Saving a school with sweat equity

Blackburn College blends liberal arts, labor

Ten years ago, at the brink of financial exhaustion, Blackburn College drastically cut administrative staff and scaled back tenured faculty. But the school had one key resource to turn to: its students.

For two years, students at this small-town, liberal arts college operated the development and public relations offices without a full-time staff supervisor.

Today, things are looking up for Blackburn.The endowment has more than doubled to $12 million in the past decade, the $2 million operating debt has been virtually eliminated, and enrollment - roughly 700 - is at its highest in years.

It's fitting that the school's comeback was student-powered, because Blackburn is a work-study school - one of only seven in the United States, according to President Mim Pride. Student initiative is practically built in to the campus.

Each full-time student is required to work a minimum of 10 hours a week for a tuition reduction and up to 10 additional hours a week for pay.After the reduction, tuition is $11,900 -the lowest for a four-year private college in Illinois.

But Blackburn students are seeking more than just a financial break. They come for a rigorous mix of work and liberal arts that they hope will place them ahead of other graduates.

Shannon Austin transferred to Blackburn for its education program after two years at a junior college. A senior, Ms. Austin juggles 15 hours a week in the public relations office, 12 hours of classes, and 15 to 20 hours in an off-campus job. "It makes you figure out your priorities a lot faster," she says.

While freshmen tend to get stuck with unpopular gigs like dining services or housecleaning, most juniors and seniors manage to land work that relates to their majors or future plans.

Michelle Groppel, a senior majoring in art and K-12 education, also works in the public relations office. But she spends her 10 hours snapping and tweaking photos for the yearbook. "It all connects with my major," she says.

Students say professors are not apt to be soft on deadlines or accept "I had to work" as an excuse. Indeed, Alan Adams, vice president for development and public relations, stresses that leadership and responsibility are essential ingredients in the Blackburn experience.

Such values are deeply rooted in the school's history. The work program, which dates to 1913, was the idea of then-president William Hudson, who sought to instill values such as responsibility and leading a balanced life. At the time, Blackburn enjoyed almost complete self-sufficiency as students cultivated dairy livestock and vegetables.

This instinct for survival was key to pulling out of troubled financial waters a decade ago. At one point in the middle of the crisis, Blackburn had no residence staff, so faculty and administrators left the campus in the hands of the students when they went home for evenings and weekends. "This wasn't a new concept to them," says Mr. Adams."They had a precedent with the work program."

Nor was it the last time students would rescue the school from a difficult situation. In 1999, an ice storm covered the Midwest with a shiny slick. By the time administrators negotiated their way onto campus along slippery paths, they found students preparing hot cocoa in the dining hall for fellow students spreading salt.A student on switchboard duty arrived an hour early and opened the lines for faculty to call in if they couldn't make it to campus.

"[Students] know what they have to do, and they go out and do it without complaint," says sophomore Kelli Dickerson.

Since Blackburn's turnaround, nonfaculty staff have not been hired to as full an extent as before, says William Fanning Jr., vice president for administration and finance. Students account for 90 percent of the labor force.

In fact, Blackburn is the only sizeable college in the nation with a completely student-managed work program.Students hire and allocate employees and ensure that tasks are completed.

In addition, students serve on every college committee and have equal voting power with faculty members.Administrators give a lot of responsibility to the students, more so than at other work colleges, Ms. Pride says.

Safely out of the red, Blackburn is moving forward now, and others are taking notice. In 1999, the Illinois Board of Higher Education offered Blackburn a three-year grant, entitled "Values Across the Curriculum," to enhance it as a model for integrating the life lessons of work and academics.

Meanwhile, the school has added a community service arm. "Sometimes an institution that is very strong and has a lot of money has a very difficult time making a big change," Pride says."The good news about being in hard times is that it can make change maybe easier."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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