Portrait of an institution

This is a response to Historiann's post calling for more detailed discussions of particular higher ed environments. Notorious, Ph.D. has already responded with a wonderful post on what the real problem with higher ed is, and Dr. Crazy has also responded with a great post on failure. Both of those posts are much better than this one, so I'd recommend you go read them.
I' m getting to this a little late, and so I'm trying to figure out what there is for me to say. And what I'd like to do here is talk about what things look like on the ground at my particular college. Institutions like mine don't often feature in the discussion of What's Wrong with Higher Education. The challenge, for me, is figuring out where to start, and how to be both detailed and succinct without giving too much away. (I realize my pseudonymity is pretty thin, but I'd like to hang onto it while I'm still untenured, thanks.)
Let's start with some basics.
I teach at a small private college in the Midwest. We draw our students primarily, but not exclusively, from the Midwest; we also get a certain number of students from all over the country, and a growing number of students from overseas. We have a compact, pretty campus, and a small, generally dedicated body of faculty, staff, and administrators.
Our biggest problem is money. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
Some private colleges have large endowments and lots of resources. We do not. Our endowment is small, and so most of our annual income comes from tuition. We also offer substantial amounts of financial aid to attract the students we want, and there is constant tension surrounding the issues of tuition increases and financial aid. Our limited financial resources affect the campus in all sorts of ways. Compensation and benefits, replacing departed employees, the ability of students to print and photocopy materials, books, lab equipement, building maintenance, and on and on. Most, if not all, of the fat has already been cut from the budget. Many staff members are doing what used to be the jobs of multiple people. Every request to replace a departing faculty member gets closely scrutinized; and in most cases, failing to replace a departing faculty member would mean a mortal wound to the corresponding department and its majors. We have dilapidated dorms, classrooms, and athletic facilities. We have nice, recently-built or renovated buildings as well, but the financial strain shows in the physical appearance of the campus.
More nebulous is the psychological weight. But the knowledge of our financial limitations has its own cost: in morale, in general anxiety, in distrust between faculty and administrators, in a certain cramping of ambitions that we know are not financially realistic.
But within our constraints, we try to give our students the intense, stimulating liberal arts experience that we think they came here for. They have small classes, a fairly traditional curriculum, individual attention from their professors, and opportunities to do advanced work, internships, and various special projects. If they choose to take advantage of them. We have some fabulous students, and many who are, perhaps, a little less fabulous, but who work hard and put in the time and find niches in which they shine.
There are also students, though, who don't take advantage of their opportunities. As part of my college service, I sit on the committee that applies sanctions to students who are struggling academically. And there the comments we get from instructors are remarkably consistent: students who miss class, who don't turn in papers, who don't respond to the professors' attempts to reach them. This is not a large university; these students are not getting lost in the crowd. They are, for some reason, not taking advantage of the attention and support they can get at this small institution. (Maybe they don't want that attention, who knows.)
And here's where things circle back around to money. A question facing my institution now is whether, and how, we can get out of our financial bind. Do we increase our endowment, find some wealthy philanthropists to cultivate? (We'd undoubtedly have to spend money on the effort.) Do we bring in more students, thus bringing in more tuition? (We'd have to spend money to do that, as we'd rapidly need more faculty, more dorms, and more classrooms.) Can we bring in more students without compromising our academic standards? Does it do anyone any good for us to admit students who might be able to pay, but who may not be able to meet their professors' expectations?
So, one view from the trenches. Our problems are not faculty who do research instead of teach, or graduate students that we exploit as teachers, or big time athletics that suck money and energy away from our academic mission. Our problems are lack of resources, dependence on tuition, and worries about how we handle our weaker students.