At lunch one day, Peter Drucker – with his usual candor – announced that “the stand-alone liberal arts college cannot survive”. This alerted me that a teaching dialogue had been launched. He observed that alliances such as those of the five Claremont colleges or other creative partnerships were necessary for the liberal arts tradition to survive. (Obviously there are some top-tier liberal arts colleges, comfortably insulated by great endowments and elite status – this is not about them.)
A few days ago the Chronicle of Higher Education listed the 149 colleges and universities currently failing federal standards for fiscal responsibility. There were some surprises on the list … Gordon College and Houghton College in the Northeast grabbed my attention, among others.
In 2006, when I had the lunch discussion with Drucker, I had just read of Sierra Nevada College in California which seemed to illustrate his point.[i] They appeared to be in “academic receivership” and perhaps not long for the world. Before the recent Chronicle list came out I followed up and learned that an investment group linked to for-profit colleges had eventually put money into Sierra Nevada. Their website now exuded energy and permanence – all seemed right with the world until their name popped up on last week’s list. Apparently the cash infusion had not worked, even though they seemed to be moving in the right direction.
Mostly, it seems, those colleges in trouble fall just short of critical mass. A quick scan shows small student bodies, the possibility of vulnerable donor bases affected by a down economy, aging physical plants, heavy if not total tuition dependence, no wiggle room and sometimes, sort of a vague sense of what their business is. In crisis management terms these are slow onset, long duration disasters – more like a flood than an earthquake. A few questions press … did the boards and senior leaders of these places realize a flood was coming? What forestalled action? Were there decision points and options spelled out when times were good, just in case? What scenarios led to this point and what can we learn from them?
How tightly coupled were these systems? Coupling is when the organizational tolerances are so fine that a very small action can trigger meltdown. Chernobyl was a tightly coupled system. No reserve + uninvolved board + low morale + questionable leadership + no vision + (what’s innovation?) + uninspired marketing = tight coupling. Ten fewer admissions can collapse the whole system.
What will it take for these places to stand alone no longer?
Alliances, as Drucker noted, are one solution. “Clustering” is sometimes an economic and business term that describes similar businesses locating near each other thus magnetizing their value proposition for the customer. The Claremont cluster involved a long-ago stroke of genius, loosely modeled on Oxbridge, adding member colleges over the years. It might be difficult to repeat a similar model these days.
Other types of clustering might work. At Claremont, though all are “liberal arts” colleges, students cross register depending on their interests. Pomona is good at humanities, Claremont McKenna majors in government, business and leadership, Harvey Mudd prepares engineers and scientists, Pitzer aims at “social justice, intercultural understanding and environmental sensitivity” and Scripps focuses more on the arts. If a CMC student wants to excel at piano she might take some courses at Scripps. Perhaps colleges could define disciplinary specialities more tightly, then band together, but geography eventually poses a problem.
Of course, pride can be swallowed and the pilgrimage began to a more comprehensive institution. This opens up these options:
- Allow adults in (read graduate programs)
- Degree completion (another adult tactic)
- Executive education
- Short courses
- Online education
- Rent physical plant for summer events and conferences
(I’m not saying liberal-arts undergrads aren’t adults, though some researchers seem to disagree.)
But if the college is committed to remaining a traditional four-year liberal arts place, there are fewer options:
- Go to an orphanage: folding your institution into another means given up many important things like your identity, ability to grant degrees, etc. But it is possible to survive.
- Sell your accreditation: probably less in vogue these days. Places like Grand Canyon University pulled this off a few years ago, but the federal axe seems to be falling both on the colleges and the accreditors. (see the recent case of Dana College).
- Be ye transformed: this takes investment, entrepreneurial brilliance, marketing savvy and courage … not many seem to be willing to dare this. And even this does not always work.
Drucker always said that business does only two things: marketing and innovation. Maybe this doesn’t work for colleges, but just guessing … how many of the failing institutions do only one or the other, or none, but not both?
Worth a ponder…
[i]M. Van Der Werf. (2006). The end for a private college – with big assets. Chronicle of Higher Education. 53:6, A33.