Liberal Education

The Liberal Arts and Organizational Design: Cultivating for Change

Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand? —Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard1

What are the enduring, value-added features of small, private liberal arts colleges? Certain distinctions come to mind: broad exposure to the disciplines, focused study in the majors, and close campus interactions—all enhanced by the residential experience. Liberal arts curricula give attention to contemporary skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration skills. Students graduate equipped with intellectual curiosity, civic mindedness, and interpersonal awareness—all fostered in an intimate and time-honored setting. Considering the myriad of other options, a choice for “small residential” is a choice for a well-rounded degree, dedicated faculty mentors, lifelong friendships, and tools for future success.

However, what is (and has historically been) the value of small, private residential liberal arts colleges is under question. The general public and, increasingly, policy makers perceive liberal arts curricula to be (among other things) out of date, too expensive, and unresponsive to the contours of the twenty-first century. Beyond the perception problem, there are pressures in the shifting nature of what students want from their undergraduate education and expectations for investment returns. To retain and strengthen their value, small liberal arts colleges need to find a way to “swim” in a challenging climate in which doing nothing could lead many of them to “sink.” While small privates offer what many other institutions of higher education cannot, namely a traditional liberal arts experience, they are caught in crosswinds that compel a renewal of purpose, a review of operations, and a redefinition of relationships if they are to thrive.

In the drive to find new ways forward, some traditional liberal arts colleges are moving away from their historic missions. Such change—including continuing educational and online programming—often results in mission creep, which undermines institutional identity and traditional campus roles and responsibilities. Yet, as the epigraph above implies, change can also be about preservation: If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Authentic, thoughtful change conducted under strong leadership can begin to tackle a fundamental question, which is also the focus of this article: How can a small liberal arts college remain true to its historic mission even as it innovates?

Organizations like the Association of American Colleges and Universities and foundations such as Lumina, Mellon, and Teagle operate in two intersecting orbits: they actively commit to the enterprise of liberal education and they undertake work to improve it. Small privates are fortunate to have these external sources of promotion and accountability with respect to the promise of liberal education. Innovate, they counsel, but do it for the right reasons. Update, but remain true to a core purpose. Transform, but adhere to democratic principles. The challenge and opportunity for small privates is to do better—to undergo constant improvement—for our students, our institutions, and liberal arts education itself. The good news is that the small privates are not alone in this work or in the belief that the world needs the liberal arts mission now more than ever.

Enabling conditions for change

Some colleges have taken on the twenty-first century with gusto, while others are doing so at a steady, measured pace. Either way, small privates across the country—some by choice, many others by necessity—are engaging in a critical review of their practices and undertaking creative renewal. Obviously, each change process is contextual; however, important lessons can be drawn from those campuses that have successfully repositioned themselves while remaining true to their historic missions.

Liberal arts colleges that are thriving today enjoy a combination of what here are termed “enabling conditions.” These conditions, or assets, allow the institution to read the external landscape effectively, initiate a “soul searching” process on campus, and build appropriate capacities for mission-centered responses. Following are five such enabling conditions.

1. A common understanding of challenges and opportunities. It is risky to sustain a blasé attitude toward the challenges facing the small privates today, not only because the threats are real, but because they suggest a landscape that is rich in opportunity for mission renewal. Successful campuses—and, critically, their faculties—have a shared understanding as regards the what, why, how, and when of the specific challenges and the promising mission-driven opportunities to strengthen the institutional mission.

2. Visionary leadership with political capital to spend. New presidents and chief academic officers—especially those hired to bring integrity to an unstable environment—have more potential to harness community goodwill and offer convincing ideas than do the leaders who have been in office a good number of years and are forced to react to threats that arose during their tenure.

3. A mission that explicitly or implicitly contains the seeds of change. This condition is as much about leaders seeing possibility in a longstanding mission as it is about the mission itself. Traditional liberal arts missions are indeed relevant to contemporary times; it takes creativity and determination to “find new meaning” within a longstanding institutional framework.

4. A governing board willing to fund, or find funding for, change. Many boards—or the strategic planning task forces they mandate—ask constituencies to “imagine the possible”; however, the funding needed to pursue the big ideas that result often fails to materialize. Boards that budget for change are boards that govern for success.

5. A creative and collaborative culture. Campuses that are unified rather than siloed are better able to handle the crosswinds that inform change and that require intra-campus discussions, integrated planning, and cohesive outcomes.

Considered together, the most fortunate small liberal arts college is the one with a wildly popular new president, a generous board, a culture of trust, a historic mission bristling with twenty-first-century meaning, and creative thought leaders. And if such an institution exists, who would not want to work there? Yet, of course, even for those campuses that enjoy most of the enabling conditions, change is not easy. Questions of resource allocation, faculty workload, and fear of the unknown punctuate all change efforts. Nonetheless, institutions that can respond in meaningful ways to societal change have most of the foundational elements for sustained success, which enables the continuity, rather than the creep, of their liberal arts missions.

Cases of enabled change

An example may help to illustrate these points.2 Hendrix College faced drastic cuts in scholarship monies previously channeled from the Arkansas governor’s office. Hendrix also faced competition for students from the budding honors college at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Seeing the writing on the wall, and working with the president, faculty and student leaders found a way to harness an existing strength at Hendrix—engaged learning—in order to build a new focus. What would become the Odyssey Program at Hendrix was born, supported by a three million dollar boost from the Hendrix board chair. This new signature component of the curriculum gives structure to, provides official transcript recognition for, and includes a reflection component to assess the college’s experiential learning opportunities.

There are many things that contributed to Odyssey’s, and Hendrix’s, success. The faculty had already been through years of curricular change, including reforms of the general education and first-year programs. Yet, most faculty accepted (i.e., were willing to act on the fact) that, when hit with the loss of state scholarship monies and a state-sponsored competitor, Hendrix would be losing the pipeline of students on which it had relied. When combined with overall shrinking demographics, Hendrix would undoubtedly face an enrollment crisis.

The new president presented a convincing vision, which included a tuition hike and an enrollment strategy that marketed to out-of-state students. The goal from the beginning was to build on what Hendrix was already doing and take it in new and richer directions. Seasoned faculty members provided leadership, communicated widely and frequently (with a diplomatic focus on colleagues who were resistant to the changes), and designed an incremental process for faculty voting that took it one step at a time. The cultural overlay was one of collaboration; according to a well-respected professor, Hendrix faculty “disagreed without being disagreeable,” began with what they could find consensus on, and kept the process student-centered. In the end, Hendrix did not tinker; it transformed. Hendrix adhered to a historic mission, even as it innovated.

Yet, as many leaders and faculty can attest, there is tremendous tension in the concept of mission-driven innovation. On the one hand, the relevance of the traditional liberal arts is perhaps greater today than at any other time in history. If the world is asking for critical thinkers, problem solvers, collaborators, and creative risk-takers, then a solid liberal arts education is the answer. It is right for the community of liberal arts colleges—including the faculty, who serve as the heart of the academic enterprise—to be buoyed by the belief and evidence that the historic mission to which they are devoted is indispensable to a twenty-first-century world.

On the other hand, there can be so much confidence in the historic mission that any change to it appears foolhardy. After all, why modify something that has endured the test of time and that the world needs now more than ever? But an overzealous defense of the status quo—not changing in order to keep things the same, to play on our opening quote—is full of risks and missed opportunities. The leadership challenge is to frame change as a strategy to preserve the core mission.

In this regard, Washington and Lee University, founded in 1749, offers a few lessons in finding value in historic purpose. Washington and Lee’s strategic plan identifies a vision for the future. But it also states that “there are abiding values of our institution that should not change . . . as we pursue strategies for continuous improvement.” These values include the liberal arts model; the small, intimate setting of the campus; and solid study in the disciplines.

Yet, the intersecting nature of today’s world requires that students operate between disciplinary spaces in order to find solutions to the complex problems we face. At Washington and Lee, interdisciplinary innovation is an emerging feature of the academic program. For example, the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability draws on multiple disciplines to move students toward both thought and action. The program’s goals go right to the heart of the university’s historic mission to prepare graduates for responsible leadership and service to others. The takeaway for small privates is that interdisciplinary innovation—that is, thematic programs that serve the common good—can occur because of, rather than despite, the historic mission. Washington and Lee is not only “changing to preserve”; it is innovating in order to create student change-agents.

Backing it up

Unfortunately, for most small privates, the enabling conditions for adaptation and improvement are stymied. Imagine a case in which enrollments continue to fall, resources become scarcer, the campus feels under siege, and leaders are forced to make “tough decisions” that further undermine trust and confidence. The campus may see signs of trouble and even a general need to “calibrate the liberal arts to the demands of a changing world” or “update programs for a shifting demographic.” However, because the conditions that would enable the process are lacking and the community is experiencing in deeply negative ways both the looming threats and the consequences of doing nothing, it becomes virtually impossible to move meaningful and sustained discussions forward.

In this scenario, a mistrustful faculty might fear the unknown and resist new ideas; administrators might venture out of the shared governance framework; a hierarchical culture might strengthen existing silos; or a board, lacking confidence, might fail to come up with needed funding. Any one of these is enough to weaken needed action. Because they exacerbate each other, these conditions tend to exist in multiples.

The factors that undermine enabling conditions are varied and entangled in a campus’s particular dynamics. These may include mistrust caused by distortions in shared governance, power struggles caused by leadership deficits, faculty “turf wars” tolerated by a culture of autonomy, or underfunded initiatives due to resource (or a culture of) scarcity. Adverse conditions exist on most campuses to one degree or another and affect how, why, and whether change unfolds. Leadership and culture are two of the most important determinants of success. One particular challenge is a mindset—particularly among faculty—that, while supportive of the liberal arts mission, stalls the deep work needed to refresh the academic program. For a variety of reasons, including the previously mentioned “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” outlook, it is difficult for faculties to appreciate in toto today’s cause-and-effect challenges to and opportunities for small liberal arts colleges. This, in turn, makes it hard to grasp important developments in higher education, including the value of community-based learning or the blind spots derived from fixed disciplinary boundaries.

Again, it is not as if those of us at small liberal arts colleges completely ignore reality; we just do not go far enough in responding to it. We “do” globalization but can operate like self-contained entities, each responding in our own way to any particular challenge. We “get” the dangers of endowment spending and the expanding student debt bubble but can overlook the factors that perpetuate them. We “value” critical thinking as a learning outcome but do not adequately examine our own claims. When the time comes to “envision the future,” there is a lack of enabling conditions needed to advance corrective action. This helps explain why so many well-intentioned strategic plans at small liberal arts colleges fall short of their mark.

Cultivating for change

It is possible to move past inhibitory mindsets and obstructive habits and to approach adaptive change with focused creativity. However, the ground must be “cultivated for change.” This means that the first order of business is to take stock of which enabling conditions are lacking and then confront those gaps. After all, introducing strategic goals is not the same thing as having the capacities to achieve them. Imagine a backhoe that turns over the soil to make it ready for planting; liken this to developing the enabling conditions. Our campus environments must first be cultivated, or enabled, for change, so that ensuing discussions and decisions can take root and grow in the desired directions.

The “cultivation plan” is different from the strategic plan. While the latter defines direction, the former builds up to it. They can be produced at the same time and even integrated in the same document, but they should be seen as complementary, since diving into change without preparing for it will impair the intended results. Repositioning discussions and idea implementation inevitably rely on trusted leadership, collaborative culture, and mission-driven innovation—that is, the enabling conditions discussed above. To put and keep those conditions in place, prohibitive norms—for example, compartmentalized relationships and remote decision-making structures—will have to be identified and corrected. If left undisturbed, these norms will serve as the foundation for dysfunction, as the expected collaborative energies are spent on competing interests and agendas and leaders’ political capital is slowly exhausted. Confidence and goodwill must be cultivated if strategic adaptations are to have any chance of realizing their full and intended objectives. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, but what would the process of cultivation actually look like?

Case study

How does the inhibitory mindset play out on liberal arts campuses? How does an institution begin to cultivate for, or enable, change? It might be helpful to answer these questions by relying on a hypothetical case. Imagine that a fictitious College of Liberal Learning (CoLL), having suffered drops in enrollment and endowment, is set to undergo a strategic planning process. The attendant task force, perhaps informed by the market analysis of an outside consulting firm, will need to grapple with the question of how to reposition the college in an environment characterized by shrinking student demographics, new opportunities for educational partnerships, and emerging (more flexible and less costly) competitors. In responding to these changing dynamics and with a renewed commitment to its historic liberal arts mission, CoLL’s strategic plan envisions two broad goals: (1) adapt the liberal arts mission to the demands of a changing world, and (2) update programs and pedagogies that meet the expectations of today’s students.

The CoLL strategic planning task force favors these two goals, because they appear to be sensible steps that an institution relying on twenty-first-century dynamics would take seriously. Yet, when introduced to the community, CoLL faculty might react negatively to them, because—for starters—the goals imply that the academic program they built and govern is out of touch with students and with the times. Task force members have thus underestimated and not prepared for the extent to which these basic starting points might fuel defensive patterns and resistance posturing. When CoLL leaders open these seemingly reasonable goals up to a campus-wide discussion—without having also anticipated and planned for the inhibitory mindset—the process is, in effect, stymied from the outset.

Backing up, what might a cultivation plan look like for these circumstances? There are two important steps that need to be elaborated prior to or alongside the strategic planning process. These would be designed to complement, probe, and support the focus of the strategic plan. The idea is to bring to the surface obstacles—gaps in enabling conditions—that will bog down the process, recognize how and why they exist, and establish in their place facilitative features involving key constituencies.

Taking into account CoLL’s two strategic goals, the cultivation process would unfold in two phases. Phase one identifies what, how, and why resistance to twenty-first-century repositioning and programmatic updating is likely to surface. This is a conscious look at what enabling conditions are lacking in a state of affairs the community might otherwise call “normal.” Phase two defuses those resistance features through the creation of new mechanisms designed to enable healthier discussions and creative approaches. This is a collective and challenging problem-solving process that both confronts and fills the identified gaps.

Phase one is designed to reveal norms, assumptions, and relationships that obstruct the ability to envision a better future. At CoLL, some of the inhibitions that might be revealed in the first phase of the cultivation plan include

  • fear that longstanding academic programs may not be viable and that faculty who have governed them for years may no longer have a solid place in the new curricular “updates”;
  • skepticism about a “market analysis” that relies on business vocabulary and concepts and that seems to understate the historical value of CoLL’s institutional mission; misgivings about the CoLL governing board, which is made up of members who are in the private sector and do not necessarily understand the “historic liberal arts”;
  •  mistrust about “what got the college in this mess in the first place,” arising, for example, from dysfunctional shared governance relations between faculty and administration;
  • discomfort with engaging in open conversations about shared challenges when the campus has traditionally rewarded operational “silos”—for example, a curriculum committee that is delinked from enrollment or funding operations;
  • unease related to accommodating “the demands of a changing world,” when historically it was enough to simply offer a solid liberal arts education.

These revelations, which pose minimal risk when institutional finances are robust, become major detriments to any visioning process during times of financial vulnerability. They also indicate important things about the community; the fear, mistrust, and discord represent gaps in most of the enabling conditions identified above. If left unexamined, they will undermine the planning and implementation processes, especially if the college is relying on strategic goals to turn around revenue declines. It is far better to bring the inhibitions out into the open than to try to build a strategic plan on top of them and hope for the best. As a first step in the cultivation plan, and despite faculty discomforts, transparent discussions about job security, a twenty-first-century institutional mission, shared governance, the campus cultural landscape, financial realities, and other sources of fear and threats are in order.

Clearly, while it is abundantly useful to get these points on the table, it is not enough to stop there. The second phase of the cultivation plan is designed to reshape and strengthen the processes and mechanisms that define the campus culture and operations. The goal is to build supports for the strategic process, keep planning accountable and creative, and encourage and sustain the “buy in” of key constituents. It might be useful, for example, to offer faculty an opportunity to map themselves onto the envisioned new environment. The goal is for faculty to be less encumbered by hidden fears and more aware that their creativity is essential for the planning and implementation of strategic goals. As a seasoned faculty member at Hendrix explained, “professors have had to adapt to the reality that their own careers are intertwined with the college’s market position.”3 At CoLL, practices and mechanisms that might be established in response to the findings from the first phase include

  • a robust funding mechanism for curricular recalibration that incentivizes faculty to learn about and adopt programming and pedagogical innovation and that is both mission-sensitive and attuned to twenty-first-century opportunities;
  • a nimble decision-making process for strategic initiatives that is accountable and enabled, participatory and data driven, forward looking and grounded in liberal education’s values;
  • training for faculty and staff (with resources and release time provided) that enables them to play boundary-spanning roles between academic and nonacademic entities and to recommend ways to improve performance, cohesion, and collaboration;
  • a process that encourages ongoing understanding of and interaction with external dynamics and entities, with the goal of sustaining CoLL’s responsiveness to twenty-first-century forces and expectations.

The second phase addresses effective decision making and resource availability, while providing accountable and reliable forums for discussion and planning. Residual as well as fresh misgivings should have a place in the new processes that are created; building trust and setting basic priorities are keys to success. Phase two should result in enabling processes, structures, and relationships whose purposes are implicitly clear to the community.

For example, rejecting an oft-heard “bloated administration” argument, Hendrix faculty approved new positions to sustain the vision, including a director of the Odyssey Program, a director of civic engagement projects, and (later) a director of integrated advising. Fresh roles and responsibilities facilitate the best of what Hendrix envisioned for its Odyssey Program. Washington and Lee faculty loosened disciplinary boundaries in order to develop an innovative program on poverty and human capacity that resonated with the university’s historic mission and with the world at large. For institutions that can learn from these examples but that lack the same enabling conditions, the cultivation plan will help them “swim” as they address the challenges and invite the opportunities that emerge from the twenty-first-century context. Hendrix and Washington and Lee represent but two of the institutions that have taken on the challenge and used their enabling conditions to revive and sustain the value and validity of the historic liberal arts mission for twenty-first-century education. Small liberal arts colleges that can detect their own deficits will be equally empowered to effect fresh, mission-driven change.

Final thoughts

It is important to be intentional about cultivating for change. Reviewing operations and redefining direction require much from those who need to invest in the process with their time, energy, and resources. Constituencies are asked to acknowledge the role of a changing external environment, engage in calculated risks, and shift longstanding inhibitory mindsets. Success cannot be assumed, though change-agent strategic planners often overlook conditions on the ground that will ultimately determine the fate of their efforts. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. The enabling conditions can contribute greatly to the success of the historic liberal arts in the twenty-first century.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author’s name on the subject line.


1. The author expresses her thanks to Ken Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University, for bringing this delightful novel to her attention and for pushing her to think more deeply about the philosophical questions related to mission-driven change.

2. The author would like to thank Provost Robert Entzminger, Professors Tom Goodwin, Jay Barth (director of civic engagement programs), and George Harper (associate director of the Odyssey Program), and Peg Falls-Corbitt (associate provost for engaged learning) for the generous sharing of their time in helping the author learn about the evolution of the Odyssey Program as a centerpiece of institutional change.

3. Jack Stripling, “Hendrix’s Odyssey,” Inside Higher Ed, August 5, 2010,

Jennifer Dugan is professor of political science at Randolph College.

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