Liberal arts vs. the bottom line

Despite faculty objections, Wisconsin's oldest college is fast-tracking professional programs

Many small liberal-arts colleges, faced with an economic model that no longer seems viable, have strayed into the area of career-specific majors – everything from computer programming to mortuary science – sometimes creating a sort of split personality in the process.

Carroll College wants to go a step further, and just plain split. The oldest college in Wisconsin, situated west of Milwaukee on the edge of the state's dairy country, will still be one campus with one name and one president. But beginning this fall, it will be administratively divided into two parts: Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Graduate and Professional Studies. The administrative split, though, is also causing a fissure in the faculty.

It's a case study of the challenges liberal-arts colleges are facing as pressures threaten the approach many have adhered to for a century or more. Small classes cost big bucks. But "there simply isn't enough demand for their style of education," says Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding director of its Institute for Research on Higher Education.

Liberal-arts students at small colleges constitute an ever-decreasing percentage of total enrollment, Professor Zemsky says, because these schools offer fewer choices of courses and majors.

"There's a kind of seam in the market," Zemsky says. "Colleges that are above the seam are doing very well and can maintain their direction, perhaps forever. [These] colleges ... send 60 to 70 percent of their students on to some form of graduate school. Below the seam, most of their graduates go right to work, so professional courses are much more attractive."

Carroll College is one of hundreds of schools "below the seam." It is highly regarded regionally, but doesn't reach the stature of some of its prestigious New England counterparts. As a result, standing pat is not regarded as an option.

The options are to increase enrollment or wither. With a modest endowment, the school relies heavily on tuition. So "growth" means more students.

"If we didn't grow and just sort of hung on to the ideal of a small Carroll College, you would see Carroll die a long, slow, lingering death, because it's not economically viable," says President Frank Falcone.

When Dr. Falcone arrived in 1993, he decided that in order to expand, the school had to provide an enhanced variety of courses. That meant bolstering professional programs such as teacher education, computer science, and physical therapy.

So far the plan has been successful. After a number of years of declining enrollment, Carroll College has expanded the student body by nearly 40 percent since '93 – to 1,820 undergraduates, with a near-term goal of 2,100.

But the growth strategy at Carroll may have been too successful; sustaining such growth requires the addition of new programs at a rate that's more rapid than the typical pace of academic debate and decisionmaking. Concerned that delay might put new program opportunities at risk, Falcone ordered the school sundered, with the full backing of the college's board of trustees.

The new governance model would limit the decisionmaking authority of liberal-arts faculty and professional-programs faculty to their own respective spheres. The idea is that like-minded faculty on the professional side will use a fast-track approach to address market demand and adopt new programs.

But the proposed – and apparently imminent – division of the college has sent a shiver through traditional departments on campus. Some of the 100 faculty members see the split as a slippery slope that could lead to the liberal-arts side losing many of its majors and merely servicing computer-science or nursing students with an occasional English or history course.

While faculty generally agree that a balance must be struck between liberal-arts and professional offerings, there are a variety of objections to the split. Charles Byler, an associate professor of history, is uncomfortable with professional programs that have little academic content, such as physical therapy, fearing they could hurt the carefully cultivated reputation of the school. He also believes the faculty's go-slow approach to decisionmaking, which the administration is specifically targeting, is a reasonable check against moves into faddish programs.

Carroll administrators say they are merely adhering to that age-old industrial maxim: Listen to your customers. And the "customers" – students and parents – want professional programs.

John Symms, associate professor of mathematics, disputes that view of the college's mission. "The customer is society, the future spouse of the student,... the company that they work for, the community that they belong to – and the graduate is the product," he says. "So what we should be asking is, what do students need, not what do they want."

The faculty have twice voted against the split, but Falcone's powers allow him to move forward with his plans, and he has vowed to do so. At Carroll and many of its counterparts, the struggle to find a sustainable pathway for liberal arts promises to be a prolonged one.

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