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Originally published: The Importance of Mission, The Key Reporter (Phi Beta Kappa), Spring 1996

In the fall of 1993 the University of Puget Sound Board of Trustees accepted an offer from Seattle University to assume sponsorship of the Puget Sound School of Law. Although we had not been seeking an alternative home for the law school, we board members responded to Seattle University’s initiative as we did because we believed that transferring the law school would clarify to all our constituents the University of Puget Sound’s mission as a national liberal arts college. We were also convinced that the law school-which had been established in 1971 and was located in a renovated department store in downtown Tacoma, a 10-minute drive from Puget Sound’s main campus-would be better served by becoming part of an institution firmly committed to professional and graduate education.

The action illustrates how two very different universities can work together to ensure that each offers those programs that best fit its mission. For Puget Sound, the decision further exemplifies our determination to focus our resources, financial and human, on what we do best-a determination that grew out of the awareness that we cannot (and should not) try to do and be everything.

The aftermath of the decision, however, dramatizes something very different: that even though the rhetoric of higher education in the 1990s is characterized by calls for institutional focus and for funding of only the endeavors that are central to that focus, pressure from multiple constituencies makes it very difficult for colleges and universities to move beyond talk to action. Furthermore, although most universities are not likely to face the directly comparable choice of transferring a program, this situation demonstrates instructive principles to all institution: It is essential that their governing boards be absolutely clear about institutional mission and ensure that resources are allocated accordingly; it is equally important that institutional mission grows out of institutional strengths; and it is crucial that boards select and support presidents whose vision is consistent with their own.

Puget Sound has deliberately been true to these principles for some time. For example, in the mid-1970s, cognizant of changing demographics and determined to establish itself as a national institution known for excellence in teaching, the university moved away from its goal of becoming a large comprehensive university with a substantial number of professional programs and redefined itself essentially as a liberal arts college. In keeping with this mission, the board closed satellite campuses in Seattle, in Olympia, and on military bases; eliminated an array of graduate programs; and capped the “main campus” or undergraduate enrollment at 2,700 students.

Although this redefined mission ran counter to the “bigger is better” belief held by many private colleges in the 1960s and 1970s, the strategy worked. Puget Sound was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1986. SAT scores have jumped 172 points since 1980. In 1993 we were added to the Watson Foundation list of top liberal arts institutions, and that year we received more than 4,000 applications for 650 freshmen spaces. Some 70 percent of our incoming students come from outside the state of Washington. Retention is at an all-time high. Fund-raising is going well. Our endowment has grown in the past 20 years from $6 million to more than $106 million.

Puget Sound is not alone among college campuses that have come to believe they must allocate resources in keeping with their mission and that identify institutional fit as a criterion for evaluating both new and existing programs. Indeed, in today’s economic climate, even America’s most financially secure institutions have begun to consolidate or eliminate programs as a means of using resources more effectively.

Despite all the benefits of the law school transfer, the board did not come to its decision easily. We knew that some Tacomans would keenly feel the loss of the school, which lay in the center of a downtown struggling to revitalize itself. We also spent a good deal of time deliberating about the process. All of us preferred broader consultation but in the end concluded that a public process would have jeopardized the transfer. We also were concerned that a protracted public debate would seriously damage the law school if the arrangement fell through.

The response of several of the university’s external constituencies to the law school decision indicates that we were right to be nervous about community reaction. Although most observers acknowledged the validity of the transfer in terms of institutional mission and the law school’s future, several critics denounced the university for putting its well-being above that of downtown Tacoma. Arguing that the trustees’ obligation to the city should take precedence over their responsibility for the university, the local newspaper, in a series of hostile articles, op-ed pieces, cartoons, and editorials, mounted a campaign to fuel community opposition. Tacomans associated with efforts to revive the downtown, including community leaders and elected officials at the local, state, and national levels, also exerted pressure.

After a month of criticism, the board met with our local congressman, the city manager, and a prominent banker. We listened to their concerns and then voted unanimously to reaffirm the decision, believing, as we had originally, that by transferring the law school we were being true to our responsibility as trustees.

In retrospect, I have realized that much of the negative reaction stemmed from the widely held notion that because education institutions are involved with a host of constituencies, they are obliged to serve them all. Those who subscribe to this notion simply did not accept the board’s premise that our primary constituency is our students and that our primary responsibility is well-being of the university.

Such feelings are on some level understandable, for in addition to their basic elements-students, faculty, and staff-academic institutions benefit from or must accommodate the often-dissimilar interests of alumni, parents, donors, accrediting agencies, foundations, corporations, the press, local communities, and federal, state, and local governments. As the law school decision indicates, sometimes these external constituencies endorse a college or university’s educational mission. At other times, they are convinced that we should instead function as social service or community service agencies or even as surrogate parents.

Such notions are, I believe, also related to the growing expectation that educational institutions should make up for inadequacies in other parts of our society. Elementary and secondary schools have in recent decades been asked to do far more than teach. Rather, teachers and staff are now called on to satisfy a plethora of social, psychological, and physical needs no longer met by families, religious and community organizations, and to some extent the government.

It is not surprising that higher education is now being confronted with the same sorts of nonacademic demands. These demands are not, I want to stress, frivolous, nor can they be ignored or taken lightly. But unless we find a way to address them responsibly, in ways consistent with both our mission and our resources, they will in time threaten the essential health of many of our colleges and universities, just as they have damaged many of our elementary and secondary schools.

In addition, most colleges and universities are faced with a series of other nonacademic pressures that deflect institutions from their commitment to teaching and learning and that drain resources. These include a new consumer mentality on the part of students and their families, expanding government regulations, the new American inclination to litigate all grievances, weaknesses in our elementary and secondary schools, and changes in the country’s political and social attitudes.

These new demands and the resulting claims on institutional resources are coming at a time when colleges and universities are especially fragile because of the rising costs of academic programs, particularly those associated with rapidly developing computing technology, scientific equipment, and library materials. In addition, many institutions that have for a number of years deferred maintenance in order to fund other priorities are now faced with decaying physical plants and serious equipment needs; Yale, with its billion-dollar deferred maintenance bill, is the most prominent example. The result: on many campuses, the teaching faculty-and the libraries, technologies, and facilities that support them-either are competing for limited funds with nonacademic programs, often unsuccessfully, or are simply playing catch-up. Both circumstances are detrimental to the academic enterprise.

There is a special irony to this deflection from academic priorities. Simply put, even though American colleges and universities are among the few institutions that profess to be-and generally are-dedicated to reflection, analysis, and the making of reasoned and informed judgments, many campuses seem to be losing their sense of academic purpose, apparently without reluctance and often without even particularly noticing it. Too many of these institutions seem almost routinely to add programs and staff in nonacademic areas in an incremental fashion without considering the cumulative effect of this diversion of resources from academic pursuits.

The Complexity of Today’s Institutions

Most educational institutions today are exceedingly complex. Typically, they now include hotels in the form of residence halls, restaurants in the form of food services, health clinics, counseling centers, placement centers, and health clubs. They require sophisticated marketing, public relations, and fund-raising operations. They depend on successful fiscal management, strong investment policies, and solid legal counsel. They employ personnel administrators, loan officers, and grants administrators; community service coordinators and career counselors; security staff; and landscaping, custodial, and maintenance crews. Most run libraries, bookstores, and computer stores. They produce in-house newspapers and magazines. They have computer programmers and technicians on staff. Some operate museums of natural history. Others have their own art museums. Some even have their own real estate offices, telephone companies, book and journal publishing houses, hotels, travel agencies, movie theaters, and venture capital arms.

This multiplicity of functions is in part the product of important and sometimes obvious educational notions. Yet other functions are a response to the reality that colleges and universities are like small villages or sometimes even medium-size cities, which are assumed by their inhabitants to provide such desire features as well-lit pathways, appropriate parking, and a safe environment. When making a choice about college, many prospective students and their families look first for a talented faculty, a favorable student-faculty ratio, a first-rate library, and attractive and well-maintained campus, and state-of-the-art science and computer facilities. Many also expect modern facilities and many special programs and services. For example, they frequently seek residence halls that can accommodate computers, microwave ovens, compact disc players, and VCRs. They want up-to-date recreational facilities with all the latest workout equipment. The expect food that is nutritious, tasty, and varied enough to satisfy diverse dietary preferences. They look for overseas study programs, writing and math skills centers, special advising programs, summer internships, community service opportunities, and sophisticated career planning and placement centers.

Some students and their parents also now expect a good many personal services. It is unclear whether the current generation of students brings with them greater psychological needs than earlier generations did or whether they are merely evidencing another form of a growing American entitlement mentality; what is clear is that colleges across the country have been adding staff and programs to address these needs. Most campuses now routinely offer counseling support and educational programs for students from dysfunctional families, those with eating disorders or drug or alcohol problems, and those who are struggling with their sexual identity or who have been victims of various forms of harassment and abuse. They also offer gynecological exams, birth control, and AIDS-prevention workshops.

I am not arguing against the worthiness of such efforts to address they psychological and social needs of our students. Quite the contrary: like every other administrator and faculty member I know, I worry about how best to help troubled students. But the costs of providing such help are as evident as the benefits. And so the question becomes one of degree: At what point does the responsibility of parents, social service agencies, and the students themselves for addressing these larger social problems end, and at what point does ours begin? If, as is likely to be the case, we decide that we all share that responsibility, how do we find the appropriate balance?

Other costs associated with being competitive in a difficult marketplace are also growing. Many colleges have increased their financial aid budgets, often quite dramatically, in ways that have drained resources from academic and other programs. Even though conventional wisdom suggests that institutions should dedicate no more than 20 percent of tuition revenue to financial aid, an increasing number of institutions with enrollment problems are doubling or tripling that percentage. Many colleges have also invested substantial resources into the admissions effort itself, developing expensive videos, computer disks, and glossy publications. Because most private colleges and universities are tuition-dependent, they are reluctant to take chances with their major source of revenue.

Declining enrollments have in fact hit some campuses hard. Because such decreases are almost inevitably accompanied by reductions in operating budgets, and often by the elimination of faculty and staff positions as well, some institutions are relaxing their admissions standards to bring in a sufficient number of students. Others, faced with structural deficits but healthy admissions possibilities, are increasing the size of their student bodies in search of increased revenue.

None of these steps are happy ones, since all have a potentially negative effect on the quality of academic programs. Although public institutions are facing different sorts of budgetary pressures, bred of low tuition and other fees and declining revenue from state and federal sources, they may provide the best evidence of the correlation between the level of an institution’s resources and the quality and kind of academic programs it can offer. For example, it often takes students in the California public university system five to six years to graduate, simply because they cannot get into the courses they need. Some institutions have even abandoned general education requirements because they are no longer able to guarantee students access to the courses.

Other Problems

The lack of solid academic preparation among many college-age students is putting further pressure on college and university budgets. First-year college students often arrive with academic credit for extracurricular activities or academically soft courses in lieu of a rigorous program grounded in the study of English, mathematics, science, foreign language, and history. These students end up spending at least part of their college years learning what they should have studied in high school, and college courses are subsequently watered down to accommodate their lapses.

The only way for institutions to avoid this downward spiral in the academic preparation of their student body is to adhere to or even raise their admissions standards. But in today’s climate, many institutions do not believe they have the luxury of selectivity, or great enough security that they can enforce rigorous admissions requirements. Such enrollment pressures may also be driving some institutions to relax their grading standards, although the national scandal of grade inflation may stem less from this sort of economic consideration and more from the growing sense on the part of students that anything less than a B is an unacceptable grade and the unwillingness of faculty to uphold standards in the face of student expectations.

Other changes in America’s social and political climate have also had a substantial effect on college campuses, which no longer are sanctuaries from the larger society. Instead, colleges and universities are being buffeted by the same discontents and pressures that are threatening America’s social contract. These changes in the nation’s social and political landscape have also begun to erode, slowly but persistently, the commitment of many institutions to teaching and learning and to the open and spirited examination of ideas that has always been at the heart of our educational system.

Perhaps most tellingly, many campuses are beginning to undergo a balkanization that is leading not to greater understanding and tolerance but rather to a new separatism, as faculty and staff alike give way to pressures from various groups. Indeed, students are all too often separating themselves by race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. They seek segregated housing, campus organizations, and, in some extreme instances, even courses. For example, in the spring of 1993, a group of Hispanic students and faculty UCLA conducted a successful hunger strike, driving the university to create a separate Hispanic studies department in lieu of its existing interdepartmental Hispanic studies program, despite the fact that most Hispanic and other faculty members opposed the move.

There are growing instances of intolerance and a fervent unwillingness on the part of victims of such intolerance to let it go unchallenged. In 1993, for example, two much-publicized incidents took place: African American students at the University of Pennsylvania destroyed thousands of copies of the students newspaper in protest over what they viewed as racist reporting, and Jewish students at Brandeis did the same because their student paper had run ads from an anti-Semitic group that argued that the Holocaust was a myth.

In response to such incidents, some campuses have tried to legislate speech as well as conduct, even though such speech codes are likely to make individuals skittish about interacting with anyone different from themselves and are likely to encourage a new spirit of censorship and self-censorship. The real problem, of course, is that the very notion that colleges and universities are places where all ideas, however controversial, can be responsibly explored and debated in an atmosphere of informed, deliberate, civil, and often fervent discourse is now endangered.

The notion that a college campus should be the setting for such an examination of ideas is further jeopardized by other social currents. The country’s penchant for litigation, for instance, has thrust many matters that once would have been considered internal into attorney’s offices and courtrooms.

In some instances, this tendency toward litigation is likely to compromise academic standards. The American Disabilities Act is a case in point. Clearly worthy in its intention, the act nevertheless is sufficiently ambiguous that it has given birth to a whole new area of litigation, including threatened suits from students with learning disabilities who, after some academic failure, are now arguing that the faculty is obliged to somehow accommodate their learning difficulties enough to enable them to graduate.

The fear of litigation has had other effects on how educational institutions and the individuals within them function. Many faculty and staff members now refuse to provide references for fear of being sued if the assessment is unfavorable. Some faculty are reluctant to write letters for tenure and promotion review, even though such reviews are at the heart of every institution’s search for excellence, because recent court rulings no longer guarantee confidentiality to participants in such reviews. Even when litigation seems frivolous, it needs to be taken seriously because of the staggering costs of fighting suits.

New government regulations and reporting requirements are also requiring requirements are also requiring colleges and universities to commit additional resources and staff time to additional resources and staff time to administrative rather than academic functions. New federal regulations in the areas of athletics, campus security, alcohol use, and international students and faculty have all necessitated either new or reallocated staff positions. Financial aid regulations-complicated, cumbersome, ever-changing, and not always logical-also require large staffs, and staff members in turn require ongoing training just to keep up with the changes. With these experiences in the background, many college administrators have objected to the proposed new layer of governmental involvement with the accreditation process.

Establishing a Feasible Mission

The challenges facing those of us on the college campus are varied and abundant, and they are likely to become even more insistent in time. For that reason, we faculty, administrators, and trustees much insist that our institution has established a sense of purpose, a mission that is feasible and that guides both policy and operational decisions.

Once our institutional mission has been defined, we much be actively vigilant in ensuring that this mission is always our touchstone. It does not benefit us or the long-term interests of our institution to let a series of ad hoc decisions shift institutional direction without recognizing that such a shift has taken place. Nor does it serve us well to allow resources to be diverted from that mission.

On a more practical level, as we ask for and respond to new demands for resources, we need to view those requests in light of existing programs and positions. In other words, we need always to consider whether what is being proposed could be funded by eliminating something that no longer is a priority. In the growth periods of the 1970s and 1980s, many institutions tended to engage in incremental budgeting. But by adding new costs to their base budgets through a series of discrete decisions, without deleting other expenses or securing new sources of funding, many of even our best colleges and universities developed substantial structural deficits.

We also need to recognize that new is not necessarily better; better is better. In that light, we much reaffirm and adhere to academic standards, regardless of thoe forces-whether litigation or the competitive marketplace-that encourage compromising those standards.

Most of all, the contemporary climate requires leadership and courage to make the kinds of decisions that we believe will serve our institution’s best interests, even when those decisions are unpopular with one or more of our constituencies. Such leadership is especially difficult on college campuses, where change is typically slow in coming and where custom requires that elaborate processes be followed before action can be taken. For these reasons, those who lead on a college campus need to try to educate their various constituencies about the complexity of the issues facing higher education generally and their own institution in particular.

There are no gimmicks when it comes to excellence. And on college campuses there is no substitute for a commitment to the kind of excellence that inspires students to gain necessary skills and new knowledge-that brings them to new level of intellectual inquisitiveness, academic discipline, and accomplishment. In the end, then, we faculty member, administrators, and trustees need to make sure our decision making embodies the very values that our institutions profess to teach: the importance of reflection, deliberate and reasoned judgment, and informed choice. This is what we can and should do best, and our students and the larger society deserve no less.

This article was published in the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s The Key Reporter, Volume 61,.number 3 (Spring 1996). It is excerpted from a chapter in Rethinking Liberal Education, edited by Nicholas H. Farnham and Adam Yarmolinsky, Oxford University Press, 1996.