Dan Porterfield MN ’89 President and CEO, Aspen Institute; former President, Franklin and Marshall College.

Dr. Robert Cormack WF ’71, Principal, University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland; former Principal, UHI Millennium Institute.

The Liberal Arts and the Global Economy

“It’s a capacity problem, a matching problem, and, to some extent, a return on investment challenge,” says Carol Quillen MN ’83. “How do we educate a much greater number, and a much more diverse group, of students for the global economy, such that each of those students attends and graduates from the institution that best serves his or her talents?”

Access and fit are crucial issues today for top-ranked, private, liberal arts institutions like Davidson College, where Dr. Quillen has been president since 2011. In a constantly changing global economy, she notes, “our biggest challenge is making our value proposition clear to an increasingly skeptical public and government,” she explains. “The best way to do that is to speak clearly and concretely about what we offer in light of what the workplace and the world, now need—and then to demonstrate our commitment to educating very talented students irrespective of their financial circumstances.”

The key, she says, is to “develop within [students] deep talents and capacities that will serve them well even though they’ll likely change professions five or six times over the course of their working lives.” Davidson graduates, Dr. Quillen observes, are in demand in the technology sector “because they’re really good at solving problems, particularly those that have many dimensions and require you to look at them from multiple perspectives.”

Davidson—which recently celebrated its 175th anniversary and which Woodrow Wilson attended before transferring to Princeton—has a longstanding reputation as a highly selective institution, as well as a growing national profile. In 2007, with the creation of the Davidson Trust, it became the first liberal arts college in the United States to offer all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. “We practice need-blind admission. We meet demonstrated need and we meet it without loans in the packages for every admitted student. That is the mechanism through which Davidson makes evident our commitment to making equal opportunity real, both here at Davidson and hopefully in our democratic society. And that commitment stems from our realization that democracy cannot thrive if access to education depends upon the income level of your parents.”

After a twenty-year career at Rice University as both a professor and administrator, Dr. Quillen became the first non-alumnus to be appointed president of Davidson since 1957. “One consequence of that is that I can make the Davidson community increasingly aware of attributes of this place that are not typical,” says Dr. Quillen. “I’m constantly walking around this campus saying ‘You guys think everyone does it this way, that everyone is as good, but they’re not. You’re really good at this and you need to recognize how distinctive Davidson is.’ I bring a sense of perspective that allows me to identify remarkable, valuable things about Davidson that people who’ve been here for a long time may take for granted.”

On her arrival at Davidson, Dr. Quillen asked two questions of students, faculty, alumni, and other campus constituencies: If they could change one thing about Davidson, what would it be? And what would they ensure never changed? After two years in the presidency, Dr. Quillen reflects on her own answers. “Across the board, and across generations, the Davidson community really values the sense of community that the college creates, and that sense of community rises out of the honor code and the culture of trust and inquiry that flourishes because of the honor code. I would say that is what I would never change.”

And what would she change? “Davidson is not as well-known as it needs to be in communities that have not historically sent their children to Davidson. To the extent that we can make what we do known in those communities, and seek out talented kids who might not have otherwise heard of us, we will create a richer, deeper, more powerful learning environment for everyone and be better at fulfilling our mission,” says Dr. Quillen. “That would be what I would wish for and am working hard to accomplish.”

Unintended Consequences: Higher Education Reform and HBCUs

Proposed national reforms to improve access to higher education are laudable, says Morgan State University president David Wilson AF ’84, but some elements of those reforms may adversely affect institutions most in need of help—such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“I applaud President Obama for his very bold vision of putting before us in higher education this goal that America should lead the world again in the percentage of our population with college degrees,” says Dr. Wilson. “I also applaud him and Secretary Duncan for the Access to Success initiative to try to insure that the doors to higher education will remain open and affordable for students and for increasing the amount students can receive under the Pell Grant program.”

One change, however, has already had a drastic impact on enrollment at HBCUs. A 2011 revision to the Department of Education’s eligibility criteria for Parent PLUS Loans eliminated from consideration many applicants who would previously have been approved. Morgan, for example, saw a 44 percent drop in its applicants’ PLUS Loan approval rate. “There were many unintended consequences of that [change],” says Dr. Wilson. “That has translated into our having, on the campus, about 350 fewer undergraduate students than we had last year. And that has had a financial impact, because we are losing roughly $4.5 million from the university’s operating budget.” The solution, says Dr. Wilson, is to reverse the changes.

HBCUs will also be hurt, Dr. Wilson says, by a ratings system relying on retention and graduation rates. At HBCUs, he explains, a disproportionate number of students have financial reasons for dropping out. “A certain swath of historically black colleges could very well be in peril if we wake up and find ourselves with a system of funding institutions based on outcome measures that may not be a true measure of the worth of the institution.”

In the face of the recession, Morgan has already had to take creative steps to sustain tuition revenues by reducing time to degree and retaining students. A task force formed to identify obstacles to graduation has recommended such steps as a course redesign initiative to bring as many undergraduate degree requirements within 120 credit hours as possible. In gateway courses like math and biology, Dr. Wilson says, “We are calling upon professors to redesign some of those courses so we can get students to a degree of mastery quicker and consequently enable them to get through the institution on time.” Another key emphasis at Morgan: Fundraising that emphasizes assistance for students from families with limited resources.

Dr. Wilson is no stranger to change in higher education. He began his administrative career as a Woodrow Wilson Administrative Fellow at Kentucky State University during a time of transition, when finances required the school to diversify its all-black student body. (The process by which Kentucky State went about diversifying its student body ultimately became his doctoral dissertation topic at Harvard.) Created to help HBCUs meet demands for administrators, the Administrative Fellowship (1967–1990) recruited young leaders and scholars with expertise in development and financial management and placed them at schools in need.

A close professional relationship with then-Woodrow Wilson Foundation president Richard Couper led to Dr. Wilson’s becoming the Director of the Office of Minority Programs at the Foundation, where he learned from both Dr. Couper and Robert Goheen. “During lunch hour I would meander down to Bob’s office. He would regale me with all these incredible stories of the time when he was president at Princeton and how he led that institution during a very turbulent time when all the sit-ins and the movements were happening. And Dick would tell me stories of his being president at Hamilton and the New York Public Library. I was gaining all of this wisdom from two people who were at the top of their game. I emerged from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation without fully realizing that I had amassed this incredible perspective on higher education in America from some very, very good people.”

Dick Couper would later recommend Dr. Wilson for the post of associate provost at Rutgers University—Camden, launching Dr. Wilson’s career in higher education administration. “I owe a lot to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation for the opportunities that I have had since then and the experiences that are coming my way today.”

William G. Bowen WF ’55 (deceased), 2012 National Humanities Medal Laureate; noted academic leader; president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; former president of Princeton University

Not Shying Away: Bill Bowen on Leadership and Change in Higher Education

In Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President (Princeton University Press, 2010), William G. Bowen WF ’55 urges presidents “to say clearly and forcefully what you believe on important university-related matters. It is unwise to equivocate too much or shy away from controversy.”

Over the course of nearly five decades as a leader in higher education, Dr. Bowen has not shied away from controversy. Both during his tenure as president of Princeton University and in his role heading the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, he has been a bold, even insistent leader and commentator on some of the toughest challenges facing higher education, from coeducation and diversity to the cost of college to digital education. The last of these is the subject of his latest book, Higher Education in the Digital Age (ITHAKA/Princeton University Press, 2013).

Dr. Bowen, an Ohio native and the first in his family to attend college, received his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship as a senior at Denison University and completed his Ph.D. in economics at Princeton in just three years. Dr. Bowen is one of the best-known and most widely respected higher education leaders of the past half-century. The citation for his 2012 National Humanities Medal emphasizes his strengths as both a visionary and an administrator: “While his widely discussed publications have scrutinized the effects of policy, Dr. Bowen has used his leadership to put theories into practice and strive for new heights of academic excellence.”

See full article in the Spring 2014 newsletter.

Barbara B. Zikmund WF ’64, Former President, Hartford Seminary

Robert L. Woodbury WF ’60, Former Chancellor, University of Maine System

Richard J. Wood WF ’59 H, Former President, Earlham College

Paula Wolff WF ’67, Former President, Governors State University

Martin C. White WF ’71 DS, Former President, Gardner-Webb University


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