A former boss of mine was fond of needling me and various colleagues with a constant reminder that “change is hard.” He chose his words carefully, not so much to point out the obvious (although he did a lot of that, too), but to let us know directly how much pleasure he was taking in our discomfiture at many of his dicta. While no one could call such behavior “harassment” in the traditional sense, it certainly created a chilly if not downright frosty atmosphere in the workplace. I tried my best to soldier on in this decidedly hostile environment, Nancy-Reagan smile plastered on my face and swallowed critiques that burned like acid in my throat and my thoughts. My eventual departure from the inner sanctum of my boss’s enablers was all but inevitable, I suppose. My leaving my job was a change that was hard for me, but in retrospect I see that living with the specter of the kind of change that continued to haunt the campus after I was gone was even harder for those who stayed.
Small liberal arts colleges have a vexed relationship with the notion of change. Like every organism, these institutions must regularly experience change to renew, refresh and survive. Even the doughtiest alumnus and crustiest professor recognize this simple truth. And so there is curricular reform on a pretty predictable cycle; offices of student affairs are always trying some new, sure-fire technique of encouraging undergraduates to embrace diversity and celebrate difference; and, difficult as it is for some of us to believe, faculty do eventually retire and are replaced by shiny new PhD’s with state-of-the-art ideas about their discipline. But like any host organism fighting off an unwanted parasite, a campus will resist change its collective psyche, spirit, gut—call it what you will—apprehends as hazardous to its health and future well being.
Liberal Arts College USA, like every other small baccalaureate institution, prides itself on being unique. Let us pause for a moment to reflect on what it means to be unique. Some colleges take their uniqueness very, very seriously. Consider, for example, Ithaca College. Ithaca is a typical liberal arts college with a typical faculty in upstate New York, but by golly, it is unique—and if you visit its website, it will tell you so 2870 times. Here’s a sampling of what you will find. (Thoughtful readers will not blame Call Me Miss for the errant adverbs modifying “unique” in a few of the sample texts. I guess when everything around you is unique, you need to muster a little extra verbiage so that your program can stand out as one-of-a-kind.):
Human Anatomy provides the unique learning experience of human cadaver dissection and hands-on experience to study anatomical relationships, assess gross structure, and begin to appreciate the range of normal variation and pathological changes in different types of human tissue.
The Ithaca College sport club program mission is to provide students with a unique opportunity to develop leadership, organizational and fiscal management skills in a fun and safe supportive learning environment in which participants can build a sense of community.
Culture and communication is a unique critical-studies degree program that makes connections between two areas of inquiry: the study of how culture informs and shapes all aspects of communication, and its corollary area of investigation — how communication is the process through which culture is created, modified, and challenged.
Even universities—the big siblings of liberal arts colleges—are in the business of being unique. Just down the road from diminutive Ithaca looms the behemoth Cornell University, a campus that sparked the War Between the Tates and the War Between Keith Olberman and Principled Argument. Given that Cornell’s enrollment of 20,300 graduate and undergraduate students dwarfs the teeny tiny Ithaca’s 7,000 or so student body, it’s not at all surprising that Cornell is 13 times more unique than its petite companion school, scoring no less than 38100 invocations of the sacred appellation on its website.
But there are a handful of colleges that really and truly are unique, for example, the jewel-like Conway School of Landscape Architecture, an institution with a single focus that awards a master’s degree to its exceptionally talented graduates. Or Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, a Catholic great books school with a beautifully articulated sense of purpose and grace.
Liberal Arts College USA legitimately stands in the company of these unique institutions. Although it shares in common with other colleges many challenges, among them insufficient resources, lagging building maintenance, and occasional administrative chaos, its students, faculty and the things the two groups together study represent a remarkable and, yes, unique achievement in 20th Century higher education, made all the more remarkable because all efforts to quantify, analyze, or even replicate the transformations LCA effects in its students stymie even the most ardent devotees of “assessment.”
LCA USA grads leave the college determined to do things their way, on their timetable, and woe to anybody who stands between them and their goals. Whatever mojo the faculty works on students, the “outcome” (as we in the educational enterprise are fond of intoning) is a dazzling array of men and women who don’t just say they want to change the world—they do.
So, why, one might ask, would a president looking to make a mark on such a special place seek to change the very fabric of what makes the college unique? Is change so important that it drives the essential out the door with the expendable?
As always, it comes down to the simple matter of vision. College presidents, in order to steward the precious entity over which they hold sway, must be far-sighted. A myopic president whiles away his time at the helm tinkering with a policy here, changing a title there, fretting that somewhere, in some dusty document lurks a phrase so infelicitous it will bring Erin Brockovich and her ilk running. Rather than keeping his eyes on the prize of a fiscally robust, intellectually electric college—he focuses instead on the kind of change he, and only he, can believe in: the kind of institutional changes that will look impressive on his cv when he begins his job hunt. Thankfully for LCA USA that hunt is now underway. Its faculty, staff and trustees can go back to doing what they do best: squabbling about what the future holds for LCA USA while making its present the best it can be. And that will be the most welcome change in a long time.