Sunday, November 11, 2012

Success in the shadow of giants, or, What does a school like Westminster call itself?

With the exception of schools whose fame (like Williams, Pomona, Middlebury, Dartmouth, or Brown) or location (New England and the Midwest) make their purposes automatically comprehensible to prospective students, the first thing that institutions like Westminster must figure out is what to call themselves.

By saying this I mean something more than "schools must have a name."  I mean that schools like Westminster--which receive neither state, nor church, nor investor sponsorship, and which offer neither all fields of study or a severely limited roster of academic programs--are incomprehensible without a clear self-description.

Think about the prospective student growing up in Utah, or Colorado, or Texas, or Alabama, or any other state with a very visible state university system and/or prominent church-sponsored schools. If they are religious, they understand immediately what BYU or Baylor or Gonzaga are about.  And if they are at all attentive to the news or sports, they have been exposed to state universities (particularly flagships and land-grants) since before they even considered college.  Stuart Dorsey, the President of Texas Lutheran University put it this way to me in a conversation; "For a kid growing up in Texas, the first question about higher education they ask themselves is, 'Am I a Longhorn or an Aggie?'" State schools and religious universities enter the recruiting contest with an immense advantage, since they are not only more highly subsidized, but more frequently covered, more visible, larger, more famous, and more likely to be part of the everyday life of young people than are schools like Westminster.  They are giants, not just in enrollment, but in visibility, in reach, and in influence.

In this context, a school like Westminster is not just unknown but unfathomable.  So our first challenge, before we can work with a student on fit and affordability, is to figure out how to describe ourselves.

Our traditional way of doing it--"Institution X is a small, private, liberal arts college" is almost useless, since all of those terms are either weak, confusing,  compromised, or unattached from their historical meanings.  "Small," for example, is claimed by nearly every institution in the US (just look at how they market their average class size for an example).  Further, for students today, small carries as many negative connotations (no bigger than high school, boring) as positive.  "Private" is even worse, since it requires an immediate explanation of the legal  and educational difference between for-profit and not-for-profit institutions, and a quick distancing from the University of Phoenix, ITT Tech, etc.  "Liberal Arts" carries mixed meanings, with some equating it to general education and others to traditional approaches to learning.  And "college" is similarly confusing, since major universities contain colleges, and small institutions call themselves "universities." And none of the words convey any of the things that make such institutions distinctive or innovative.

So how can a place like Westminster describe itself so as to be both accurate and attractive?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Independent. Independence conveys three facts--all important and all desirable.  Independence suggests that the institution is beholden neither to church nor state. It points to the most important component of the traditional meaning of liberal arts, that it is the education necessary for free people.  And those two points open a meaningful conversation about why the cost of an education is higher at Westminster than at a particular state university--because it is self-funding, and because its educational goals include but go beyond employment.
  • Interconnected. Interconnection suggests something good both about the curriculum--that its pieces are tied together--and about the life of the community, that set schools like Westminster apart from their competitors.  Large public universities have no such interconnected community--they have at best interest groups--and private or technical institutions have no desire to make their curricula add up to something bigger than the sum of their parts.
  • School of higher learning. School is a rich word, one whose etymology suggests place, independent effort, and community.  Those meanings are both more varied and more precise than "college" or "university."  And "higher learning" locates the work of the school at a level of greater complexity and meaning than other school work, and puts the focus on learning, where it belongs, rather than on the scholarly bona fides of faculty or the institution's prominence, size, or image. 
It is true that "Westminster College [or any other such institution] is an independent, interconnected school of higher learning" sounds odd.  But the oddness of such a sentence is a good thing, since it pushes both the speaker and the hearer to recognize the oddness of the institution, its mission, and its location in the higher education landscape.  And that is certainly better than describing the institution using words that lack clarity and accuracy.  If we are going to move out from the shadow of giant institutions, some such language is essential.

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