Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Countercultural and Alive

Inside Higher Ed :

With enrollment falling and unstable, professors fearing for their jobs, and a lack of broad public understanding over what the college is all about, its trustees convene. To the dismay of students and alumni — who say the trustees are selling out this proudly radical college’s values — the board decides to eliminate the undergraduate residential program. Instead the college will focus on its growing graduate programs, which aren’t offered on the main campus or taught by the faculty there.

That could be last week’s story about the closing of Antioch College. But it’s also what happened in 2002 at Goddard College. It may discourage Antioch alumni to know that the main undergraduate program that Goddard killed never came back. But the college — plagued at the time by deficits and faculty-administration warfare — is in the black and professors and administrators get along.

To be sure, there are plenty of ways that Antioch and Goddard’s situations are different. “Every nontraditional college is nontraditional in its own way,” quipped Ralph Hexter, president of Hampshire College, who was quick to note that despite his play on Tolstoy’s words, he wasn’t implying that these colleges are like unhappy families. (Antioch alumni these days might beg to differ and find the metaphor apt).

But what progressive colleges do share are a particular set of challenges. They tend to be small liberal arts institutions that pride themselves on low student-faculty ratios and individualized instruction — qualities that may be great for education but that don’t yield economies of scale. These are colleges with an explicitly progressive agenda, graduating far more social activists and teachers and artists than potentially big-gift contributing moguls. They are places known for educational innovations — many of which have been adapted by more mainstream institutions. And they are places where everyone has an opinion and expects to be listened to. ...

Many of those saddened and worried about what Antioch’s closure means are educators at institutions with curriculums that would never fly at an Antioch, but who see as crucial to American higher education the existence of colleges with unique philosophies. “Any time somebody is trying to provide a distinctive educational program and such a school goes under, it causes the rest of us a great deal of sadness for the loss of something that is interesting, distinctive, and needed by a number of students,” said Chris Nelson, president of St. John’s College, the great books institution in Annapolis.

Richard H. Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said, “I believe strongly in preserving diversity among types of institutions — that is the strength of American higher education. We’ve got to preserve the mix and institutional autonomy.”...

Some fans of progressive colleges think that what they need is to be a little tougher on themselves from a management perspective. Jane Jervis retired in 2000 as president of Evergreen State College, a Washington State institution founded in 1971 as a public equivalent in some ways of the kinds of values promoted at Antioch and similar institutions. ...“These small progressive schools have been the nurseries for the cultivation and exploration of new ideas in higher education,” she said. “These institutions have perhaps never been more important than now, when the forces of centralization and standardization and nationalization of higher education are getting stronger and stronger. If we are going to end up with a national system of regulation of higher education, it will be the end of the leadership of higher education” by the United States, she said. “Survival of these experimental, progressive institutions that test new ways of education is essential.”

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