Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Is retrenching, ever so modestly. The student body and faculty will shrink a little, but the college doesn’t want to let go of any students who are actually paying the sticker price. This has folks worried about "diversity":

And when people at Oberlin talk about a fear that students may end up being more “vanilla,” they aren’t just talking about race, but about style and values. While it’s easy to overstate college stereotypes, Oberlin students say there is plenty of truth to the idea that their college attracts many students who are artsy, liberal, idealistic and individualistic.

“Now it seems like the school may be looking for more students who are mainstream and from conservative or wealthy families,” said Marshall Duer-Balkind, a junior who is a member of the Student Senate. He said there is a “major, major concern” among students about how this would play out, even as they acknowledge that they can’t be sure how admissions will change. “The worry is that the college will lose the students with individuality and quirkiness.”

Why, I ask, should students from wealthy families be more "mainstream," i.e., conservative and hence boring, than others? I would think that kids who had grown up with "all the advantages," like trips abroad and after-school and summer enrichment programs, could be just as "artsy, liberal, idealistic, and individualistic" as the next guy, if not more so. Or does all the enrichment just end up homogenizing them, cranking out the cookie cutter elitists about whom
Ross Douthat complains? Or is it that many of the really interesting products of all this enrichment end up going elsewhere?

Joan Casey, a private admissions counselor in Brookline, Mass., said that while students she works with think of Oberlin as a very good college, many students “don’t want to go to school in what they would call the middle of nowhere.” (While Oberlin boasts a remarkable cultural scene, in large part courtesy of the conservatory, it is in rural Ohio, 40 miles from Cleveland.)

[How far is Ashland from Cleveland?]

Michael London, the founder of College Coach, a nationwide private admissions service, said that he too thinks of Oberlin as a very strong college. But as he looks at where counselors encourage students to enroll, he’s seen Oberlin “down a notch” from the places it aspires to compete with.

“A Vassar is an A- [high school average], 1400 SAT school, and a Wesleyan is a little higher than that, and Oberlin is more of a B+ 1300 school,” he said. “They may be guilty of thinking that they are stronger than they are.”

I’m tempted to chalk these comments up to Eastern blue state geographic snobbishness, but Oberlin apparently loses head-to-head competitions for students with Grinnell and Carleton,which are in small towns in Iowa and Minnesota, for gosh sakes! (I’m betting that the dirty little secret is that Grinnell and Carleton are offering more generous discounts, er, I mean, scholarships than is Oberlin, though this table suggests a modest reputational difference.)

Oberlin’s strategic plan

calls for increasing faculty salaries, reducing the teaching load to allow faculty members to have more time for research and professional activities, renovating student dormitories, expanding athletic opportunities at both the intramural and varsity level, and creating new programs to recruit minority students and faculty members.

This, of course, takes money, which is precisely what they seem to need. You need to have money, it would seem, in order to get money. I have a different suggestion: rather than trying to be like schools that are wealthier, Oberlin should seek to be distinctive. Not distinctive as in distinctive just like everyone else (the usual game in the top tiers of higher education), but really distinctive. Why not, say, invite the Ashbrook Center to relocate from Ashland?

Discussions - 16 Comments

Joe: Ashland is 50 miles from Cleveland. With regard to Oberlin, your comments are right on the money, of course. I remember an essay by Fred Starr (TNR maybe) about six or seven years ago, he had just retired as president of Oberlin, wherein he explianed that one of the worst things he had ever been involved in was to segregate by race and ethnicity the dorms at Oberlin. You are right about the distinctiveness issue, of course. One of the reasons we get great students here is because we are distinctive; and that distinctiveness is attached, of course, to excellence. That’s why excellent students look at us, and that’s why we are never in competition with Oberlin for students. The Ashbrook Center is not relocating! By the way, the Ohio Board of Regents just finished their site visit regarding our proposed Masters degree, and they were very pleased. And so are we.

Oberlin Smoberlin...I think I’ll send my son to a good public university. Anyone who wants to be a professional scientist would be well-advised to go where the scientists ARE. With a bit of savvy (i.e., avoiding TAs), you can take courses with some of the best minds in a given field (something that is not true at even the best liberal arts schools). Need I mention the much greater capacity for network/building social capital?

Of course, some would argue that you go to an elite liberal arts school and then get into a top-notch graduate school in a given field. A real alternative is to cheap-out on the undergraduate institution and get into the same top-notch graduate school. It’s done all the time, and I don’t see careers suffering as a result (indeed, no one even asks about your undergraduate institution once you have an advanced degree).

There’s some evidence that liberal arts colleges produce more than their "fair share" of Ph.D.’s, which some may regard as a bad thing. Assuming, for the moment that it’s a good thing, the causes have to do with the quality of the undergraduate experience. Above all, the teachers are rewarded for teaching and so actually care about and have contact with their undergraduates (something that’s somewhat less true of research universities); there may be great minds on the faculty of, say, Yale (enough picking on Harvard, already!), but they have every incentive to minimize their contact with undergrads.

And then there’s this: all the incentives at research institutions point in the direction of specialization, while at liberal arts colleges, we are encouraged to ask big questions. I’m all for specialization, especially in the hard sciences, which couldn’t progress without it, but it’s not only nice, but essential, that everyone have more than a taste of the human context that that progress is supposed to serve.

reducing the teaching load to allow faculty members to have more time for research and professional activities
This is illustrative of the problem, isn’t it? The faculty’s solution to a small liberal arts school’s under-enrollment woes? Less teaching!! I notice Grove City, Hillsdale, and other schools which require professors to teach do not have enrollment problems. On the other hand, their professors do not churn out "important" work like that of your typical liberal arts professor. How will we know the sublimated deviant sexual practices of characters in Dickens novels, or the Marxist undertones of Shakespeare, without the "research" of professors like those at Oberlin?? How will I know how to "queer" Matthew Arnold, or put on The Merchant of Venice in drag if literature professors throw their pearls to undergraduate swine in classroom? Yes more "research!" Yes! Less teaching, more churning out unreadable jargon-laden jibberish for the delictation of faculty do-nothings, whose liberation from the classroom has left so much time to kill! Where do I sign my kid up?

Joe...way to stick up for yourself! Spoken like a true liberal arts professor. Might I humbly suggest, however, that a selection bias exists. Liberal arts colleges have more than their share of upper-middle and upper-class kids, who have the resources and leisure to pursue the Ph.D. I don’t think instruction has much to do with it, frankly. It’s hard to be the best teacher when you aren’t actually DOING what you are teaching, IMHO.

Mr. Crenshaw,

Fair enough. But my teaching helps me "keep my research real." I teach about things about which I write and write about things about which I teach (in addition to all the gassing I do at NLT).

The real risk of "not enough research" is in the natural and physical sciences, especially where you need an expensive reseach establishment to keep current. I know many scientists at liberal arts colleges conduct research with their students, while others find ways, especially during the summers, to latch onto a larger team at a research university. (Thus, for example, here in Atlanta, we’re "blessed" with Emory, Georgia Tech, the CDC, and the Yerkes Primate Center; Oglethorpe undergrads and faculty have joined research teams at all these places over the years.)

Here’s an article (pdf) that makes the case for science education at liberal arts colleges much better and more authoritatively than I can.

Well, I’ll read that after I’m done grading! Thanks!

Actually, I’m a product of a liberal arts education, although I don’t attribute my success to that. My current opinion is shaped by the following facts: 1) the big institutions train all those liberal arts professors, 2) (sadly) the best and brightest tend to go on to research careers, 3) increasingly even liberal arts colleges are hiring graduate students and adjuncts(gypsies) to do their teaching, 4) the research that fills the text books is conducted at the largest institutions, and 5) even large institutions are trying to provide numerous small classes to compensate for all those mega-intro courses (indeed, I just finished grading a class of 22).

I suppose if you could get the private liberal arts price tag discounted enough it would be a better buy for your talented undergrad. But from my experience, dedicated teachers are pretty scarce regardless of institution. It takes motivated student to ferret out the true teacher/researchers.

Professor Crenshaw,

As you probably know, a good high school student can get himself or herself a very inexpensive education at a decent liberal arts college. Most give merit-based scholarships (or, if you will, discounts). So I don’t think cost is the biggest issue.

I do think that research universities are making gestures in the direction of undergraduate education, largely by trying to imitate what liberal arts colleges do well. Many honors programs are essentially liberal arts colleges embedded in larger institutions. But the reward structures are rarely the same, and teaching is an afterthought at many such institutions. I’ve heard of folks actually being penalized for winning teaching awards (since it indicates that their priorities are misplaced).

Yes, perhaps many of the best and the brightest do go into research, especially in the sciences, but what if you’re bright and happen to have the wrong kind of ideas, i.e., if you don’t fit the disciplinary conventions or if you have big ideas that take longer to mature than the tenure clock permits? If you’re bright and conventional, a research university may be good for you. If you’re bright and unconventional, it’s a less good fit. (This is something I learned at department chair school many years ago. I don’t think counting articles in refereed journals is a good way of evaluating scholarship, let alone intelligence.) Notice that I haven’t yet said a word about politics, largely because I’m not certain that that distinguishes research universities from liberal arts colleges, unless you’re talking about some church-affiliated schools or a few other outliers.

Yes, some liberal arts colleges hire some adjunct faculty. But I’d bet there’s more contact between full-time tenure track faculty and students at most good liberal arts colleges than there is at most good research universities. And I doubt that my institution is unique in offering some support for the development of our adjunct faculty as teachers. We only very occasionally pay for them to attend professional conferences, but they are welcome at all of our faculty development workshops, even those for which we receive stipends.

I don’t have to do the research in order to understand the research, and I can perhaps put it into a broader context than can the researcher himself or herself. I’m less narrowly specialized and more broadly educated, not to mention more broadly conversant with the field than, say, someone who teaches only courses in Congressional behavior. Yes, the specialist knows more about the minutiae of current research, but he or she may not know as much about the presidency, constitutional law, or the American Founding, not to mention about democratic theory or political philosophy.

On teaching: yes, good teachers are rare. At liberal arts colleges, they’re rewarded and honored. Not so much so at research universities, where they’re usually encouraged to minimize the effort they put into their undergraduate teaching. In addition, at most liberal arts colleges, we actually work on our teaching, as a goodly portion of faculty development dollars are invested in improving everyone’s teaching. Bottom line: teaching "excellence" is a non-negotiable criterion for tenure at my institution. Research and publication "excellence" couldn’t compensate for a mediocre teaching record. Is that true at your institution? (I’ve googled you and seen your website and am guessing that you’re tenured, though I don’t mean to imply anything about your own personal devotion to teaching and your quality as a teacher.)

I should note that I am the product of two research universities, though I had the good fortune of finding what essentially is a liberal arts college embedded in a major research university.

Prof. Knippenberg:

So you are a Madison guy. Go Spartans (class of ’84)! I spent most of my undergraduate years at MC before settling on history. Let me add my voice to yours and point out what exceptional faculty there were at MC: Ron Dorr and Ken Waltzer especially. These folks would not only give student papers line edits, they would typed up a page or more, single spaced, of valuable comments. And yes, it is possible to navigate even a large U like Moo U if you take the time to learn the system. Regards from Buckeye Country where they think Michigan-Ohio State is "The Game."

Ken Heineman, Ohio Univ.

The problem with teaching is evaluation. I’m not convinced that small-college reward structures guarantee excellent instruction. My experience has taught me that small-department politics can be pretty rough, and a tough, unconventional teacher (who is nonetheless very good) can get fired just as easily as a dedicated teacher at a research university. I generally advise my graduate students (who tend to be unconventional and bright) to seek out employment at large research universities (where objective standards exist and can partially protect them) or outside academe altogether. If anything, I think small faculties are more ’clubby’ than large ones, and ideologies, petty jealousies and so on can easily derail the greater purpose (i.e., instructional excellence). If your institution and department are different, I am happy for you.

How DO you evaluate teaching? Student evaluations are driven by the instructor’s 1) perceived enthusiasm, 2) entertainment value, and 3) rigor (generally a negative, but having 1 and 2 allow you to have 3). Peer-review? Hah, we have that...foxes guarding the henhouse!

As for students and what’s best for them, I think it depends on their interests, their locations, and their bank accounts.

I take solace in basketball excellence, and am disappointed only when players who can do better miss 50% (!!!!) of their free throws and lose to an inferior Iowa team.

My own personal favorite James Madison College professor is Dick Zinman, whose combination of meticulousness and outrageousness inspired us all.

Student evaluation of teaching is problematical for all the reasons you suggest, which is why, in the tenure and promotion process, I and many of my colleagues take them with many grains of salt. I use every possible indicator I can find of a colleague’s teaching excellence. And I regard the tenure and promotion process as a mechanism for developing tenurable colleagues. "We’re from the T & P committee and we’re here to help you."

Yes, small departmental politics can be rough, though grown-ups eventually realize that they have to live and work together. (Of course, not all college professors are grown-ups.) But it’s easier to be vicious in large, more anonymous groups than in small ones.

I’m not going to persuade you to abandon your position to join me in my monastery, but I’ll reiterate a version of my original claim, which is that it’s easier to get a good education at a good liberal arts college than at a comparably good research university. You have to work harder to find the good profs at the latter and they, generally speaking, have less time for you. What’s more, when it comes to advising and letters of recommendation, you’re much better off at a liberal arts college. I end up knowing my students really well, since I have them in multiple classes, none of which is larger than 25 (usually closer to 15--inefficient, I know). I read lots of their papers (since I’m encouraged to assign lots of writing) and I have lots of face time, in my office, in the coffee shop, in the cafeteria, and at plays, lectures, and sporting events. If you don’t like me, you can largely avoid me, but in the ordinary course of things we’ll end up knowing one another pretty well.

I’m not sure I agree with you about small group versus large group dynamics. After all, social control is more severe in small towns than in the big city. I’ve been in a relatively small department before (10 members) and in a very large one (35 members) -- I think the larger one has less conflict and more professionalism. I suppose it varies, but I’ve heard some real horror stories from liberal arts faculty, and I’ve also had a student mauled by a small department.

You are partially correct about letters of recommendation, although I think these are less important at the undergraduate level (indeed, even at the graduate level we increasingly take letters with a grain of salt...recommendation inflation is a real problem, a problem that is actually aggravated by the familiarity between mentor/student). In general, you know your undergraduates the way I know my graduate students, although (again) I think this has as much to do with the student as the environment. Some undergraduates don’t connect well even at the smallest institutions, and this is just as true of some graduate students at research universities. On the flip-side, I’ve helped several undergraduates (who had only a class or two with me) get into good graduate programs. Scale doesn’t preclude the small-scale dynamics you describe...indeed, a savvy undergraduate could easily leave with a better education and letters of recommendation from people who are know internationally.

Upon reading this thread again, I don’t want to leave the impression that I don’t value small liberal arts colleges. I attended one, and I have very good memories of that experience. For some young people it is the right choice.

What I’m more concerned about is the watering down of the liberal arts curriculum, as well as the quality of faculty at liberal arts colleges. Here in Ohio some small colleges are under enormous financial pressure, and in meeting their financial needs they cut quality (e.g., adjunct faculty, attractive but frivolous programs). Of course, big universities do the same, but that still allows them to fulfill their primary mission...research.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I see a role for all sorts of institutions, but I’m mostly concerned about the small private institutions. They appear to me to be the most vulnerable.

Yes, small liberal arts colleges are the most vulnerable, both to competition from wealthier private schools that can create the best entering classes money can buy (that is, they don’t really need tuition revenue, even though at the upper limit they spend, on average, $80,000 per student) and to competition from state institutions that, through honors programs and such, provide simulacra of the liberal arts college experience.

Let’s be honest here...the Oberlin plan is plainly hokum -- faculty at most liberal arts colleges once they’ve demonstrated that they are:

Not creative or original thinkers;

Demonstrate that they can be sufficiently sycophantic to the full professors [vigorous kowtowing helps];

Can give or go to a nice dinner party without drooling and constantly demonstrate that
they have good table manners, and

Last but not least are willing to be bullied – this really helps during your final tenure review.

BTW, good teaching matters not a whit in the retention and granting of tenure for a faculty member - especially at a liberal arts college.

BTW, it also helps IMHO, in order to make full professor to be able to belt out “Get out you’re rocking the boat!” at important departmental meetings when reviewing the tenure file of someone who fails in the above categories.

In other words, you get tenured in a nice liberal arts school because you are like everyone else, i.e., a nice middle class white kid who demonstrates his/her bona fides by being a graduate of a nice liberal arts school and a "good" doctoral institution. Heaven forbid that you hire someone with a masters and actually grant them tenure. The doctorate of course largely being a function of coming from a sufficiently middle-class background so that you can defer having to earn a living.

IMHO, Oberlin will never be able to break out of the middle-class paradigm because despite all of the words to the contrary – it sees itself as being “white.” And that goes along with the – well we have trouble hiring “them” because of our isolated rural location. The truth is – that the group think in liberal arts institutions is to run like hell from solid teachers that make the kids think because that might aggravate an alum or alumna who might decide to withhold bucks – and that is why I said above: “you get tenured in a nice liberal arts school because you are like everyone else.”

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