Mel Elfin is as mad as a gargoyle at 33 presidents of liberal arts colleges.
''Get real,'' he tells them at a college-leadership symposium held here last week under the splendid Gothic dome of Union College. Mr. Elfin is executive editor of ''America's Best Colleges,'' a popular guidebook published by U.S. News & World Report.
Some of the best liberal arts colleges in the United States, as the polished gems of higher education - expensive, but considered a lifetime investment - have seen their luster dulled by a host of converging factors. Profound cultural and technological shifts, fierce marketplace competition, cost restraints, and widening demographic changes are shaking the colleges.
As a result, small liberal arts colleges are in crisis, Elfin says. Some have disappeared or shifted from a mission purely of education to one of training professionals. One school, Bennington College in Bennington, Vt., upended its academic department and its tenure structure, completely remaking itself. Others are scrambling to retain their distinction from large universities.
This challenges what Shirley Peterson, the president of Hood College in Frederick, Md., says is the purpose of a liberal arts education: ''the creation of a strong, subtle, supple, resourceful, and capacious human mind.''
Elfin doesn't necessarily disagree. But he promotes a computerized future for liberal arts colleges, which he says are ''slipping into unaffordability.'' The average yearly cost of a liberal arts education is about $21,000.
''I don't think classrooms are necessary anymore,'' Elfin says bluntly, calling for the colleges to step up and ensure something of a future by collectively creating ''an interactive multimedia core curriculum.'' This curriculum, shared among colleges, would define a new-old liberal arts education for students in a society rapidly turning to computers to deliver information and experiences, he says.
Elfin says the concept of ''distance learning,'' using TV monitors in a classroom to offer courses from distant locations, is already yesterday's technology. Even now, students at some colleges, using laptop computers, have access to vast on-line, global resources with faculty members becoming individual tutors.
At other colleges, entire courses are computerized. Even the concept of ''going away'' to college might be replaced in the future to offer a less expensive path to a degree, Elfin suggests.
When asked what the core curriculum should be, Elfin admonishes the presidents: ''You tell us. The liberal arts colleges should tell us,'' he says.
But where Elfin sees the computer shaping a promising new future, many of the presidents at the symposium see his vision as almost an anathema to the ethos of the liberal arts experience.
''I think this is a vision of a future with autodidacts as opposed to a future of students,'' says Richard Warch, president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. ''Part of what a liberal arts college does is train students in the kinds of social skills and negotiations that become totally absent in the kind of world [Elfin] described,'' he says. ''We would just be sitting in front of our Powerbooks.''
At larger universities research is king, but the hallmarks of a liberal arts education are professors who enjoy teaching and small classes.
''These are absolutely valuable to a large percentage of our students,'' says Steven Koblik, president of Reed College in Portland, Ore. ''But I warn you,'' he says, ''I'm part of an interactive e-mail class on 20th-century Sweden, and probably within five years [technology] will enable us to look at each other too.''
Rather than hook into a collective future with technology as the driving force, Robert Edwards, president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, expects many colleges to survive on the validity of their traditional strengths. ''I have yet to discover a complacent college president,'' he says. ''They are more scared, more shrewd. Technology is not the white knight. I think there will be a great number of individual salvations.''
If so, liberal arts colleges will have found new ways to attract, challenge, and retain students of all ages, including providing them with innovative financial-aid packages. At many liberal arts colleges, fewer than 10 percent of students pay full tuition.
''I never hear parents say they will take less for their children if we will charge them less,'' says Neil Grabois, president of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. ''Students are demanding, and parents even more demanding.''
At Colgate, applications have increased 25 percent over the last two years, according to Mr. Grabois. ''In many cases I think there is a flight from public education to liberal arts, where there is a sense of value and some stability,'' he says. ''States are valuing prisons more than higher education.'' According to the Council for Aid to Education, state allocations for higher education dropped 13 percent between 1986 and 1992.
Competition for students has caused a number of large universities to create carbon copies of liberal arts colleges on their campuses. At Ohio State University in Columbus, students accepted into an honors program live in special residence halls and go to class in smaller buildings. The best teachers are used in the program.
''The students are promised a research position the summer before they enter and guaranteed summer research positions all four summers,'' says Stanton Hales, acting president of the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. ''For these students, it's the best of both worlds'' - a liberal arts education and employment.
Elfin, for his part, has a number of suggestions for improving liberal arts colleges. For example, he wants presidents to spend a night in a campus dorm for a reality check on student concerns, including safety and other quality-of-life issues. Seated under the dome in Nott Memorial on the Union campus, the presidents at the symposium, sponsored by Union, listen resolutely, knowing that Elfin's push for such things is valid, if a little shrill.
Still, many of the presidents remain sanguine about their futures because of the values inherent in liberal arts.
''People are worried about social disintegration,'' says Claire Gaudiani, president of Connecticut College in New London, Conn. ''Liberal arts colleges are among the only institutions with a model for civil society, for moral coherency,'' she says. ''In fact, we are a species that is doing something about social disintegration.''