Friday, December 16, 2011

Can small colleges support a small future?

Bill McKibben is among the many people arguing that a decentralized, localist future is our best bet for economic well-being, environmental sustainability, and democracy. Mark Mitchell's summary of McKibben's most recent essay on the topic highlights a couple of interesting trends--a small increase in the number of farms (almost entirely led by an increase in small farms), for example--that suggest that a decentralist future may be in the offing.  There are plenty of other economic trends pointing in the same direction.  Small-scale production is easier and more common than in the past, locavore restaurants are spreading, entrepreneurship is spreading, charter schools allow a more localist K-12 education, and with the failure of national government on many fronts, state and local politics is more significant now than before.

Taken together these trends (or hints--who knows if they will be trends) suggest a move towards the small-scale in a number of sectors.  It is ironic then, that while much of the culture and economy is opening to the small and local, higher education is moving in the opposite direction.  Small private colleges and universities are struggling to stay alive.  Many of them are pursuing a national strategy to do so, recruiting students from all over the US (and the world) and mimic-ing the curriculum, offerings, practices, faculty roles, and aspirations of large universities and prestigious private schools with national reputations. The particular is out in higher education; the global is in. Put simply, while much of the economy is organizing around small and local enterprises, small, local colleges and universities are trying to get bigger and more national.

The reasons why are clear.  Many small colleges are in small, rural locations, where there simply aren't enough potential students to fill the classrooms.  Many sectors of the curriculum favor the general, abstract, and cosmopolitan over the particular, local, and concrete.  And the PhD programs that train faculty are overwhelmingly in large universities with national/global reputations and orientations. It may be the case, then, that a localist, decentralized future will lack a higher education component to support it.

There are a couple of hopeful signs.  Municipalities in Arizona have started funding new colleges in the face of declining state support. These city-sponsored schools, unlike existing big city systems like CUNY, are committed to meeting the needs of the municipality.  Localism is spreading on the internet, often impelled by professors (like those writing for Front Porch Republic and Anamnesis). And academic attention to the meaning of place continues apace.

Right now global studies programs are emerging on campuses all over the US, and study abroad programs are increasingly popular. If small colleges and universities are interested in remaining relevant in a localist future, one would hope that they would pair programs in particularism with those on globalism, that study at home would be as important as study abroad, and that their leadership, faculty, and commitments are as strongly to the well-being of the communities they call home as they are to the broader world.

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